Misdirection is one of the tools employed by mystery writers since time . . . well, not quite immemorial, but for a long time. Alfred Hitchcock spoke of MacGuffins, a term originated by a Scottish screenwriter. Others, more commonly, call them red herrings. Whatever term you use, they’re events, characters, or circumstances that mislead the reader and help build suspense. Some authors use them well. Others are sometimes heavy-handed. And the latter, unfortunately, is the case with South African detective novelist Rennie Airth in his latest John Madden mystery, The Decent Inn of Death. This otherwise excellent police procedural is marred by a case of highly unlikely coincidence.
The Decent Inn of Death is set in 1951 (which we know because Airth notes that the Korean War had been underway for a year). Detective Inspector John Madden had long since retired to the countryside, where he lives on a farm with his wife, Helen, a local physician. As the tale opens, John and Helen are on vacation in Venice. John’s friend and former boss, the long-retired Detective Superintendent Angus Sinclair, unwisely takes it upon himself to play detective and follows up a suspicious death that the local bobby had considered accidental.
The Decent Inn of Death (John Madden #6) by Rennie Airth (2020) 368 pages ★★★★☆
Angus sets out on the trail of a man he fears may be a Nazi war criminal. But he soon finds himself in hot water, ignoring Helen’s repeated warnings not to overexert himself lest he trigger a heart attack. By the time John and Helen return from the Continent, Angus is in great danger because he has mislaid his pills (probably nitroglycerin) — and the man he is investigating appears to be poised to commit murder. Yet only when John and his erstwhile colleagues from Scotland Yard arrive on the scene do the bodies start to fall.
For additional reading
There have been six books to date in the John Madden series, the first of which appeared in 1999. I’ve read them all (including the first three, which I read before I launched this blog). However, I have also reviewed the first one here, River of Darkness (Rennie Airth’s John Madden series spans the world wars). Later, I reviewed The Reckoning (A terrific John Madden procedural from Rennie Airth) and The Death of Kings (Solving a cold case in post-war England).
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