Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Airth Works

Rennie Airth's first book, River of Darkness, was well received on its release in 2000 and nominated for various awards.  I read it a while ago and enjoyed it very much.  Its an unusual crime novel, set shortly after World War I and featuring a hero, Detective Inspector John Madden, who is both a survivor and a victim of that war.  The book is not so much a mystery novel - we're made aware of the killer at a relatively early stage - as a combination of police procedural and psychological thriller, and it's Airth's handling of those two elements that I found particularly engaging.

Airth is interested in the machinations and politics of a police service  just edging itself into modernity, and much of the book's entertainment arises from the delicate dance between policemen and politicians faced with a particularly brutal set of killings.  At the same time, Airth is clearly fascinated by the endeavours of psychologists - another emerging discipline - to come to grips with behaviour which, only a few decades before, would have been characterisedas simply evil.  Lurking behind this, of course, is the shadow of the war itself - both a cause and a manifestation of the brutality in question. 

I've recently finished reading the second in the series, The Blood-Dimmed Time.  This is set some years later, in 1932, and Madden has  retired from the Force, and is now married and occupied as a farmer.  Once again, though, he finds himself involved in the search for a serial killer - this time a sexual predator on children.  The themes of the second book parallel those of the first - the politics of policing, the psychology of savagery, the impact of the First War and the growing threat of the Second.  As before, Airth develops an impressively rounded set of characters and beautifully captures the landscape and atmosphere of the Sussex setting.  And implicit in the book is the sense of a society, a century, gradually spinning out of control.

Airth's not the most prolific of writers.  The third book in the series, The Dead of Winter, set in 1944, has appeared only recently.  It's now made its way to the top of my 'to be read' pile, a treat in store over the Christmas break.  I hope it's as good as the first two. 


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