Monday, June 17, 2019

River of Darkness

River of Darkness (1999) by Rennie Airth

From the author's page: In rural England, slowly emerging from the horrors of World War I, the peace of a small Surrey village is shattered by a murderous attack on a household that leaves five butchered bodies and no explanation for the killings. Sent by Scotland Yard to investigate is Inspector John Madden, a grave and good man who bears the emotional and physical scars of his own harrowing time in the trenches and from the tragic loss of his wife and child. The local police are inclined to see the slaughter as a robbery gone awry, but Madden and his superior, Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair, detect signs of a madman at work. With the help of Dr. Helen Blackwell, who introduces Madden to the latest developments in criminal psychology and who opens his heart again to the possibility of love, Madden sets out to unravel the mystery, even as the murderer sets his sights on his next innocent victims. Darkly stylish, suffused with tension, and rich in historical atmosphere, River of Darkness is a novel of extraordinary resonance and power.

This novel is the first in a very long time to make me stay up reading long after I should have gone to sleep. I kept thinking that I would "just finish this chapter" but then I'd go right ahead and plunge into the next...and the next...until I finally had to make myself quit. Not that serial killers using military-like precision to dispatch their victims are the most pleasant bedtime story fare, but the story and the writing were so compelling that I was drawn in from the opening chapter. Robert Goddard, author of Edgar-nominated Beyond Recall, says, "Rennie Airth takes what seems to be a twenties drawing-room murder mystery and transforms it into an edge-of-the-seat serial-killer thriller. Compelling stuff."And he's quite right. The trappings of the Golden Age mystery are all there--lavish country houses, landed gentry, and the village bobby, but Airth has given it a wicked twist that produces a believable serial killer for the chosen time period.

It's difficult for me to believe that I enjoyed a book that stacks up 16 corpses, all killed in a very violent way. But I did. Inspector Madden and the supporting characters are vividly drawn with many facets to their complex personalities. Readers are given a strong sense of England in the aftermath of the Great War with men struggling to come to grips with their experiences on the battlefield and women adjusting to the changes wrought by the loss of nearly a generation of men and the scars (both physical and mental) that those who returned will carry with them for the rest of their lives. 

I enjoyed getting to know Inspector Madden and Detective Constable Billy Styles. Madden takes Styles under his wing and tries to encourage the young constable without coddling him. This first book shows signs of a good working relationship developing between the two and I look forward to watching it progress in future installments. The mystery here isn't so very great--at least not in the whodunnit category. We know who the killer is from the beginning. The big questions are why does he kill and why does he kill in the manner chosen...and how many will be sacrificed before Madden and his team bring him to justice. ★★★★ for an excellent debut to a new series.

[Finished on 6/3/19]August = primary action
Deaths = 16 (14 stabbed; 2 strangled)

1 comment:

Davida Chazan (The Chocolate Lady) said...

Well, this does sound like it could become a really great series.