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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Reckoning by Rennie Airth

Viking Adult, 368 pages, $26.95

British author Rennie Airth has taken his time releasing the books in his John Madden series. The critically praised “River of Darkness,” the first in the series, came out in 1999. It has been five years between “The Reckoning” and the third book in the series, “The Dead of Winter.” Airth’s characters have also traveled through time, moving from Britain right after World War I to right after World War II, the time period of “The Reckoning.” His main characters have married, had children, retired, and moved along in life like normal people, even though the times were anything but normal.

Airth’s birth year is listed as 1935. I don’t know how much World War II affected him personally, how much of the war he remembers, whether he was even in Great Britain at the time, but his writing reflects such thoughtfulness about the profound effects that war had on people. Airth’s tales hinge on how some of the young men and women who went off to fight a righteous war came back with a horrifying knowledge of what they and others were capable.

John Madden, long retired from Scotland Yard, is brought into a current case when a murder victim’s unsent letter mentions his name. Madden’s prodigious memory fails to recognize the victim. A link is discovered to a previous murder, similar in execution. That victim, too, is unknown to Madden. But he and they are somehow involved in an event that is driving the murderer forward.

Even though the revelation comes about a third of the way into the book, I don’t think it’s a disservice to tell you that the connection is World War I. All Airth’s books relate to either WWI or II. Airth’s depiction of the hidden side of war, the side not glimpsed by the public who is cheered on by rah-rah slogans and propaganda, falls on the side of devastating revelation. In this book, too, there is a real-life basis for what turns out to be the central story. Unfortunately.

Airth brings back many of Madden’s colleagues, either retired like he or still working in the upper levels of the police. Through the prior books his readers have learned to respect the different ways in which Billy Styles, Angus Sinclair, and DCS Chubb have honorably acquitted themselves in solving crimes. Airth brings them back. They accord Madden the respect he deserves, as he tags along to interview witnesses and review evidence. He does so reluctantly, however. A good life for him involves running his farm, walking the dog, and spending time with his wife and daughter.

What would motivate someone to kill more than once? To kill the victims execution style? Is it a pair of murderers, a group?

“The Reckoning” is a compelling book because of Airth’s strong writing and the moral strength with which he imbues his characters. 

As it was with “River of Darkness,” so shall it be with “The Reckoning”: MBTB star.

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