Viking, 368 pages, $27
Rennie Airth’s series has covered two wars and a family saga. When the series began in “River of Darkness,” John Madden was just back from serving in World War I, a traumatic experience from which he had not recovered. Nevertheless, he returned to his job as a Scotland Yard detective. In subsequent books, Madden acquired a wife and two children. The children grew into adulthood, and Madden retired from his job. In “The Death of Kings,” on behalf of another retired detective, Madden has taken on the task of checking to see if an old case was correctly solved. A man was hung for murder, and there is a slight chance he was innocent.
There is one thing obvious from the five books in the series: Madden cares deeply. He is an honorable and diligent man. His family is important to him. He is loyal to his friends. It is one of his friends, his old boss, also retired, who calls Madden to look into the eleven-year-old murder of an “actress.” She had been a guest at the estate of a man whose family business was based in Hong Kong. She was murdered in the woods behind the mansion and the jade necklace she had been wearing disappeared.
Now all these years later, in 1947, someone has anonymously sent the missing necklace to the local police. Suddenly it is not so obvious that the man caught and executed for the murder was guilty.
Trying to step on the least number of official toes, Madden begins the delicate dance of investigation. He interviews the mistress of the lord of the manor, since deceased. He visits the lesbian lover of the actress. He finds the son of the lord of the manor, now with a wife and two children. He hunts for a mysterious part-Chinese resident of Hong Kong, the man who accompanied the actress on the fateful weekend.
There are many revelations made, all of which had been kept hidden because a suspect was caught so swiftly. Now, with a more thorough investigation, they are all rising to into light. Chinese tongs, prostitutes, blackmail, secret compartments, mistresses, and an effulgent and gossipy daughter are all now part of the mix.
I enjoy Rennie Airth’s books. I like the premise: an upper-class, landed gentleman solves some sordid crimes as a detective for Scotland Yard. I like the more detailed, nuanced, and morally ambivalent take on a very English-styled mystery. I like Madden and his team. I like this book. Except for one thing, which requires a **spoiler alert**.
Owen Norris, the poor sod who was executed for the murder of Portia Blake, was exonerated but not publicly. There was insufficient hard evidence to bring the true killer to justice, so Owen Norris — who is, by the way, far from blameless in other matters — will forever live as the asterisked murderer. And why, for heaven's sake, did he confess. (Did I miss that part of the revelatory ending?)
Oh, well, I guess them’s the literary breaks. If only Owen had been of sufficiently higher rank to warrant at least an ambiguous, public vindication.