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Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Dead of Winter, by Rennie Airth (hardcover, $25.95)

Rennie Airth has brought us a deep and moving picture of England at war, first in World War I and now, in this third book in the series, in World War II. The first, River of Darkness, was a dark and superb portrait of a man wounded psychologically by the horrors of war and the vicissitudes of life. As a Scotland Yard inspector, he struggled to continue to put one foot in front of the other, to find some measure of healing in solving crimes.

Not quite meeting the standard of the intense first book, this slow-moving novel is a depiction of England at war first and a mystery second. John Madden, the agonized hero of River of Darkness, retired from police work in the second book, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, and went to live the life of a country farmer. Twenty years after the first book and eight years after the second, another murder brings Madden back into the fray. Angus Sinclair and Billy Styles of Scotland Yard, holdovers from the previous books, are the primary movers, and they pay obsequious homage to Madden's legendary crime-solving abilities.

It is 1944 and World War II is still raging. A young Polish woman, on the way to visit an elderly aunt, is murdered in London. When it is revealed that she worked on Madden's farm in the country, Sinclair and Styles don't hesitate to involve him. The murder appears to be the work of a professional. How does a nice young woman, a refugee, a hard worker by all accounts, warrant the notice of such a killer? Then the next person killed is the only person who could identify the man seen following the woman. Madden and the police painstakingly learn the woman's history and follow the killer's tracks to find out what the killer's motivation could be.

Airth does a fine job of helping the reader visualize a London at war. Its citizens listen uneasily at night for the stuttering engine sounds of approaching drone missiles. Bombs land in department stores, warehouses, and streets killing civilians. The war has gone on for a long time, and everyone is weary and worried. Loved ones are fighting abroad, and those who are left behind must continue to shoulder the burden and a half of work at home.

The weakness of this third book lies in the fact that Madden is a peripheral character who dispenses intuitive and preternaturally wise advice to the police. He's simply not present enough in the storyline until the second half of the book tumbles towards a cinematic ending. The crime story is solid and interesting, but it just doesn't have the pacing it needs in the first half of the book. Despite this, I can still say that Airth is magic at showing how man's inhumanity to man continues unabated, whether it is the "blood-dimmed tide" in the trenches or the avaricious desires of an individual at home.

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