Airth, Rennie - 'The Dead of Winter'
Rennie Airth's THE DEAD OF WINTER is the third part of a trilogy which began in 1999 with RIVER OF DARKNESS, the absolutely stunning crime novel which introduced Detective Inspector John Madden, a World War I veteran tackling an awesome murderer in 1920s 'Golden Age' Surrey countryside. How RIVER OF DARKNESS failed to win the Crime Writers' Gold Dagger that year is one of the biggest mysteries in crime fiction and begs the automatic question: Is the third John Madden novel as good as that spectacular first one? Well, no it's not; but then nor was the second in the trilogy (THE BLOOD-DIMMED TIDE), for Airth had set the bar ridiculously high, although the two earlier titles have been recently reissued in paperback so readers can judge for themselves.
THE DEAD OF WINTER moves Inspector Madden's story on to wartime 1944 and therein lies the first problem as Madden (an Inspector in that first 1921 adventure) is by now retired and much of the police work is done by others. There is a personal link, however, in that the young Polish refugee who is brutally killed during a London black-out is actually employed at Madden's country home and so Madden takes an active interest in the case. It is an interest which inevitably (and fairly obviously) will put his own life in danger.
In the previous two books, Airth showed himself a masterful creator of scary villains and at the core of his plotting is not "whodunit?" but "how do we stop him?". In the new novel, the villain is a professional killer and thief intent on eliminating any witness who might identify him and keeping several steps ahead of the law by frequent changes of identity. In this way he resembles the Jackal in THE DAY OF THE JACKAL - the police don't know exactly who he is, but they have a good idea (eventually) of where he's going and it then becomes a race against time.
With Madden taking something of a backseat role, however, the reader is deprived of his basic honesty and emotional vulnerability and the book (at 400+ pages), frankly, drags when he is not centre-stage. The villain is also just not quite evil enough or scary enough to be a super-villain, even though he seems to have run rings around the police and the London underworld for years.
This is not to say this is a bad book, far from it, it is simply disappointing when set against RIVER OF DARKNESS, which Rennie Airth made a very hard act to follow. Perhaps the best advice to total newcomers to this short but fascinating series is, now that all three books are available, start with THE DEAD OF WINTER and then work your way back.
Mike Ripley, England
Mike Ripley is the author of the 'Angel' series and writer of a monthly Getting Away With Murder column for Shots Ezine. Over the past 20 years he had reviewed over 950 crime novels and thrillers and currently lectures on crime writing for Cambridge University’s Institute of Continuing Education.