Friday, October 26, 2012

Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book Friday: RIVER OF DARKNESS (1999) by Rennie Airth

"What passing bells for those who die as cattle?"
Wilfred Owen, 'Anthem for Doomed Youth'

"I'm back again from hell
With loathsome thoughts to sell;
Secrets of death to tell;
And horrors from the abyss."
Siegfried Sassoon, 'To the Warmongers'

Friday is Forgotten Book day, a weekly meme hosted by Patti Abbott at her blog, Pattinase. I simply can't believe I haven't posted about RIVER OF DARKNESS before except in brief bits and pieces as part of another post. So today this splendid book gets it own post.

Don't forget to check in at Patti's to see what other wonderful but somehow forgotten (or overlooked) books other bloggers are talking about today.

RIVER OF DARKNESS is the first novel in a trilogy written by Rennie Airth, an ex- Reuters foreign correspondent born in South Africa and currently living in Italy. RIVER OF DARKNESS and THE BLOOD-DIMMED TIDE - the second book in the trilogy, are must reads. The third, THE DEAD OF WINTER, you can skip.

Why I say this: I believe that Airth is the sort of writer who needs time to really get going, develop his plot and characterizations and last but not least, polish his style to a high gleam. He is not a 'book-a-year' guy and should not be forced to be so. THE DEAD OF WINTER is a book that seems written just to meet a deadline and the requirements of a contract. It is a poor effort which reads as if an editor wasn't paying attention.

The first two books appear to have been written in just the right amount of time needed by the author and hence, are truly remarkable. So that's why I say, read these two and skip the third - it isn't necessary.

Okay, back to RIVER OF DARKNESS:

Normally I do not like multiple points of view (as many of you know), nor do I like reading from the point of view of the killer - BUT - as is very often the case, I break my own rules when the writing is so fabulous and the story so compelling. Such is the case with RIVER OF DARKNESS.

Yes, this is murder in the English countryside. But it is as far from being a 'cozy' as it is possible for a book to get. The horrors in this book rival the grim horrors of war just recently ended across the Channel. The grisly murders which up-end the bucolic quiet of a country village in Surrey, are made even more incomprehensible by the total lack of motive. Adding to the confusion of the investigation is the complete lack of knowledge of the sort of crimes known today as 'serial killings'.

In 1921 England, just a few years after the end of WWI (the war to end all wars), Scotland Yard Inspector John Madden, himself a veteran with dark memories of his own to quell, is sent into the rural countryside to investigate the grisly murders of an entire family.

Madden is an interesting guy, he is not only a war veteran but a widower as well. He's  been through a lot and the suffering has, naturally, colored his countenance and his view of the world.

"A tall grim man with a scarred forehead, he seemed more like a monk than a policeman, the young detective constable thought. An impression that gained strength now each time the inspector's glance fell on him.  Madden's deep-set eyes seemed to look at you from another world.

He had a strange history - Billy had heard it from one of the sergeants. Madden had left the force some years before after losing his wife and baby daughter, both in the same week, to influenza. The son of a farmer, he had wanted to return to the land. Instead, the war had come, and afterwards he'd returned to his old job with the Metropolitan Police. Changed, though, it was said. A different man from before. Two years in the trenches had seen to that."

So it is especially comforting to the reader to have Madden begin to come to life again when he meets the village doctor, Helen Blackwell. (Women then were only just beginning to study medicine and with the death of so many young men in the war, it seems logical that a village, no matter how reluctantly, would be forced to accept a woman doctor.) She has her own burden of sorrow having lost close family members in the war.

(The recent hellishness of WWI casts long shadows on the events in this story.)

Blackwell will add her own medical and psychological expertise to the case as will an 'alienist' that Madden consults when it becomes obvious to him that the murders in this current case are not the result of a robbery gone bad, but the work of a single, fiendish individual. Then after much painstaking attention to detail, it becomes apparent that this individual has killed before but in the confused frenzy of war, his murders have been taken for separate crimes, if discovered at all. In effect, the killer has been able to use the war to cover his own murderous trail.

The mood of this book is grim (how could it not be?), and everything appears (in my mind at least) seen through 'a glass darkly'. But if you're in the mood for a brilliant historical thriller in which the 'whodunit' factor is less important than 'how-dunit' and 'why-dunit', not to mention the procedure of it all, then this is it.

There are similarities to Caleb Carr's book, THE ALIENIST (set in NYC, at an earlier time), but Rennie Airth creates his own world, quite separate and equally gripping. I understand too that there are similarities to the Charles Todd series of apres-WWI mysteries. (I hope to begin reading those at some point in time.)

The free-wheeling and often frenzied world between two world wars was a time when society was in flux, the  established norm was no longer so normal or so established and new methodology was needed to deal with the sometimes chaotic results. A good time for a man adept at disguise and re-invention and compelled to kill.

Don't miss this book.


  1. I liked this. As I was reading it I couldn't help but think of A TEST OF WILLS by Charles Todd. SO much darker and grimmer than that book though. I liked this so much I made a special effort to acquire the rest of the books by Airth. Through sheer luck I even stumbled upon a copy of his very first novel earlier this year -- a kidnap story that's been out of print since it was first published back in the 80s.

  2. This one is on my TBR pile. Thanks for reminding me.

  3. Yeah, this is a terrific read. It has lots of stuff I normally don't like, but you know, it's all about the writing.

    If the writing is good and the story is compelling, I forgive all sins. :)

    Let us know what you think of Airth's other books - don't forget.

  4. You're welcome, Patti. :) I think you'll like it.

  5. Yvette,

    I had read the first two by Airth, but for some reason never got around to reading the third. Perhaps I was warned off it by someone.

    I can recommend the Todd books. They are on my must read list. As soon as I hear there's a new one out, I immediately go looking for it.

  6. Fred, I've been meaning to read the Todd books for ages. The series is the favorite of someone whose book opinion I respect. (Not that I don't respect yours as well, but I know her personally.) :)

  7. Never heard of this writer and the book does seem very grim. Your review, however, make me want to read it. Thanks.

  8. Neer, this is a fabulous book. I hope you'll like it. If you read it, let us know. :)


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