Thursday, June 29, 2017

What we're reading: A new John Madden mystery

In order to be a fan of Rennie Airth, you have to be exceedingly patient. He wrote his original book set shortly after World War I and featuring Scotland Yard's Inspector John Madden in 1999, and it took until 2006 for the second to be completed! Fortunately, the time span has shortened up a bit in between books since then: Book #3 came out just three years later, in 2009, Book #4 debuted in 2014, and now, in 2017, we have The Death of Kings, the fifth book featuring Madden.

There are a few things that are interesting about this series. For one, the time that passes while Airth writes them also passes, in a sense, in the stories themselves. With each book we jump between seven and 10 years forward from the last, which gives an interesting shift in the viewpoint, ages, and experience of the main characters, but also changes the scene from an historical perspective. It's subtle, because it feels continuous, but from the first book, when World War I has just ended, we move to a decade later, when England is in the midst of a depression and starting to see the rise of the Nazi Party. The third book opens in the midst of World War II, with the fall of Paris to the Germans, and book #4 has put the war--but not its effects--behind its characters. The fifth book concerns a cold case, a murder that actually took place in 1938 in the midst of the war; but evidence has surfaced that perhaps the wrong man was convicted and hung for the crime, and 10 years later, the police are poking around considering whether to reopen the case. Thus, Airth gives us an ongoing picture of a larger significant period in history than is covered in most historical series.

Because of this progression, the characters also don't remain static: Madden actually retires from police work at the end of the first book, and goes from being the main man to being a consultant, giving way to other characters but being featured prominently as the reasoning mind behind the scene that catches what the others don't. So each book features some colleagues who age, change, and transition, plus some new characters who go from awkward entry-level officers to competent detectives in the course of the series, and all are connected by their association with Madden.

I was lucky to discover Airth after his first couple of books had already been written, so I didn't have to wait as long as some to continue the story. But since I read the fourth one in 2014, I was worried, when I picked this one up, that I wouldn't be able to follow something I had last dipped into three years ago. I discovered, however, that Airth has a nice way of reminding you what came before without bringing the current story to a halt, and I easily recognized and remembered most of the individuals I had encountered in the previous books.

When you read these mysteries, they feel like contemporary books, rather than overt historical fiction such as The Yard, by Alex Grecian, or the Regency history novels about Sebastian St. Cyr by C. S. Harris; but they are, nonetheless, set in an earlier time. You have to keep reminding yourself of things like the exponentially slower modes of transportation and information dispersal. You also have to remember the inborn current prejudices of people at that time, in that place. It's a good reminder, though. We all need to get out of the habit of thinking that things have always been the way they are, and allow ourselves to experience the way they used to be.

There were a few good red herrings in this fifth volume, and although I began to suspect the truth before Madden got to it, it wasn't by much. I enjoyed this new chapter, and hope for more--guess I'll check back with Mr. Airth in three years or so!

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