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It’s a Mystery: “It is always best to be invited when entering a dangerous place”

By (February 1, 2017) No Comment

The Death of Kings
By Rennie Airth
Viking, 2017

The police procedural is a genre of detective fiction that depicts the professional policeman, often with a team, detecting and solving serious crimes. The best of them combine well-drawn, believable characters with thoroughly described procedural details, ingenious plotting, and, frequently if not always, a successful solution and conclusion.

The comic strip super sleuth Dick Tracy is often pointed to as an early procedural. Ellery Queen, surely no slouch as a super sleuth, suggested that Tracy was the first “truly” procedural policeman in any fictional medium. Conceived by his creator Chester Gould as a “modern day Sherlock Holmes,” he was partly modeled on the real-life law enforcer Eliot Ness. Tracy expressed his philosophy in two succinct phrases that have become world famous: “Little crimes lead to big crimes” and “Crime does not pay.”

The trends within the British police procedural genre follow two lines: the first is the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) officer who investigates solo or at least dominates the detecting inquiry. P.D. James’s Adam Dagliesh is a prime example. He often seems more of an analyst than a detective in probing through James’s psychologically charged plots. The second is a unit or squad that employs some form of the “team” approach. One of the best examples of this is John Harvey’s Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick novels. Resnick, agreeably disheveled and very human (the American equivalent would be Colombo), leads a crew of fallible fellow officers in Nottingham’s CID against a rising tide of often perverse crime.

Rennie Airth’s The Death of Kings is the fifth novel to feature inspector John Madden in a series that follows the “team” approach. River of Darkness (1999), the first John Madden mystery, was an auspicious debut. It garnered nominations for all the top awards in the genre and won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière for best international crime novel of 2000.The setting is England of the 1920s when the country is coping with the aftermath of World War I. When a horrific attack occurs in a household in a small village resulting in five butchered bodies, Scotland Yard’s Detective Inspector John Madden and Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair are called to the scene. When Madden and Sinclair learn there have been other similar murders, they know they’re dealing with something completely new—something that won’t be given the name serial killer for another six decades or so. Early on, River of Darkness also enters into the realm of forensic medicine which was just beginning to emerge as a detection tool. Plus, it introduces Madden to Dr. Helen Blackwell, who educates him on the latest developments in criminal psychology, and becomes his wife.

The second Madden mystery, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, was first published in Great Britain in 2004 and in the U.S. in 2005. It is 1932 and Madden is retired from the Yard and living as a farmer in rural England with his wife and their two young children. However, in mystery fiction retirement, especially for a charismatic police detective, rarely lasts. When Madden discovers the mutilated body of a young girl in the woods near his home, he comes out of retirement for the investigation. He soon suspects that it was only one of many murders committed by the same man. (Once again, he’s dealing with a concept that won’t be called “serial killer” for decades.) Madden and his Scotland Yard colleagues soon realize that the killer’s trail leads far beyond his village into Great Britain and Germany. One of those colleagues is Detective Inspector Billy Styles, who had less than three months experience in the CID when he was introduced in the first book. He is worth singling out because he is one of the most beautifully developed ancillary characters in the series. And, like its predecessor, The Blood-Dimmed Tide explores the early development of the study of the mind of the criminal.

It’s 1944 in the third John Madden mystery, The Dead of Winter (2009). As World War II rages, one of Madden’s employees, Rosa Novak, is brutally murdered during a blackout. The Yard dubs it a random act of violence. Madden differs and feels he owes it to Rosa to find her killer. Pushing the investigation, he stumbles upon the dead girl’s connection to the suspicious death of a Parisian furrier, a member of the Resistance, and a stolen cache of diamonds. This is another winner in a stylish series whose ongoing characters have become old friends.

The fourth Madden, The Reckoning (2014), takes place in 1947. In Scotland and in England, two men are shot in the head by what appears to be the same gunman using the same gun. A letter is found in the papers of one of the dead men by DI Billy Styles that suggest the victim was trying to locate retired Yard inspector John Madden. The victim, Madden insists, is unknown to him. As Styles and Madden launch the investigation, a third man is murdered with an identical bullet. Could the real clue to these baffling murders lie not only within the victim’s past but in Madden’s own? In The Reckoning, Airth gives us one more elegantly written, carefully constructed crime novel that delivers on all levels.

This brings me back to the fifth Madden, The Death of Kings. It begins on a summer day in 1938 when a beautiful actress, Portia Blake, is strangled on the grand Kent estate of Sir Jack Jessup, a close friend of the Prince of Wales. A man was caught and hanged for the murder. Eleven years later in 1949 an anonymous letter and a flawed jade pendant make long retired Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair wonder if the wrong man went to the gallows on his watch. Too laid up with gout to travel, he gets his former colleague and neighbor, John Madden, to reopen the case.

Trying to step on the least number of toes possible, Madden begins his inquiry quietly in the hopes of finding sufficient evidence to warrant the police reopening it. He revisits the scene of the crime and interviews Portia’s fellow houseguests, including Sir Jack’s mistress, Adele Castleton. She is an intriguing woman who, it turns out, has a connection to John’s wife. She has also become a close friend of Jack’s son Richard. It is his son who turns Madden’s attention to Stanley Wing, the Chinese businessman who brought Portia to the house party. As Madden immerses himself in the case, the action takes him from the idyllic countryside to the streets of postwar London to the criminal underworld of the Chinese Triads.

The Death of Kings is a straight-arrow procedural that becomes so much more in Airth’s capable hands. It becomes a completely captivating, complex psychological puzzler that is polished, sophisticated and special. That sums up John Madden.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.

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