In The Spotlight: Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The active hostilities of WW I ended with the armistice agreement of 1918. But, for a lot of people, that wasn’t the end of the war’s devastation. To take a look at life just after the Great War, let’s turn today’s spotlight on Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness, the first in his Inspector John Madden series.

The story takes place just a few years after the end of the war, beginning in the small village of Highfield. Scotland Yard’s been called in to help investigate the brutal murders of Colonel Charles Fletcher, his wife, Lucy, their maid, Sally Pepper, and the nanny, Alice Crookes. Only the Fletchers’ young daughter, Sophy, survived, because she hid under a bed. She’s very young, though, and the trauma has left her mute. So, she can’t be of much help. The Yard sends in Inspector John Madden and DC Billy Styles to work with the local police.

At first, it looks like a robbery gone horribly wrong. But there are some pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise. And it’s not long before Madden begins to suspect that the family was targeted. The question, of course, is why. So, Madden, Styles, Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair, and Deputy Assistant Commissioner Bennett begin to look into the case more deeply.

Then, there’s another murder, this time near the village of Bentham. Someone has already been arrested for that killing, and in fact, committed suicide in prison. So, the police would like to think that case is closed. Still, the murders themselves are quite similar in nature, and there are other details that closely resemble the first murders. This leads Madden and his team to suspect that the same person is responsible in both cases. They have to walk a fine line, as the saying goes, because the Yard does not want the public in an uproar over mass killings. Besides, if the murders were committed by the same person, that means the Yard hasn’t done its job, and the media is only too happy to point that fact out.

Still, Madden and the team persist. Very slowly, they build a picture of the person who was responsible for the murders. As they do, they begin to see that this person will kill again. The more they learn, the more urgent the case becomes. And the team is up against a killer who knows the area very well, and who has the gift of blending in – of not calling any particular attention to himself. What’s worse, it’s someone with little to lose, always a very dangerous sort of person. In the end, though, Madden, Sinclair, Styles, and the rest of the team find out who is responsible. And it turns out that these murders are closely linked to a WW I murder, and to the killer’s past.

As I mentioned, the story takes place a few years after the armistice, and the war is never far from people’s consciousness. There are plenty of wounded veterans, and several characters have lost family members to the war. The losses caused by the war are an important element the novel.

More important, though, are the losses that are harder to see. Many former soldiers, including Madden, are dealing with what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder. But psychology and psychotherapy are still in their infancies, so there’s not a lot of real support for those who’ve suffered this sort of trauma. And that fact plays its role in the story. For instance, there’s the question of how best to help Sophy Fletcher, who needs a great deal of support to help her cope with what she witnessed and with her losses.

This is a police procedural, so readers follow along as Madden and his team gather clues, make sense of evidence and witness accounts, and so on. These are the days before telephones were common (although they’re used in the novel), and certainly before evidence, reports and the like could be easily sent from one place to the next. Readers who enjoy learning about how police did their jobs in those days will appreciate this. There’s a bit of the ‘police politics’ that all too often accompany an investigation. But readers who dislike ‘patch wars’ will be pleased to know that, for the most part, the police work together. And that includes the local bobbies who are involved in the investigation. In fact, some of them turn out to be critical to solving the case.

The police do get help from several outside sources. Madden, for instance, comes to rely heavily on Dr. Helen Blackwell, who lives in Highfield. She’s smart, intuitive, and good at her job. She’s assertive, and has a modern outlook. Readers who enjoy strong female characters will appreciate her. As they work together, she and Madden develop a relationship. It’s a distinct story thread, and readers who dislike romance in their novels will notice this. That said, though, this is not a romance novel that happens to have a few murders in it. It’s a crime novel in which two of the main characters fall in love.

Madden is, as I said, profoundly impacted by his war experience, and by the loss of his wife and daughter to influenza. But all the same, he doesn’t wallow in self-pity or grief. And, without spoiling the story, I can say that he slowly begins to come to life again as he and Helen Blackwell get to know each other. She suffered her own war losses, so she understands what he’s going through, at least to an extent.

The solution to the mystery – who committed the murders and why – is sad and unpleasant. There is violence, too, and some of it’s truly ugly. Airth doesn’t shy away from the horror of multiple murders. Readers who like their crime stories to be very low on violence will want to know this. It’s also only fair to note that not all of the harm comes to humans. Animal lovers will want to know that family pets die as well (although this isn’t depicted in a gruesome way). All this said, though, the focus isn’t on the brutality. The novel’s focus is more psychological.

River of Darkness is the story of a set of crimes, and the team of detectives that puts the pieces together. It’s set against the backdrop of a world left bereft by WW I, and features a detective who’s trying to recover from his own losses. But what’s your view? Have you read River of Darkness? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday, 6 March/Tuesday, 7 March – The Cold Light of Mourning – Elizabeth J. Duncan.

Monday, 13 March/Tuesday, 14 March – L.A. Confidential – James Ellroy

Monday, 20 March/Tuesday, 21 March – We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson


Filed under Rennie Airth, River of Darkness

22 responses to “In The Spotlight: Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness

  1. Oh Margot! My poor, poor TBR – I think the time period between the two wars really did set the tone for what came next in terms of social history and many of the books I’ve read set in this time touch upon how although the war was over, its wounds ran very deep. All of that within a police procedural makes this so hard to resist even though I’m not too keen on high levels of violence this will have to go on the wishlist! Thanks for sharing another book that hadn’t crossed my radar before now. Oh, and I don’t want to even think about my own TBR *sigh.*

    • I find the period between the two world wars fascinating, too, Cleo. As you say, it certainly set the tone for several modern phenomena. You’re right, too; the war might have been over, but the wounds didn’t really heal. This novel address that issue in, I think, a thoughtful way. As to the violence, I’m not much for brutal violence, myself. But I will say that, at least for me (everyone’s mileage is likely to vary), it wasn’t out of proportion to the story. And I thought Airth did a very effective job of evoking the small English town where life was starting to change a lot after the Great War.

  2. I am so glad that you decided to put this novel in the spotlight, Margot, because I rate it very highly. Yes, there is violence, but it is appropriate to the story, the characterisation is excellent and nothing jars in terms of evoking that particular historical period. I think it is very impressive. And yes the trauma of the war runs through it all – is that the river of darkness, I wonder? A truly terrific novel.

    • You put that very well, Christine, and I’m glad you enjoyed the novel so well. As you say, it really does evoke the time and context. And you’re right; the violence isn’t out of proportion. Airth has created some interesting characters, too.

  3. As you know, I’m a big fan of this series, Margot, so it’s great to see you spotlighting it. I’d forgotten this one was set so early – the most recent one takes place around 1950. I wonder why Airth has made such big jumps in time between novels. I do think he’s great at conjuring up a certain time and place though, and both wars are important features of the novels. I just wish he was a little more prolific…

    • He really does evoke the time and place very effectively, doesn’t he, FictionFan? I think that’s one thing that really sets his work apart. And it’s interesting that he’s taken such leaps in time. I wonder if that’s exactly because of the impact both world wars have? In any case, I hope he’ll continue the Madden series.

  4. Col

    Thanks for the introduction to another unknown-to-me author and book, probably not one for me though.

  5. This sounds like a fascinating story. It has all the elements to keep you wondering and at the same time gives you a look at the officers investigating. Another one to add to my ever-growing list. Thanks, Margot.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Mason. And you’re right; this one does give the reader a look at the investigation as well as some of the people investigating. And there’s a real sense of place, time and context. If you read this one, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  6. What is a patch war? Is it another way of saying turf war, as police don’t want to share jurisdictions? I think it’s interesting that the doctor’s name in Blackwell. I believe the first woman doctor was Elizabeth Blackwell.

    • Good notice on the name, GtL! I’m not sure if Airth chose it for that reason, but it’s interesting. And yes, ‘patch war’ means ‘turf war.’ Good notice there, too.

      • I wasn’t sure if “path war” was the the British term, but I guessed it was! Police and their jurisdictions…you’d think they would all want to work together closely, but movies have taught me that the various law departments hate each other, and within each department there are some police who hate others.

        • You would, indeed, think that different police agencies would want to work together, GtL. But, as you say, that’s frequently not the case in film and other fiction. My guess would be that it all works a bit more smoothly in real life. But that’s an unsophisticated view. I’m not in the police, nor ever have been

  7. Tim

    Margot, I think I read and reviewed this one some time ago but cannot swear to it (i.e., curmudgeonly memory loss is a huge pain in the butt); your posting, though, sends me scurrying my library’s website in search of a copy. Thanks for the posting.

  8. I did enjoy reading this book a lot, but I was less enamored of the two books that followed. I don’t remember exactly why. Too long and too slow? But definitely a good picture of the times.

    • It’s interesting, Tracy, how a book (or even a series) will leave the reader cold, as the saying goes. Sometimes, there’s a specific reason for it; sometimes there isn’t. Either way, I find reader reactions fascinating. I’m glad you enjoyed this novel, and I think you’re absolutely right about Airth’s ability to evoke the times.

  9. The title alone is intriguing. Your spotlight is even more intriguing. I may have to check out this one too.

  10. This is one of my favorite books, Margot. (I love books set between the wars.) So when I saw you’d reviewed it, I jumped right in. 🙂 I read this several years ago when Airth was apparently writing very slowly so it was several years before a second book appeared. (In truth this should have remained a stand alone, but I digress.) At any rate, RIVER OF DARKNESS was the sort of book which grabs hold and doesn’t let go until the very end. It’s what used to be called ‘thumpin’ good read’. Very dark and sinister and dripping with atmosphere and the presence of evil. The main character is believable and engaging and the idea of his being helped by a woman doctor was something different, given the times. But the killer almost steals the show. Normally I do not enjoy reading from the murderer’s point of view, but in this book it was essential. Don’t you agree?

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed this book as much as you did, Yvette. And I couldn’t agree more that books set between the two wars are really interesting in terms of the sociopolitical and other contexts. I think, too, that Airth did a very effective job with the nuances of the times (like the doctor being female, and that raising some eyebrows). You make an interesting point about the atmosphere, too. It’s dark and increasingly creepy; yet, I didn’t find it contrived. Perhaps that even added to its eeriness. As to the killer’s perspective, I honestly normally don’t go for that, either. However, Airth did that quite effectively, too, so that we learn that the killer isn’t just a mindless psychopath who’s evil just to be evil. As you say, I think it does help in understanding the plot.

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