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