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River of Darkness

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I recently reviewed Louise Penny’s Armand Gamaché mystery novel, A Trick of the Light, for ‘Bookin’ with Sunny.’ Because it was the seventh in a series (a series I greatly admire, by the way), and every book in the series builds sequentially, I struggled to talk about A Trick of the Light without giving too much away about its predecessors. Now I find myself ready to review the very first novel of another detective series, Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness, a much easier task. (As you may have guessed, I was on vacation last month, and so read mysteries almost exclusively. I discovered several of Airth’s books in a marvelous independent bookstore in Enterprise, Oregon. I love unearthing new authors as I browse the shelves of a store with a savvy collection, and yes, The Book Loft made lots of money off me that morning!)

Airth’s Detective Inspector is John Madden, a doubly-damaged British veteran of the First World War who lost his wife and daughter to influenza and who is haunted by horrible memories of his time in the trenches. Called to a rural English village when an entire family is killed, Madden soon uncovers the psychopathic pattern of a serial killer who will strike again. Madden himself is a very dark character, and I personally never read serial killer novels. So why did I even pick up  River of Darkness at The Book Loft, let alone buy it and read it? I tend to enjoy novels about the time between the two world wars, and this one looked to be absolutely fascinating. It is!

The story takes place at the time when modern police methods were replacing old ways. Not only were fingerprints and autopsies and various laboratory methods growing more and more sophisticated, but the police were beginning to understand the usefulness of psychological profiling. Watching Madden and his colleagues trying to convince a Scotland Yard skeptic is part of the intrigue of River of Darkness. Watching Madden rise from his own dark state is part of the intrigue, too. The reader not only gets inside the head of the murderer, but gets inside Madden’s head as well. One man copes with life after the trauma of war; the other fails completely.

Airth not only has a finger on the psychological pulses of his characters, but he also delves inside their cosmos, post-World War I England. People’s lives are changing, with motorized vehicles (especially motorcycles) on the by-ways and enhanced communication between one rural village and the next. Airth’s astute observations about the quasi-isolation and the increasing exchange of information make River of Darkness a smart period piece about a slippery period of history. I found it so fascinating that I was totally indifferent to my distaste for novels about serial killers. With its keen sense of character and its unexpected twists and turns of plot, this one is remarkably powerful. Even though a reader knows ‘who done it’ after the first hundred pages, I was stunned by the final dénouement. I couldn’t predict the ending at all.

Now I look forward to two more John Madden stories, The Blood-Dimmed Tide and The Dead of Winter. Even if they’re about more serial killers, and even if they’re just as grisly, I expect I’ll like them as much as I liked Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness.                                                                              – A.R.

All three titles, River of Darkness, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, The Dead of Winter, are available in paper and eBook.

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