The Decent Inn of Death – Rennie Airth’s sixth in the detective John Madden series and as baffling as ever, with a near-oxymoronic title.
Have I truly been writing “Bookin’ with Sunny” reviews for more than a decade???!!! I just finished reading Rennie Airth’s novel, The Decent Inn of Death, which is the sixth in a series featuring detective John Madden. Since I had enjoyed the preceding Airth books, I wondered if I had reviewed any of them. The answer is yes. In 2012 I reviewed River of Darkness, the first in the series. At the time, I mused about my enthusiasm, because Airth’s initial Madden novel chased a serial killer and I normally avoid such topics when I read. So here I am, ten years later, voicing my appreciation for yet another Airth book about yet another serial killer and yet another sadistically depraved master criminal mind.
River of Darkness took place just after the first world war when Madden was still fighting battlefield demons and learning to function meaningfully again. The villain in that novel was jousting with the same psychological torments but turned them into the horrors that propel Darkness’s plot. The Decent Inn of Death takes place nearly thirty years later. Now Madden, a happily married man with an adult daughter, long since has retired from Scotland Yard. But he still enjoys legal puzzles, especially when another retired colleague posits a possible mystery and murder. An elderly female organist stumbled while crossing a familiar creek bed, hit her head, and drowned. The local authorities deemed her death an accident, but Angus Sinclair isn’t so sure. The victim crossed the creek daily without mishap, and the rock she hit her head on seems oddly out of place.
The design of The Decent Inn of Death adds to the intrigue because Madden and Sinclair come at the mystery from separate directions. Madden and his wife are in Italy on vacation, so they are not involved in Sinclair’s initial puzzling. The couple returns to England in the midst of bitter winter snows, and discover that their neighbor, Sinclair, is missing. The novel moves back and forth between Sinclair’s pursuit of a series of clues and Madden’s pursuit of Sinclair. Along the way, the reader learns a relevant back story that Madden uncovers while hunting for his friend. Meanwhile, Sinclair has taken shelter from the blizzard and, through fortuitous circumstances, finds himself smack in the middle of the very mystery he is trying to solve. All this comes together when Madden finally reaches his snow-bound friend and they’re both caught in the tangled psychological web that Airth has been weaving.
Like the other five books in the Madden series, this one leans heavily on the psychology of criminality. Airth’s novels are all police procedurals, but each one delves beyond the day-to-day investigations in order to understand the criminal mind at work. Like the other series books, too, this one’s plot twists and turns. What appears to be obvious turns out to be obfuscation, and what seems to be the solution turns out to be a façade. Solving the roles of the various characters keeps the reader guessing until the very end of the mystery. I surmised how Airth would end The Decent Inn of Death and deduced wrong. For readers who love this kind of British whodunnit, The Decent Inn of Death is a wonderfully satisfactory read. All the other John Madden novels are, too, so I repeat what I wrote about the first one. Despite the common thread of serial killers and grisly murders, Airth’s stories and his characters are just fascinating. I look forward to reading even more (and writing for “Bookin’ with Sunny” for another decade???!!!) – Ann Ronald
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