The Dead of Winter, By Rennie Airth

Reviewed,Jane Jakeman
Thursday 21 May 2009 00:00 BST

Some crime novels are flimsy flat-packs, knocked up almost overnight. Some are sleek Scandinavian designs. Rennie Airth belongs to the slow, solid school of crime carpentry – no cheap hardboard characters or slack dove-tailing in his plots. It has taken him 10 years to craft three Inspector Madden stories.

This book has a blissful whiff of nostalgia, of mahogany furniture in wallpapered rooms, of dependable policemen and respectful lower orders. Yet this is no idyllic evocation of the Golden Age of crime writing. This world is about to be, literally, blown away, for the action takes place in wartime London, where the old order is beginning to turn upside down.

The book is darker than the mythology of London during the Blitz: the black market thrives, crime flourishes and a police force largely made up of men too old to fight has little power to stop it. But some crimes are more dreadful than others. When a young Polish girl is found strangled near the British Museum, Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair is deeply concerned.

It transpires that she was a Land Girl employed by none other than former police inspector John Madden. World-weary and embittered by the First World War, Madden has settled down and married the village doctor whom he met in the first of the series, River of Darkness. He is sufficiently moved by the girl's death to help hunt down her killer amid the war's mayhem.

A chain of murders follows – the garrotting of a prostitute, the shooting of a petty crook – and the trail leads into the turmoil of war-torn Europe and the plight of refugees from the Nazi invasion of France. The book has a strength not usually found in crime writing of the Golden Age, for it acknowledges that there is a wider world. Into this, the traditional English policeman is inevitably drawn. Madden's comment on casual death, "the terrible power wielded by chance in human destiny", remains with the reader after the plot has been neatly finished.

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