Monday, August 31, 2009

Dead of Winter

Rennie Airth's latest, the Dead of Winter, would have been a perfectly good book, if it had not been written after his excellent River of Darkness (looks like there is a mass market available - you are crazy not to get this book at that price) and quite good Blood Dimmed Tide. Now it seems like a book that could have been much better.

The book differs in a number of ways from the previous stories. Two of the most significant though are the time frame and the characters. Unlike the previous books which were set in the post-World War One period, this book is set in the waning days of the Second World War. Britain's home front is grim, with the family tension rising as parents fear their children will die in the last days of war, food being close to inedible and the V-1s and V-2s making London a frightening place.

A young Polish girl is killed on the blacked out streets of London. Retired policeman John Madden, reluctant hero of the previous books, is brought back in as the girl had been working on his farm. He then drops out as other characters take the lead. The book is quite light on Madden, enough that I felt it was a stretch to call it a John Madden mystery.

The story, which involves ties to a 1940 murder in France and to the growing violence of the 20th century, is fairly straight forward. It is a police investigation where the cops are from the old world of simple criminals must contend with a hyper-violent criminal from the nasty second half of the century.

One of the things that Airth does best is show the terrible wear of war on society. Here he does it with the damaged home front. The police force consists mostly of older cops who should have retired, but all the replacements are at war. The populace gets by on little and the unfortunate East Enders live in bombed out ruins. It is incredibly bleak, but handled very well.

I think the World War 2 setting made me want some more dark political dealings, in the vein of John Lawton or Alan Furst, authors more known for their World War 2 settings. It is still a very good book that I read quickly. In the end, it left me thinking how much more I liked the earlier books.

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