Rennie Airth's John Madden series returns with DEAD OF WINTER. The series has taken a leisurely rout toward publication, three books in ten years. The peerless RIVER OF DARKNESS appeared in 1999 with THE BLOOD-DIMMED TIDE showing up in 2004. In the chronology of these books we have jumped from just after WWI to the waning years of WWII. In those years we have seen John Madden move from a seasoned Police Detective to, of all things, a farmer in this latest work.
I don't want to belabor this point, but I really can not think of a finer piece of historical Crime Fiction than RIVER OF DARKNESS. Character, setting, and plotting are exceptional in this book. THE BLOOD-DIMMED TIDE delivered a completely opposite experience. The book was a baffling affair that failed as equally as RIVER OF DARKNESS succeeded. This disappointment aside my admiration is undiminished for John Madden's first adventure. The dichotomy of the first two books made it hard not immediately think about which end of the spectrum DEAD OF WINTER falls into. Is it cheating to say this book falls in the middle?
The murder of an immigrant Polish girl sets in motion the events of DEAD OF WINTER. What unravels from it are killings and assassinations that stretch back decades and traversing the European continent. DEAD OF WINTER is a handsome affair that paints England in the clutches of the WWII conflagration. The book is a return to form in the sense that Mr. Airth is able to paint across the broad canvas of WWII that renders the whole terrible affair with polished detail. Mr. Airth has particular skill at combining the twin cataclysms of war and the more intimate murder of a young girl. It is Mr. Airth's execution of the 'war' across the city and countryside that are enthralling to read.
So where does DEAD OF WINTER go wrong? The story, sort of. A criticism of current Crime Fiction is that expansive back stories blunt the effectiveness of novels as large swaths of the plot and characters are lost to large expository explanations of unseen events. Of course, if done well back story detail fills in gaps and can be become addictive story and character 'crack'. At times this level of detail certainly assists DEAD OF WINTER to become and atmospheric crime riddle. More often, THE DEAD OF WINTER and Mr. Airth just info dump huge pieces of story detail. Within the context of the book it fits because the story requires that the reader learn this new piece information, but the information is not organically delivered. The hand of the author is too present in these moments where a character appears and opens his mouth delivering the exact bit of information we require. Frustratingly, this happens most often in the presentation of the Killer's own story. In much the same manner of his previous novels the killer's story is only revealed through others. The killer is an unknowable specter in Mr.Airth's books. It is a brave choice by the writer particularly as crime fiction today virtually requires that we become fellow travelers with the killer on their warped journey. With RIVER OF DARKNESS, Mr Airth has proven that this technique can work, but in DEAD OF WINTER we left with an inert villain. We are told he is a dangerous man, but I never really felt it.
Still, DEAD OF WINTER is an elegantly mounted book that is richly detailed and rewarding. While I have some issue with how this detail was imparted, I still think DEAD OF WINTER is deserving of your time.