The Blood-Dimmed Tide, Rennie Airth, Penguin, $14.00.
It's never just the victim, is it? It's everything else that comes with it, the pain it spreads, the damage it does...
I guess I can accept that it takes Rennie Airth so long to write his books if they are going to be as good and as exciting as The Blood-Dimmed Tide. His first novel, River of Darkness, was a sensation, nominated for an Edgar award and selling like crazy. The books are set just post World War I and the detective, like Charles Todd's and Jacqueline Winspear's, is a walking wounded survivor of that war. Hero John Madden had lost his first wife and daughter to the flu outbreak, suffered through the war, and emerged on the other side to solve a horrifying case and meet his second wife. Now several years later, Madden has settled down with his new wife, had two children, and resigned from the police force to take up farming. Unfortunately for him, he finds the body of a 12 year old girl in the first chapter when he's just giving the village bobby a lift to a potential crime scene. The old instincts are certainly not gone, and while Madden is no longer on the force, he's a respected voice of wisdom, and because this case - which has ripples no one had foreseen - happens more or less in his back yard, Madden is in on it at almost every turn, much to his wife's dismay.
While this novel is an historical it is really a thriller that happens to be set in 1932, and that may explain its freshness. It's not a typical serial killer novel - it's set in 1932 - and it's not a typical historical, because the background, often meticulously on display in many historical mysteries, is more of a shrug. It's more of a psychological background than a detailed one. The oncoming menace of the next war and the Nazis' takeover of Germany is on everyone's mind; the "blood-dimmed tide" of the title refers not just to the horrible slew of young murdered girls, but to the oncoming tide of another war. It infuses the entire book with a feeling of darkness and foreboding, and it's extremely effective. You even feel, as a reader, that Madden himself will be swept up in the oncoming tide, and return to the police force. His wife's fears for him are multiplied as she looks at her growing son and worries what his fate will be if he's "of age" when another war comes. The real feat of the novel is that Airth is simply telling a cracking good story; the rest of it is atmosphere.
Airth's set up of the murders and the discoveries that are made along the way are the work of a master storyteller. He teases out the clues little by little, making their discoveries believable, but at the same time not drawing the process out too long. It is a serial killer story at its core, but he makes it interesting by having the killer be tracked by fledgling psychoanalysis and an international police force. When the British officers and their German counterpart finally meet up, the atmosphere is full of suspicion that's partially broken down by the end of the meeting, but the barriers remain. The police part of the novel, while key, is also almost a "shrug", as the real revelations come when Madden's brain gets to clicking and he makes another leap and another discovery. He's like Nero Wolfe in his study, drinking his beers and letting the wheels turn. The setting is also wonderful - life in rural England is so beautifully depicted you can almost smell the cut grass and feel the rain. Hopefully it won't be another five years before another story in this series comes out; the clamor for this one was long lived, and it's already started for the third.
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