Killer Instincts

By Patrick Anderson,
whose e-mail address is
Monday, July 25, 2005


By Rennie Airth

Viking. 341 pp. $24.95

Rennie Airth is a South African who was for many years a Reuters foreign correspondent and now has written two engrossing novels about Inspector John Madden of Scotland Yard. The first novel, "River of Darkness," which was highly praised when it appeared six years ago, is set just after World War I, when Madden was sent to investigate a mass murder in a village in Surrey. We learn that Madden's wife and infant daughter died in the prewar influenza epidemic and he then survived the hell of the trenches. Madden is a detective of legendary insight, but by the time the horrific Surrey case was resolved, he had seen enough slaughter and made two life-changing decisions: to marry Helen Blackwell, a beautiful and formidable doctor he met during the investigation, and to leave the Yard and return to his family farm in the south of England.

Airth's new "The Blood-Dimmed Tide" (the phrase is from W.B. Yeats's poem "The Second Coming") unfolds more than a decade later, in 1932. The Maddens have two small children, she is a beloved country doctor, and he is content with life as a gentleman farmer. Then one Sunday afternoon, out for a drive, they chance upon some villagers gathered around a local constable. A girl of 12 is missing. Madden knows the constable, and, as a storm nears, the two men go searching for the girl in the woods where she was last seen. It is Madden who finds her cruelly mutilated body. Over his wife's objections, he is drawn into a criminal investigation that, inevitably, proves far more complicated and sinister than it first appeared.

This is an agreeably old-fashioned novel, somewhat slow-paced, with close attention to place, character and detail. In its early village scenes, it recalls Agatha Christie, as tweeds are worn, tea is consumed, pipes are puffed, and men comfort distraught women with "There, there, old girl. . . . Don't take on now." A top-hatted tramp called Topper figures in the plot -- the local constabulary suspect him of the murder, but Madden knows he's really a decent chap. Some nudists -- gymnosophists, they call themselves -- appear briefly. But as the story expands to include government secrets, international espionage, the rise of the Nazis and ever-increasing gore, it grows darker and more edgy, more akin to Graham Greene's late-'30s thrillers.

The police learn that 10 or more girls have been killed in the same brutal way, both in England and Germany. Madden takes an unofficial role in the investigation, and we also meet other police officials and learn about their quirks, rivalries and differing levels of intelligence -- from Madden's brilliance to one young constable who is simply a "dim bulb." In an era when police rarely carry weapons (or use profanity), the idea of a psychopath -- a killer without conscience -- is new and unsettling to them. At one point, Madden thinks back to the horrors of the war and expresses an underlying theme of the novel:

"Though he knew the feeling was irrational, it seemed to him that with the child's murder and disfigurement a door had been opened once more into the world of savagery and barbarism which bitter experience had taught him lay just outside the frail fabric that bound ordered society."

Shrewd, taciturn, haunted by the past, torn between love of family and dedication to that ordered society, Madden is a fine character, as is his loving and strong-willed wife, and there are others, too, in Airth's top-to-bottom portrait of society. Through a war veteran named Sam Watkin, Airth offers a glimpse of Depression-era England. Watkin had received a battlefield commission during the war -- he was a "temporary gentleman," as the saying went -- but in 1929 he lost his small farm after prices slumped. By 1932 he is an agent for a real-estate firm, and when he meets an old wartime comrade, now down on his luck, Watkin arranges for him to sleep in a barn on a farm he manages. Both veterans, and the barn, figure in the novel's climax, when the killer kidnaps a girl who has become Watkin's friend. By then, Airth has laid the groundwork for a confrontation between the killer's evil and Madden's decency that is entirely moving. With one terrible, still vivid war just behind and another looming ahead, Airth's narrative reminds us that individuals still matter.

One case is closed, but the story goes on. In an epilogue in 1933, the Nazis have taken power, and a dedicated German detective we have met has promptly resigned: "As a policeman one cannot serve criminals: it is a contradiction in terms." Helen Madden reflects, "It's as though some terrible dark night is about to descend on us all and I want to protect the people I love and care for, but I don't know how." It seems likely that, despite his wife's protestations, John Madden will return for another adventure, battling for the good as that dark night falls.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company