Monday, 21 September 2009

“The Dead of Winter”, Rennie Airth

Sometimes you come across a book that try as you might defies description beyond a somewhat bland "quite good". Rennie Airth's latest work was eagerly anticipated. His previous two John Madden mysteries were highly effective historic crime novels, combining a developed sense of tension with the bucolic idyll of Britain shortly after the Great War.

It's been some time since John Madden's previous outing, in 2005's "A Blood Dimmed Tide", and this, the final book in the trilogy sees time passing in Airth's universe too, with much of the book set in London during the winter of 1944. This inevitably invites comparisons with John Lawton's magisterial "Black Out", and sadly it doesn't quite live up.

"The Dead of Winter" suffers from what seems like a very slow start - taking a while before you're really gripped and multiple strands of the story being introduced without really making reader particularly care about the characters or the crime. This may be a reflection of John Madden's relatively low profile in the initial parts of the novel. His character is a rich and absorbing creation, and it's something of a shame that more isn't made of him. Admittedly this is rectified later in the work, but the slow start may make the reading experience more of an exercise in perseverance than it should be. This is compounded by dialogue which at times feels stilted and a feeling that Airth is trying too hard to set the wartime scene of rationing and bomb damage.

In parts two and three, there is a steady increase in pace and tension with a perceptible notion of building menace towards the inevitable dramatic denouement in the snow. The final 200 pages go a long way towards redeeming the book's earlier shortcomings. There is an ominous feel to it, and you feel that Airth is returning to where he really has form, threatening horrific violence amidst a peaceful countryside and finally making the book a lot harder to put down.

On reflection this is a troubled book that isn't quite as good as it should be. The core problem is the question as to whether the criminal is really believable? Layers of complexity are piled on, yet strangely it's unsatisfying, and slowly, steadily elements of credibility are easily unpicked in the readers' mind, ultimately leaving you somewhat flat. This means you're relying a lot on Airth's ability to portray the distant world of 1940s England, and here there's not quite enough.

The pace towards the conclusion saves "The Dead of Winter", but to be seen as a really good book this should have started much earlier. Sadly, while "quite good", it's not really a patch on the previous two books and not quite the conclusion to the Madden trilogy hoped for.

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