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the blood-dimmed tide

30 november 2018

In The Blood-Dimmed Tide, a sequel to the excellent River of Darkness, Rennie Airth skips over several years and a stage or two of his series characters' lives. Once again we have a serial killer terrorizing the placid English countryside, and once again John Madden, WWI veteran and general cool customer, is instrumental in tracking him down. But Madden has been retired from Scotland Yard for a while, has settled down to the life of a gentleman farmer and raised a family. He is drawn into the newest grisly case by happenstance.

Madden finds the first dead body and eventually catches the killer, but in between we don't see much of him. This is at the insistence of his wife and physician Helen, who fears for Madden's physical and psychic safety should he get into police work again. As a result, the focus of the investigation shifts up a level, to Madden's friend and former supervisor Angus Sinclair. Still navigating the stuffy bureaucracy of the Yard, Sinclair now finds himself dealing with the Foreign Office and the British intelligence services, as he gradually connects the killings to wartime and postwar espionage.

We don't see much of Helen either. And numerous other characters from River of Darkness pop in, but few good new ones are developed, and there's little focus. One of the better scenes has Billy Styles, a rookie cop in River of Darkness and now a detective sergeant, tracking down leads in a cold case by visiting a nudist colony. But we don't see much of Billy, either. And in The Blood-Dimmed Tide we don't see much of our killer till he's caught, unlike the parallel good-guy/bad-guy narration of River of Darkness.

If I seem to be carping about The Blood-Dimmed Tide at the expense of its predecessor, I will say that it is still a pretty good couple of evenings' read. Airth writes with great clarity and does fine action scenes. He paints a vivid backdrop, and enmeshes the lives of his English characters believably with Europeans (it's 1932) about to be sucked into the maelstrom of Nazi Germany.

Airth's England is one where the quality mix easily with simple country folk, the "forgotten men" of the Depression, and even with gypsy Travelers. There's more than a little wishful thinking in this picture of the social harmony of Albion. But the rosiness of the setting makes the irruption of psychopathic violence all the more effective.

Airth, Rennie. The Blood-Dimmed Tide. 2004. New York: Viking [Penguin], 2005. PR 9369.3 .A47B55

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