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river of darkness

4 november 2018

Rennie Airth's River of Darkness is a grimly entertaining mix of several popular genres: a historical novel about the aftermath of the first world war; an English village murder story complete with great houses, country doctors, game wardens, and no doubt a vicar or curate in there somewhere; a serial-killer procedural; a tale about the early days of psychoanalysis; and a love story.

Our hero is detective inspector John Madden, making his first appearance in what's now a long-running crime-novel series. But while Madden is the main character, he's just one among many others in terms of how the story is experienced and relayed to the reader. Airth's omniscient narrator has access to every character's inner thoughts, sometimes shifting back and forth every few paragraphs. This includes the serial killer, whose identity is a mystery to the police but not to readers, since we see some of his murderous planning and execution, too.

Madden, like serial killer Amos Pike and many another character in River of Darkness, is a veteran of the first world war. (And yes, I just revealed the name of the murderer; but as I said, the novel is not a mystery and allows you free access to the killer's activities all along – which doesn't detract at all from the suspense.) Airth's theme is that the trauma of war does not change people. Rather, it heightens what they are. Madden, a good and gentle man, is a born detective, and Pike a killer from his childhood. Their military training makes them deadlier adversaries than they might otherwise have been, but they would always have come into conflict.

Along the way to their final showdown – a long way, well over 400 pages' worth – Madden and Pike face off across the no-man's land of the emerging science of psychiatry. John Madden and the physician Helen Blackwell fall in love, and Helen has access to all the new theories from Vienna. Before long, with the help of one of Helen's specialist friends, Madden finds himself constructing the mother of all serial-killer profiles. Using a technique similar to that of American crime novelist Caleb Carr, Airth imagines late 20th-century criminological methods at work decades before they were developed.

River of Darkness is an intricate book, with scores if not hundreds of characters, yet it's lucidly written and tightly constructed. One flaw is a somewhat opaque rendering of the bureaucracy of Scotland Yard, so that it can be very hard to tell who reports to whom or at times who's even being discussed, since Airth tends to identify his cops by role rather than by name, and all the assistant sub-chief inspector superintendents become hard to distinguish. But that's a token price of admission to a very entertaining fictional world.

Airth, Rennie. River of Darkness. 1999. New York: Penguin, 2005. PR 9369.3 .A47R58