Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Reckoning
reviewed by David Beer

The Reckoning
by Rennie Airth
Published by Basic Books, 2014

So comes a reckoning when the banquet's o'er,
The dreadful reckoning, and men smile no more
 Alexander Pope

The historical fiction genre has been a popular one since the time of Sir Walter Scott, and those of us interested in both the novel and the First World War seem to have an increasing number of fine reads to enjoy. One current trend is the mystery "series" novel — a series of novels by one author which follow the adventures of a main character, usually a detective, who is faced with one or more crimes which turn out to be somehow connected to the Great War.

In this genre we find the excellent novels of Jacqueline Winspear, author of a series of award-winning books based on the aftermath of the war and featuring the incomparable female detective Maisie Dobbs. Recently Winspear also published The Care and Management of Lies, not in the Maisie Dobbs series but firmly set in the great conflict. Charles Todd is another popular name in this genre. Actually it's the pen name of a mother-and-son team who write books featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge, a haunted and shell-shocked veteran of the war who is trying to pick up the pieces of his career as an investigator.

Anne Perry, another popular author (who, intriguingly, is also a condemned murderer herself) includes in her prolific works a World War I series of crime mysteries. Andrew Martin, who has written seven novels featuring the railway detective Jim Stringer, uses the Somme as the backdrop for his murder mystery The Somme Stations. And there are others, such as Edward Marston, whose Home Front Detective Series includes Instrument of Slaughter, which was reviewed on this blog on 25 November 2014.

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Thus it's not surprising to find writer Rennie Airth as the author of a critically acclaimed murder mystery series based on World War I. Airth's novels feature Detective Inspector John Madden of Scotland Yard and take place in England between 1921 and 1947. Madden has been through the war and still bears the marks of his experience. In The Reckoning, which takes place in 1947, the Second World War still looms heavily over society but is leap-frogged as far as the roots of the crime are concerned.

In The Reckoning Madden is enjoying retirement but is quickly brought back to assist when an unfinished letter by a murder victim is found to mention his name. He assists Scotland Yard's Detective Inspector Billy Styles and local detective Vic Chivers in their investigations. The plot quickly intensifies when a distant report of a murdered Scottish doctor reveals an identical method of execution. Soon it becomes apparent that someone is using the same method to kill again.

The mystery then focuses on the question of why someone would kill individuals in exactly the same way when these victims appear to have no connections with each other in any way. The detective work takes on an air of intensity when it is clear the murderer is going to strike again. Meanwhile we are treated to a highly detailed insight into the nature of police procedures and detective work before the mystery is solved in a highly surprising and climactic way. I know I came to appreciate more than ever before what detective work consists of — summed up thus by the words of Detective Styles to his superintendent: "You know as well as I do, sir, in a case like this you collect all sorts of facts, but only a few really matter. . ." The gradual winnowing down of a multitude of apparent clues is one of the features of this novel that keeps the reader interested and involved.

Volunteer Munition Workers at Old Scotland Yard, 1916

The author of a historical novel is always faced with the challenge of making time and place authentic. Rennie Airth has a double task in this book in that the crimes occur in the past, just after World War II, but the events that provoke the murders took place in the more distant World War I. The fact that the author effectively creates the appropriate atmospheres adds to the novel's credibility. Ration cards, identity cards, bombed-out buildings, the urgent search for a telephone box (no cell phones here!) all contribute to showing us where we are as the search goes on. There is no doubt, however, that the dreadful event that inspires the murders (or are they really executions of murderers?) takes place in the hell of the earlier conflict. It's not hard to find one's sympathies with the killer rather than the victims. I know that's where mine were. If crime novels based on World War I are of interest to you, you will greatly enjoy this one. But don't take my word alone for it. Jacqueline Winspear, the creator of Maisie Dobbs, has this to say on the cover of The Reckoning:

I have been a huge fan of Rennie Airth's novels featuring John Madden since first reading River of Darkness and had been eagerly awaiting The Reckoning  it does not disappoint. Airth is at the top of his game, engaging the reader with dense plotting, page-turning narrative, and expert characterization. I absolutely could not put it down!

David Beer

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