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River of Darkness (John Madden Series #1)

River of Darkness (John Madden Series #1)

3.8 33
by Rennie Airth

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Rennie Airth's The Death of Kings will be available from Viking in January 2017.

Upon its original publication, River of Darkness awed readers who look for intelligent, well-plotted psychological mysteries. This “fine, frightening piece of work” (Kirkus Reviews) introduces inspector John Madden who,


Rennie Airth's The Death of Kings will be available from Viking in January 2017.

Upon its original publication, River of Darkness awed readers who look for intelligent, well-plotted psychological mysteries. This “fine, frightening piece of work” (Kirkus Reviews) introduces inspector John Madden who, in the years following World War I, is sent to a small village to investigate a particularly gruesome attack. The local police dismiss the slaughter as a botched robbery, but Madden detects the signs of a madman at work. With the help of Dr. Helen Blackwell, who introduces him to the latest developments in criminal psychology, Madden sets out to identify and capture the killer, even as the murderer sets his sights on his next innocent victims.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
In a quiet and picturesque English countryside where people are still recuperating from the ravages of World War I, the peace of a small Surrey village is shattered by the discovery of a horrifying murder. Five victims: four of them killed with military efficiency and, judging from the wounds, a military bayonet. The fifth victim, the lady of the house, is found nearly naked, sprawled on a bed, her throat slashed with a razor. Even more startling than the actual carnage are two subsequent findings: the lack of any sort of sexual assault and the discovery of a child — a young girl — hiding beneath a bed.

Scotland Yard sends out Inspector John Madden to investigate the murders. Madden, with some heavy psychological baggage of his own courtesy of the war, recognizes the mark of madness in the killer's work and has a unique understanding of the killer's methods, habits, and rituals. While the local constabulary figures the murders for a robbery gone horribly wrong, Madden is quick to recognize the presence of a more sinister motive. He seeks the help of Dr. Helen Blackwell, a local physician who lost both her brothers and her husband to the war. Dr. Blackwell's professional connections include a Viennese psychiatrist who is well versed in the relatively new field of forensic psychology, and together they try to develop a psychological profile for the killer.

The deeper Madden digs into the case, the harder it is for him to maintain the fragile wall he has built around his own painful memories. A spark between him and Helen Blackwell quickly becomes anall-consumingfire, and in the tender exploratory phase of their relationship, Helen gently urges him to face his personal demons head-on.

Meanwhile, Madden discovers the killer has struck once before, a murder that was left unsolved. When Madden gets the idea to look for similar crimes that may have occurred during the war, he finds one, and a clearer and even more frightening picture of the killer begins to evolve. As the police investigation proceeds, plodding at times and getting fortuitous breaks at others, the killer plans his next attack. Together, killer and cops move along parallel timelines, a loose scrabble of concurrent events held together by a taut string of tension. When the string finally breaks, it culminates in a vivid and terrifying climax that demonstrates how fine a line often exists between sanity and utter madness.

River of Darkness is the first book in a promised series. Inspector John Madden is precisely the type of multifaceted and complex character readers will enjoy meeting time and again. And the supporting cast of characters is the perfect complement, the sum total being a rich and full-bodied story. What's more, if Airth shows the same flair for finely etched prose and brilliantly manipulated tension as he does here, this series promises to be the start of a powerful new niche in psychological suspense, a uniquely fresh voice that will stand out among the crowd.

—Beth Amos

New York Times Book Review
"...the suspense novelist's basic strategy is always obvious. It's the tactics and terrain, the morale and the characters that make the difference between an average thriller and one as good as this. Airth has balanced savagery and civilization neatly, and given civilization just the barest edge... Airth is supposed to working on a sequel already, no doubt following Madden's further investigations. If the inspector continues looking into the narrow crimes of individual men linked to the great crimes of the Great War, there will be plenty of stories to tell.
Christopher Dickey
This is genre stuff: "a novel of suspense"....It's the tactics and terrain, the morale and the characters that make the difference between an average thriller and one as good as this....The climax is all that you hoped and knew it would be....Airth is supposed to be working on a sequel already, no doubt following Madden's further investigations. If the inspector continues looking into the narrow crimes of individual men linked to the great crimes of the Great War, there will be plenty of stories to tell.
New York Times Book Review
Library Journal
So you thought British detectives had to focus on "the colonel in the drawing room with a candlestick" solutions? Newcomer Airth blasts that stereotype with this tale of serial murder set in post-World War I Britain, featuring the debut of Inspector John Madden, a veteran whose experiences in the trenches give him an edge in tracking and capturing the killer. Meanwhile, Dr. Helen Blackwell entices Madden to employ psychiatric theories shunned at the time by Scotland Yard to explain and predict the killer's behavior. Airth develops a situation that presages today's much-touted psychological profiling and serves to build an almost excruciatingly suspenseful plot. In addition, his deft handling of the emotional aftereffects of war gives the work an added sense of purpose. Fans of Thomas Harris will enjoy this book and can take heart in knowing that another Madden tale is already in the works.--Nancy McNicol, Hagaman Memorial Lib., East Haven, CT Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
All the familiar elements of suspense writing are given an unusual and satisfying twist in this grim and fascinating thriller set in the English countryside shortly after WWI—the initial volume of a promised series. Inspector John Madden of Scotland Yard, a taciturn veteran and casualty of that war, and a widower still mourning the loss of his wife and young daughter, is sent to investigate the gruesome murders of a prominent, well-liked family in a small Surrey village. Aided by young constable Billy Styles, as well as an initially almost indistinguishable parade of local police personnel and their several superiors, Madden is quick to recognize the nature of his quarry's particular expertise. An unsolved earlier murder is shown to eerily parallel the present one, and the hunt is underway, for an ex-soldier whose modus operandi includes "constructing a military-type dugout" near the scene of each successive crime he patiently plots and carries out. In a nail-biting narrative that generates terrific suspense, Airth juxtaposes the specifics of the police's investigation with brief glimpses of victims-to-be and also chilling views of their scarcely human killer—whose identity is soon revealed, though the full truth of his complex motivation is saved for the closing pages. The impression of a world made mad by the carnage and psychic weight of the recent war is very strikingly conveyed. As a Viennese psychiatrist (whom Madden consults) puts it: "When it comes to injuries wrought to the human psyche, there is no need to look further than the experience of the common soldier in the trenches." And the depth of that madness becomes vividly apparent as the story reaches its savageclimax, sobering denouement, and elegiac conclusion. A fine, frightening piece of work. One looks forward to meeting Inspector John Madden again soon.

From the Publisher
"It's the tactics and the terrain, the morale and the characters that make the difference between an average thriller and one as good as this."—Christopher Dickey, The New York Times Book Review

"One of the best mysteries I have read in years."—The Boston Globe 

"Airth writes with arresting authority and compassion...a major talent."—Chicago Tribune 

"All the familiar elements of suspense writing are given an unusual and satisfying twist in this grim and fascinating thriller—the initial volume of a promised series...A fine, frightening piece of work."—Kirkus Reviews (starred) 

"Readers who are looking for smart, well-plotted psychological mysteries will be delighted."—Booklist

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
John Madden Series , #1
Sold by:
Penguin Group
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File size:
2 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

The village was empty. Billy Styles couldn’t understand it. They hadn’t seen a living soul on the road from the station, and even the green was deserted, though the weather was the kind that normally brought people out of doors. The finest summer since the war!

The newspapers had been repeating the phrase for weeks now as one radiant day followed another, with no end to the heat wave in sight.

But here in Highfield, sunshine lay like a curse on empty cottage gardens. Only the headstones in the churchyard, crowding the moss-covered stone wall flanking the road, gave mute evidence of a human presence.

"They’re all at the house," Boyce said, as though in explanation. He was an inspector with the Surrey police, a thin grey man with an anxious look. "Word got around this morning."

Boyce had come to the station to meet Inspector Madden and Billy. In a chauffeured Rolls Royce, no less! Billy wanted to ask who’d sent it, but didn’t dare. With less than three months experience in the CID he knew he was lucky to be there at all, assigned to a case of such magnitude. Only the August bank holiday, combined with the heavy summer-leave schedule, had brought it about. Scotland Yard had been thinly manned that Monday morning when the telephone call came from Guildford. Minutes later Billy had found himself in a taxi with Madden bound for Victoria station.

He glanced at the inspector, who was sitting beside him staring out of the car window. Among the lower ranks at the Yard, Madden was reckoned to be a queer one. They hadn’t met before today, but Billy had, seen him striding down the corridors. A tall grim man with a scarred forehead, he seemed more like a monk than a policeman, the young detective constable thought. An impression that gained strength now each time the inspector’s glance fell on him. Madden’s deep-set eyes seemed to look at you from another world.

He had a strange history-Billy had heard it from one of the sergeants. Madden had left the force some years before after losing his wife and baby daughter, both in the same week, to influenza. The son of a farmer, he had wanted to return to the land. Instead, the war had come, and afterwards he’d returned to his old job with the Metropolitan Police. Changed, though, it was said. A different man from before. Two years in the trenches had seen to that.

They had cleared the village, leaving the last cottage behind. Rounding a bend in the road, the chauffeur braked. Ahead of them, blocking the narrow country lane and facing a set of iron gates, a crowd had gathered. Whole families were there, it seemed, the men in shirtsleeves and braces, the women wearing kitchen aprons and with their hair tied up in scarves and handkerchiefs. Children stood hand in hand, or else played together on the dusty verges. A short way down the road two little girls in coloured smocks were bowling a hoop.

"Look at them," Boyce said wearily. "We’ve asked them to keep away, but what can you expect?" The chauffeur blew his horn as they drew near and the crowd parted to let the car through. Billy felt the weight of their accusing stares.

"They don’t know what to think," Boyce muttered. "And we don’t know what to tell them." The drive beyond the gates was lined with elms, linked at their crowns like gothic arches. At the end of it Billy could see a house built of solid stone, clothed in ivy. Melling Lodge was its name. Madden had told him. A family called Fletcher lived there. Had lived there. Billy’s mouth went dry as they approached the gravelled forecourt where a fountain topped by a Cupid figure, standing with his bow drawn, sprayed silvery water into the bright sunlit afternoon. Blue uniforms stirred in the shadows.

"We brought a dozen men down from Guildford." Boyce nodded towards a police van parked at the side of the forecourt. "We may want more."

Madden spoke for the first time. "We’ll need to search the land around the house."

"Wait till you see the other side." Boyce groaned. "Woods. Nothing but woods. Miles and miles of them."

Madden’s glance had shifted to a group of three men standing together in a shaded corner of the forecourt. Two of them wore light country tweeds. The third sweated in a double-breasted serge suit. "Who are they?" he asked. "The old boy’s Lord Stratton. Local nob. He owns most of the land hereabouts. That’s the Lord Lieutenant with him. Major General Sir William Raikes."

"What’s he doing here?" Madden scowled.

"He was a weekend guest at Stratton Hall, worst luck." Boyce pulled a face. "He’s been raising merry hell, I can tell you. The other one’s Chief Inspector Norris, from Guildford."

As Madden opened the car door, Raikes, red-faced and balding, came striding across the gravel.

"About time," he said angrily. "Sinclair, is it?"

"No, Sir William. Madden’s the name. Detective Inspector. This is Detective Constable Styles. Chief Inspector Sinclair is on his way. He’ll be here shortly." Madden’s glance roamed the forecourt.

"Well, for God’s sake!" Raikes fumed. "What’s keeping the man?"

"He’s getting a team together. Pathologist, fingerprint squad, photographer ..." The inspector made no attempt to disguise his impatience. "It takes time, particularly on a bank holiday."

"Indeed!" Raikes glared at him, but Madden was already turning away to greet the older man, who had joined them.

"Lord Stratton? Thank you for sending the car, sir."

"It was nothing. How else can I help you, Inspector?" He held out his hand to Madden, who shook it. His face showed signs of recent shock, the eyes wide and blinking. "Do you need any transport? I’ve a runabout at the Hall.

You’re welcome to use it."

"Would you mention that to Mr. Sinclair? I’m sure he’ll be happy to accept."

"Now see here, Madden!" Raikes tried to force himself back into the conversation, but the inspector ignored him and went on speaking to Lord Stratton.

"There’s something I need to know. The woods behind the house, do they belong to you?"

"Upton Hanger? Yes, the ridge extends for several miles." He seemed eager to help. "I keep a pheasant shoot over by the Hall"-he pointed in the direction of the village-"but this side the woods run wild."

"What’s your policy on trespassing?"

"Well, technically it’s private property. But the villagers have always had the run of the woods. Over on this side, at least."

"Would you change that, sir? Make it clear no trespassing will be allowed and ask the police to enforce it."

"I understand." Stratton frowned. "Better to keep people away."

"I was thinking of the London press. They’ll be here soon enough."

"Boyce!" Chief Inspector Norris spoke.

"I’ll see to it, sir."

"One other thing." Madden drew Lord Stratton aside. "There’s a crowd of villagers outside the gates.

Could you speak to them? Tell them what’s happened here. There’s no point in keeping it a secret. Then ask them to go home. We’ll be questioning them later. But they’re no help to us standing out there blocking the road."

"Of course. I’ll see to that now." He set off up the drive.

Watching, Billy could only marvel. How did Madden do it? He wasn’t a nob himself, that much was certain. There was a rough unpolished air about the inspector that set him apart from the likes of his lordship. But when he talked, they listened! Even Sir William Whatsit, who could only stand there glowering.

"Chief Inspector," still ignoring Raikes, Madden turned to Norris, "could we have a word?"

He moved away, and after a moment’s hesitation Norris joined him. The Guildford chief was red in the face and sweating heavily in his thick suit.

"I’ll need some details, sir."

"Speak to Boyce." Norris blinked rapidly. "Good God, man! You can’t treat a lord lieutenant that way."

Madden regarded him without expression. Norris opened his mouth to speak again, then changed his mind. He spun on his heel and rejoined Raikes, who stood with his back ostentatiously turned to them, glaring up the drive at the retreating figure of Lord Stratton.

Madden nodded to Boyce and led the way out of the forecourt around to the side of the house. When they came into a pool of shade he paused and took out a packet of cigarettes. Billy, encouraged by the sight, lit up himself.

"I was told four in the house." The inspector was speaking to Boyce.

"That’s right." The Surrey inspector took out a handkerchief. "Colonel and Mrs. Fletcher. One of the maids, Sally Pepper, and the children’s nanny, Alice Crookes."

"Who found the bodies?"

"The other maid, Ellen Brown. We haven’t talked to her yet. She’s in hospital in Guildford. Under sedation."

He wiped his face. "Brown returned this morning. Mrs. Fletcher had given her the weekend off-Saturday and Sunday-but she was due back last night, and the other maid, Pepper, was to have had today off. Brown missed her train-she’s got a young man in Birmingham-and only arrived this morning. She was seen passing through the village, running from the station, looking to be in trouble with her mistress, I dare say. Half an hour later she was back again, not making much sense by all accounts."

"Half an hour?" Madden drew on his cigarette.

Boyce shrugged. "I don’t know what she did when she found them. Fainted, I would guess. But she had enough sense to get herself to the local bobby. He lives at this end of the village. Constable Stackpole. He didn’t know what to think-whether to believe her, even. He said she was raving. So he got on his bicycle and pedalled like blazes. He rang Guildford from the Lodge. I was the duty officer and I informed Chief Inspector Norris and he rang the chief constable who decided to call in the Yard right away."

"When did you get here?"

"Just before midday. Mr. Norris and I."

"You went through the house?"

Boyce nodded. "We didn’t touch anything. Then Sir William arrived with Lord Stratton."

"Did they go inside?"

"I’m afraid so."

"Both of them?"

Boyce looked shamefaced. "Mr. Norris tried to stop them, but ... Anyway, they didn’t stay long. It was getting to be ripe inside. The heat, you know ..."

"Anyone else?"

"Only the doctor."

"The police surgeon?"

"No, Stackpole couldn’t raise him-he lives in Godalming-so he rang the village doctor."

"What time did he get here?"

"She." Boyce glanced up from his notebook. "Dr. Blackwell’s a woman."

Madden was frowning.

"Yes, I know." Boyce shrugged. "But it couldn’t be helped. There was no one else."

"Was she able to cope?"

"As far as I can tell. Stackpole said she did what was necessary, confirmed they were all dead. It was she who found the little girl." He consulted his notebook. "Sophy Fletcher, aged five. Apparently she’s a patient of the doctor’s."

"The child was in the house?"

"Hiding under her bed, Stackpole said. She must have been there all night ..." Boyce looked away, biting his lip.

Madden waited for a moment. "You said ‘children.’"

"There’s a son, James, aged ten. He’s been spending a few weeks with his uncle in Scotland. Lucky, I suppose, if you can call it that."

"Do we know if the girl witnessed the murders?"

Boyce shook his head. "She hasn’t said a word since Dr. Blackwell found her. The shock, I imagine."

"Where is she now?"

"At the doctor’s house. It’s not far. I sent an officer over there."

"We must get her into hospital in Guildford."

Madden killed his cigarette on the sole of his shoe and put the stub in his pocket. Billy, watching, followed suit. "Any idea of time of death?"

"Dr. Blackwell says between eight and ten last night-based on rigor. Couldn’t have been before seven. That’s when the cook left. Ann Dunn. She lives in the village. I’ve had a word with her, but she couldn’t tell us much. She fixed them a cold meal, then took herself off. Didn’t notice anything unusual. Didn’t see anyone hanging about." Boyce glanced back towards the drive. "The gates were open. They could have driven in."


"Has to be more than one man." Boyce looked at him. "Wait till you see inside. Most likely a gang.

There’s stuff been taken. Silver. Jewellery. But why they had to-" He broke off, shaking his head.

"How did they get into the house?"

"They broke in from the garden side. Come on, I’ll show you."

Boyce led the way to the front of the house, out of the shade on to the sunwashed terrace. It was late afternoon, past four o’clock but the cloudless summer sky held hours of daylight yet. Shallow steps led from the terrace to a lawn bordered by flower-beds with a fishpond in the middle. Further on another set of steps led to a lower level bordered by a shrubbery. Where the garden ended the woods of Upton Hanger began, rising like a green wave, filling the horizon.

"See! They smashed in the french windows." Boyce pointed. "They’re not cracksmen. Not professionals."

One of a pair of tall glassed doors at the front of the house had been knocked off its hinges. The empty frame lay across the doorway. Broken glass glittered in the sunlight. Madden crouched down to examine it. In the silence Billy heard the sound of flies buzzing. It came from inside the house. He wrinkled his nose at the rotten-sweet smell.

"We can’t leave ’em there much longer," Boyce observed. He watched Madden with narrowed eyes.

"Not in this heat. There’s a mortuary wagon standing by in the village. Should I bring it up to the house?"

"Better wait till Mr. Sinclair gets here." Madden stood up. "You can begin fingerprinting, though. Start with the people who’ve been in the house."

A grin replaced the anxious frown on Boyce’s face. "Does that include the Lord Lieutenant and Lord Stratton?"


"Sir William told Mr. Norris they hadn’t touched anything."

"I’m sure he did. Print them both."

Madden glanced at Billy. "Constable?"

"Sir?" Billy straightened automatically.

"We’ll go inside now."

Meet the Author

Rennie Airth was born in South Africa and worked as a foreign correspondent for Reuters before becoming a novelist. He is the author of two other John Madden mysteries, River of Darkness, a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Novel and a Macavity Award for Best Mystery, and a New York Times Notable Book, and The Blood-Dimmed Tide. He lives in Cortona, Italy.

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River of Darkness (John Madden Series #1) 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 31 reviews.
DEDubois More than 1 year ago
Both my husband and I enjoyed this "first in the series" book and are eagerly looking forward to reading the rest of the series.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was my first time reading this author and I love dark mysteries especially those set in the period after WWI in England. I could not put the book down and the gruesome killer really grabs you and does not let go. A great read.
srw07 More than 1 year ago
A new series in the vein of Dorothy Sayers, Peter Robertson, Ian Rankin and Charles Todd which should appeal to readers interested in English mysteries and mid-20th century fiction.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I received this book as a present for my birthday and I wasn't sure whether I would enjoy the book as I didn't know the author. I started reading and enjoyed it so much that I couldn't wait to get home from work to start reading again. I liked all the aspects of the book and the descriptions of the First World War and the feelings of the soldiers were very well depicted. I would recommend this book to all readers of crime/detective novels and I can't wait for the sequel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
=Keep your money this is a waste. I thought this would be a great book because of the back of the book and the reviews but it wasn't. The story doesn't form quick enough and they continuously repeat things. This book is Historical Fiction which I can't stand but I was hoping it would make me like it but I was wrong.get back to me in 25 years and maybe I would finish it. Yes I didn't finish reading it. I couldn't even get pass page 100 because it was that boring.
nhr3bookcrazyNR More than 1 year ago
Very intense start to a new series. This book involves post-WWI England, Scotland yard, grisly murders, an unexpected romance, and excellent detective work. I loved the book. I cannot wait to get the next book in the series. I highly recommend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She watches concerned and scared
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Well written and excellent plot. A head above the rest.
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Philly-reader More than 1 year ago
I agree with much of the high praise others have given this book. I did, however, find Dr. Helen' Blackwell's frequent laughter a little unbelievable, given her place in the setting and relationship to the local people. I often found her annoying. Lots of beautiful writing in this book without phony, flowery ramblings. Madden is a most intriguing character, even more mysterious than the mystery he has to solve.
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lotto53 More than 1 year ago
For the reader that enjoys a great english thriller,this is great. Intelligent , THOUGHTFUL , Characters you care about. The author is great
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