River of Darkness (John Madden Series #1)

River of Darkness (John Madden Series #1)

by Rennie Airth


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143035701
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/31/2005
Series: John Madden Series , #1
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 149,943
Product dimensions: 5.06(w) x 7.68(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About 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.

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."

Table of Contents

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River of Darkness (John Madden Series #1) 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 41 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.
sheelaghk1 on LibraryThing 13 hours ago
terrific post WW1 mystery
delphica on LibraryThing 13 hours ago
This is a straight-forward mystery, set in England after WWI, and written in a more current style with more explicit sexual content and more graphic violence than one would find in period books. The author found a nice balance with this - I found the setting very believable, it didn't seem like 21st century people shoehorned in 1922 (I actually don't remember what year it is set in, so let's say that as a ballpark); the domestic details and lifestyle information felt right. At the same time, you get a very candid description of the CRIMES that were generally left more implied in mystery novels of the time. For me personally, as you know I have Maisie Dobbs issues (sorry, Maisie fans), this was a much better approach for a present-day writer than Maisie, who often has the mindset of a 2011 overly earnest recent college graduate, and yet manages to be more cloyingly twee than anything found in Sayers, Marsh, or Christie. In this book, Scotland Yard investigators are called to a murder scene that starts off looking like a B&E gone wrong, and quickly turns out to be the work of a more creepy serial killer.There are some sort of standard elements that ... hmmm, they didn't detract from the book for me, but they do give you a little wave to say "yes, we're genre markers!" ... the reluctance on the part of the Yard higher-ups to embrace "modern" crime investigation methods so we can laugh behind our hands at them, the adversarial "other detective" who is career-climbing and thus dismissive of our protagonists' risk-taking approach to investigation, the sensational press reporters, those sorts of things. Even our protagonist detective, who is, of course, damaged from his time in the trenches of WWI, which sounds so dismissive and I don't mean it that way, but it's hard to read and not immediately call up Lord Peter and think "yep, got it, okay, what's going to happen next with this plot?" And it has all the nice things that, speaking as an American reader, I know about in the first place from reading Sayers, Marsh and Christie - how the pubs work and what are the roles of the household staff and what the War Office does and the endless effort that goes into maintaining a motor car (thanks, Bunter!). The love interest was easier to buy if you could say to yourself "hey, I like these characters and it's nice for them, so I'm going to take this at face value and move on" and not insist on being convinced by the writing or events of the book. Grade: A-, it was a very good mystery, but it's not trying to be more than a mystery.Recommended: To fans of this particular genre who won't be bothered by the un-coziness of it.
mikedraper on LibraryThing 13 hours ago
In England in 1921, the country was still recovering from WWI. War wounded were seen throughout the country. What couldn't be seen were those who were psychologically wounded and in need of help.With this background, at the start of the novel, a family is murdered in Surrey. Police at first believe that it is a violent robbery but when Inspector John Madden is called in from Scotland Yard, he views the scene and thinks it's something else. Madden has spent time in the trenches in the war and believes that this is the work of a psychopath who will continue killing until he is stopped.John Madden is a well developed protagonist. He's knowledgeable and determined to find the killer. His personal history is brought in nicely so that the reader gets to know him and sympathise with him. The respect with which he is held by his assistant, Billy Styles, gives credibility to Madden's knowledge of people and crime.The setting is the English countryside with gardens and country manors surrounded by woods. The descriptions are vivid and help the reader see a clearer picture of what live may have been like.The theme is relevant with the soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The author is telling his readers how little post tramatic syndrome is known and what psychological impact it causes.A most enjoyable read.
annbury on LibraryThing 13 hours ago
Compelling police procedural set in post-WWI Britain. The recreation of the historical period is really compelling, particularly the extent to which England was still a rural, agricultural country in 1920, which meant that in many ways it had much more in common with life a hundred years earlier than forty years later. The characters are interesting and well drawn, and the suspenseful search for the killer keeps you turning the pages.
bezoar44 on LibraryThing 13 hours ago
This book was terrific. A team of detectives -- the main character, John Madden, a battle-scarred veteran of World War I, is just part of the team -- attempts to solve a series of extremely violent massacres committed by a serial killer. Airth paces the story perfectly, and tells it with perfect pitch -- the suspense builds along with the depth of relationships among the good guys. The author reveals the criminal's identity roughly a third of the way into the book, long before the police have figured out who he is. From that point, the story becomes a race against time: can the police put together enough pieces to stop the killer before he strikes again. The chains of deduction and intuition that the police follow are coherent and satisfying, as well.
LaurieRKing on LibraryThing 13 hours ago
Good crime fiction and an eloquent description of the period between the wars.
ShellyS on LibraryThing 17 hours ago
First in a mystery series. I suspect the others won't have quite the emotional impact of this one, but I'm hopeful, because Airth is a marvelous writer. The prose isn't the best or prettiest and the book seems to be written in a somewhat stilted third person, but that doesn't matter. Here, the story and characters rule, and what a story. In a matter-of-fact way, a not-very-matter-of-fact story unfolds in the English countryside in the years following World War I. John Madden, a war vet and an inspector with Scotland Yard, is sent to investigate the brutal murders of a couple and their servants at a secluded manor. Madden, who lost his wife and baby before the war, brings his emotional baggage to the job, but his outlook on life is challenged when he meets Dr. Helen Blackwell, a vivacious doctor who administers to the town surrounding the manor. As John begins to suspect a serial killer is at work, with Helen's encouragement, he looks into the relatively new and controversial area of criminal psychology for answers.This isn't much of a whodunit; the killer's pov is introduced about midway through the book, although it isn't clear he is the killer right off. But as the book develops, it becomes somewhat of a battle of wits as Madden and his team try to get the killer before he kills again. There's a thrilling climax, and the satisfaction in learning how all the pieces of the puzzle/loose ends all fit in. I'm looking forward to reading more of John Madden's adventures. In fact, I've got the next two on order.
joeltallman on LibraryThing 3 months ago
Much more assured than most first novels, and when you add in that it's a subgenre (historical) of a genre (mystery) full of embarrassing first novelists, it's amazing how well it fits snugly into its place and characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The setting is great and the time period lovingly recreated. The sex was unnecessary, however, and added little to the novel. ~*~LEB~*~
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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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