River of Darkness

by Rennie Airth

Published by Viking Press

400 pages, 1999


Search the Dark

by Charles Todd

Published by St. Martin's Press

336 pages, 1999










The War Back Home

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


Eight decades after the close of World War I, the significance of that conflict has been diminished in relation to later international clashes. The image of "doughboys" in their broad-brimmed helmets huffing across no-man's-lands strewn with barbed wire and awash in mustard gas now seems almost quaint, hardly connected with our high-tech, high-caliber era.

"The Great War," as its combatants called it, may have been one of the biggest events of the early 20th century, but it fails to dominate our memories in the same way that World War II and the Vietnam War do. This is especially true in the United States, which entered World War I late and lost "only" 114,000 servicemen in its battles -- fewer than half the number of Americans who perished during World War II.

Yet World War I proved devastating for the British. Both militarily and psychologically. In July 1917, at the Battle of Ypres (better known as the Battle of Passchendaele, after the Belgian town where it was fought), 70,000 British soldiers died and another 170,000 were wounded. This was a crushing blow, especially when lumped atop the disastrous Battle of the Somme, fought in France just a year before. With its 420,000 British casualties (60,000 on the very first day of fighting), the Somme marked "the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered," writes historian John Keegan in The First World War.

For many British soldiers, even the war's end and their return to civilian life did not bring them peace. Like those featured in a pair of enthralling new historical suspense novels, they were plagued by recollections of the shelling and the carnage, their lives irrevocably altered.

* * *

In River of Darkness, author Rennie Airth describes the war's after-effects on a Scotland Yard inspector named John Madden:

Madden lived with ghosts. They came to him in dreams, men he had known in the war, some of them friends, others no more than dimly remembered faces.

Most were the youths with whom he had enlisted, shop assistants and drapers, clerks from the City and apprentices. Together they had marched through the streets of London in their civilian clothes to the bray of brass bands, heroes for a day to the flag-waving crowds, full of pride and valour, none dreaming of the fate that awaited them in the shape of the German machine guns. Valour had died on the Somme in the course of a single summer's day.

Haunting Madden also are the spirits of his wife and baby daughter, lost to influenza not long before grenades started flying on the continent in 1914. All of these intimate encounters with mortality have left Madden taciturn and wearily pragmatic, yet oddly hopeful, anxious to find happiness again. Which he does in this novel -- the initial installment of a promised series -- but only after struggling to stop a remorseless madman who has brought some of the terror of the recent war back to the rolling English countryside.

It's the summer of 1921 ("The finest summer since the war!"), and detective Madden has been called to investigate the slaughter of a well-respected family in their Surrey manse. This extermination was obviously done quickly and deliberately, with some sort of bladed instrument. However, the motive is uncertain. It wasn't robbery, although some jewelry and household items are missing. Nor was it rape, apparently, though the woman of the house is found half naked, splayed across her bed with her throat cut. And what's the meaning of the mysterious whistle blast that one of the locals swears she heard around the time of the massacre? Speculation is that an armed gang or maybe Irish extremists are behind this incident, but nobody can say for sure. Not even little Sophy Fletcher, who witnessed the butchery and now lives in traumatized silence, compelled to draw, over and over again, the same crude image: what looks like a balloon with a string and two eyes.

Madden is a man who's hard to like and harder to know, living primarily within the torturous well of his own sadness, his repressed warmth showing, at the outset, only in his gentle behavior toward Sophy. But the inspector's diligence is easy to appreciate as he pursues what few clues he has to the Surrey murderer's identity. Assisting him are a green but eager young constable named Billy Styles; an extraordinarily understanding superior, Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair; and the fetching Dr. Helen Blackwell, who slowly reintroduces Madden to love while encouraging him to exploit the nascent science of forensic psychology as a means of tracking down his quarry.

After discerning that the slayer is an ex-soldier, who thoroughly stalks his targets from hidden, military-style dugouts before attacking, Madden links the Surrey tragedy to earlier unsolved crimes. It appears that the inspector has a serial killer on his hands (though that term wasn't used in those days), a psychopath who is refining his technique with each new homicide. If there's purpose to the man's atrocities, Madden is told by a Viennese psychiatrist, Dr. Franz Weiss, it may well be sexual in nature:

"Here is a man in whom [the sexual instinct] has been crushed, almost extinguished, for years. This is the river of darkness I spoke of. Now that it has broken free, nothing will check it. Shame, disgust, morality -- these are the normal barriers to perversions and acts of sexual desperation. But against the kind of force I see acting through this man they are helpless. He is driven by compulsion."

"You're saying he won't stop killing?" Madden nodded. "We've been afraid of that."

"No, I'm saying something different." Weiss shook his head sadly. "I'm saying he can't stop."

But at the same time as Madden peels away the assassin's anonymity, an arrogant, preening Yard superintendent connives to take over this high-profile case. And every day of Madden's investigation leaves the Surrey slaughterer that much more time to devise his next explosion of vehemence.

Airth, a South Africa-born journalist now living in Italy, with two previous novels to his credit (Snatch and Once a Spy), has an engaging but spare prose style that focuses our attention on this yarn's scene and plot details. His action sequences are tautly constructed, and he uses them judiciously -- to logically advance his tale, not just to keep bedtime readers from snoring off. Airth's historical atmosphere is skillfully wrought but lightly presented, never distracting from his storyline. The author's decision to parallel Madden's painstaking probe of the Surrey bloodshed with long, moving looks into the quotidian lives of the killer and his next set of victims prepares us for what savagery is to come, while exacerbating the horror of its impact when it does occur. And the manner in which Airth accelerates his plot toward a seeming and satisfying conclusion, only then to surprise readers with a still more shocking climax is nothing short of masterful. As if he was coached through his writing by the likes of P.D. James and Robert Goddard.

The only area I think Airth could have handled more dexterously is his buildup of the relationship between John Madden and Helen Blackwell. It simply accelerates too rapidly to be believed.

River of Darkness is serial-killer fiction the way it should be written, dwelling less on the shocking elements of brutality and more on developing the characters who are responsible for committing -- and, of course, curtailing -- that violence. I count Airth's book among the most arresting mysteries to be published thus far in 1999, and I envy those readers who have the chance to approach this novel for the very first time.

* * *

If you think John Madden bears psychological scars from World War I, consider the torments inflicting Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge. Author Charles Todd's protagonist in three period mysteries -- A Test of Wills (1996), Wings of Fire (1998), and now Search the Dark -- Rutledge survived the bloodbath of the Somme, but came home "shell shocked," his head filled with the omnipresent, mocking voice of a young Scottish soldier he'd had executed on the battlefield for refusing to fight. Now, every fictional detective needs somebody with whom to discuss his or her cases. But this is the only instance I know of in which that conversational partner happens to be imprisoned within the sleuth's own psyche. The adversarial relationship between Rutledge and his personal ghost, Hamish MacLeod, together with the inspector's frequent questioning of his own sanity, brings intriguing and extraordinary dimensions to Todd's series.

Rutledge's latest investigation, in Search the Dark, cuts a bit too close to his own fears and self-doubts. He's sent to the village of Singleton Magna in Dorset, where another shell-shocked veteran, Bert Mowbray, is in custody for homicide. Mowbray has allegedly killed a woman he'd spotted waiting with a man, two children, and their luggage on the local train platform -- a woman he claims is his wife Mary, despite official reports that all the members of his family perished during a German Zeppelin bombing of London three years before, in 1916. Mowbray's subsequent efforts to locate this woman in Singleton Magna proved fruitless. But when a corpse matching her description is found in a nearby cornfield, the police drag the disturbed ex-soldier into custody and call Scotland Yard for assistance. Rutledge's assignments: to figure out whether Bert Mowbray is a murderer and to find the children he says were with his wife at the Singleton Magna railway depot.

Mowbray, himself, is useless as a source of information about these gruesome goings-on. He's in a state of despair, suicidal, angry with a wife he now suspects deceived him cruelly about her death and the deaths of their children. (When Rutledge asks him whether he's to blame for his wife's demise, all Mowbray can scream is, "I can't remember!") The Dorset inspector in charge of this case, a gruff gent named Hildebrand, isn't of much greater use, being unwilling to entertain any analysis of the evidence that doesn't support his arrest of Mowbray.

So, Inspector Rutledge -- alternately helped and hampered by Hamish's observations -- begins asking around the vicinity, trying to discover anybody who saw Mowbray's wife and children, or who has the least notion of what happened to the luggage they were carrying at the train station. His questioning reveals that another woman has vanished from the area. It also leads him to the doorstep of Simon Wyatt, the once-ambitious scion of a politically powerful clan, who returned from the war with a French wife and no greater goal than to set up an obscure country museum of Indian and Far East artifacts. As Rutledge learns more about Simon, his appealing spouse Aurore, and his headstrong almost-fiancée Elizabeth Napier -- who, much to Aurore's dismay, has come out from London to aid Simon in organizing his museum -- the inspector becomes convinced that they are linked in some way with the mystery surrounding Bert Mowbray's wife. Perhaps through Simon's prospective (and also missing) museum assistant, comely Margaret Tarlton. Rutledge, a man who now lives a lie every day -- the lie of his competency as a police officer, despite his mental instability -- has grown to recognize untruths coming from others. And he sees them rampant about Singleton Magna.

Author Todd, whose fine, multi-textured evocation of the English countryside makes you forget that he actually lives on the East Coast of the United States, may never have encountered a complicated plot he didn't like. His previous novel, Wings of Fire, was so thick with characters and twists of motive that you almost needed a flow chart just to remember how everything fit together. Search the Dark's storyline isn't nearly so labyrinthine, and its cast includes more credible figures than Wings contained. I continue to be fascinated by Rutledge -- a lonely man of overly romantic sensibilities, whose brash determination to find answers eventually upsets just about everyone involved in his cases. And the insights Rutledge offers here into fellow vets Bert Mowbray and Simon Wyatt -- both of whom were perhaps more hurt by their military experience than Rutledge was -- make the inspector seem an even fuller, more compassionate player. About halfway through Search the Dark, for instance, Rutledge -- and Hamish, speaking from inside his head -- reflect on Aurore Wyatt's remark that her husband seems strangely more afraid of life than he had before he trudged off to war:

It wasn't a question of lacking courage. Surviving had frightened Simon. He hadn't expected to live. He couldn't comprehend how he deserved to live. And there was a feeling, deep down inside, that God would remember him one day and rectify the error....

"He's alive and so many other good men are dead [Hamish says]. There's a sense of guilt in that. It breeds fear of a different kind."

Although less riveting than either Todd's first Rutledge novel, A Test of Wills, or Rennie Airth's River of Darkness, Search the Dark is an indisputably well-conceived, carefully written police procedural. It transports you back to a postwar time when humans seemed shaken by their own capacity for mayhem. A time when coppers -- including troubled ones such as Ian Rutledge and John Madden -- were expected not only to solve a murder here or there, but in some indefinable manner, to show that order still existed in a suddenly less ordered, more dangerous world. | August 1999


J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.