sylleptic: Ada Lovelace from the 2dgoggles webcomic, posed with her pipe and a giant cog behind her (Default)
[personal profile] sylleptic
So, I mentioned the possibility of book reviews. Here goes nothing.

While I was home recently, I read The Dead of Winter, the third of Rennie Airth's John Madden mysteries. (No, there is no football anywhere in them. Different John Madden.) The series started out as between-the-wars British mysteries, of the sub-sub-genre in which the detective, like his country, is badly traumatized by the First World War. Unlike most such series, though, there was actual recovery and progress, and this latest one has made it up to World War II.

It's set in a very atmospheric London of 1944, where a young Polish woman is murdered during a blackout. The police investigate, but more people quickly start turning up dead. John Madden, long since retired from Scotland Yard, gets involved in the case because the first victim worked on his farm as a Land Girl.* Feeling that he has somehow failed her, he helps his old partner, Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair, investigate the murders.

The plot is twisty, but perhaps overly-reliant on coincidences. It always kept me interested in the next revelation about the killer, however, and managed to retain some mystery even after the detectives learned his identity. The book is an odd hybrid of suspense and straight-up mystery, and the tension was built quite well. (Note: an excellent, if perhaps cliched, way to make your readers nervous is to introduce a group of innocents who apparently have nothing to do with the mystery midway through the book. Also, leave lots of hints about how isolated or vulnerable they are.) The writing trod the line of mystery and suspense fairly delicately, making me anxious without sacrificing the puzzle aspect of a good mystery, though the guns Chekhov hung on the wall were pretty obvious at times. I like Madden and Sinclair, the two main investigators, as well as several of the minor characters, though a few of them verge on caricatures. Sinclair is somewhat more the focus than in the previous books, but that works well.

Short review: it's a well-written, fairly well-plotted mystery with aspects of suspense and good returning characters.


I'm beginning to sense a couple of patterns in these books. First, the killers are always crazy and always kill a lot of people before they're caught. In the first book, it was a serial rapist/killer whose first victim was his mother, and who was really out of his mind. I don't remember the second, except that there was a lot of discussion of the new ideas of this fellow Sigmund Freud. In this one, the killer turns out to be a sociopath who has worked as a paid assassin on the Continent, and was unnerving even as a child. This book is a bit less focused on the killer's psychology than the first, but there's a fair amount of characters wondering out loud how a person like that exists and what his mind is like. I'm not quite sure what to make of this, except that it's an aspect of the books I'm not wild about.

Second, the killer can't be stopped until Madden has engaged in a hand-to-hand, life-and-death fight with him. This pattern actually isn't just Airth, though he's certainly guilty of it -- I've seen it in other mystery/suspense stories. I could tell by about halfway through the book, though, that that was where it was heading, which I found a little irritating. Shootouts are not good enough for this trope; if there are any weapons involved they must be primitive. The murderer is almost always killed in the fight, either by the detective (defending himself or an innocent), or by someone else saving the detective's life.

I can't tell why this convention is so popular. Is it some primitive need to have the good guy physically subdue the villain? (In this case, though, Madden is about to be shot when the cavalry arrives, so that theory won't entirely fly.) An echo of Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls? (Though I haven't seen any modern instance where the detective is killed -- I'd be fascinated if one exists.) Or is it just that the writer has built up so much tension and suspense that he or she feels it can only be released by a violent struggle?

On a much more cheerful note, Helen, the country doctor Madden married in the first book, remains awesome, though she gets a fairly small role in this one. As a fan, I often watch and read looking for subtextual relationships, but in this case I really can't figure out how else Airth intends readers to interpret his descriptions of Madden, Sinclair, and Helen. They're clearly all close friends, and Sinclair seems to visit the Maddens fairly regularly. When he retires at the end of the book, he even goes to live essentially next door to them.

We're repeatedly told (in third-person limited) how much Sinclair valued his old partner Madden, and that he was initially angry at Helen over Madden's decision to leave Scotland Yard. But Sinclair is also definitely fascinated by Helen and at least a little in love with her, which she knows. There's no sense that either of them would even contemplate an affair, but practically the last line of the book is that one of Sinclair's biggest reasons for moving nearby was that he now knew Helen "would always be a part of his life". So, clearly a threesome, yes? I can't figure out any other good way to read this.


* I forgive Airth for this coincidence, since Madden has only "happened" to encounter two murder cases since retiring from the police force. That's stretching the bounds of plausibility, but not too badly. (Michael Innes, I'm looking at you.)

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sylleptic: Ada Lovelace from the 2dgoggles webcomic, posed with her pipe and a giant cog behind her (Default)
sylleptic

January 2013

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