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by Rennie Airth
Macmillan, May 2009
409 pages
16.99 GBP
ISBN: 0230714846

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When a Polish woman, Rosa Novak, is found murdered in London in late 1944 the policeman heading the enquiry, DCI Angus Sinclair, is astounded to find that she had been working as a Land Girl on the farm of his old boss and friend, John Madden. Inevitably Madden becomes dragged into the investigation, which is handled on a day-to-day basis by DI Billy Syles, who also knew Madden of old. It soon becomes clear that they are on the trail of an exceptionally ruthless killer, and that the origins of the crime lie in events which happened on the Continent before the War. But as they dig deeper they find links to even older pre-First War events in London, in the days when Madden was a humble constable. Their prey proves to be vicious and elusive, taking care that he leaves no-one alive who might give a clue as to his identity. But Madden's memory and intuition, together with the work of his police colleagues, including the determined young policewoman Lily Poole, gradually tighten the net, leading to a dramatic final confrontation.

THE DEAD OF WINTER is the third book in the John Madden trilogy which has taken a decade to appear (RIVER OF DARKNESS in 1999 and THE BLOOD-DIMMED TIDE in 2003 were the first two); the disadvantage of these lengthy delays is that readers with less than perfect memories (and I am certainly in that class) are somewhat unlikely to remember much of the previous books when they come to this latest one. Another problem which confronts this final entry in the series is that WW2 books are now very much in vogue, so something exceptional is needed to stand out from the crowd. In some ways it could be argued that Airth achieves this by writing in a very traditional way. THE DEAD OF WINTER brings no retrospective analysis, little insightful sociological observation, no real psychological depth and even beyond these absences there is the fact that there is no particular mystery, let alone compelling puzzle, here either. It is true that there is one plot twist but it is hardly substantial, let alone stunning. Instead we have the slow tracking down of the killer and unravelling of his story. The pace is, for the most part, a little ponderous. There are large chunks of expository dialogue which seem, like the book as a whole, reminiscent of a different era of mystery writing.

However it is also in the book's traditional feel that its strengths lie. There is both solidity and the comfort of feeling in the grip of a straightforward narrative. The vast majority of the characters whom we encounter are good; indeed only the villain is truly bad, although he is very bad indeed. The satisfactions of this kind of narrative, which plays upon fairly simple emotions, are above all those of the happy ending which leave one with a feeling of considerable emotional satisfaction. THE DEAD OF WINTER in fact is comfort reading of a most traditional type. It would function even better in this respect if one were more closely involved with the characters which is where the distance between the books in the trilogy becomes relevant; few readers, as previously remarked, are likely to retain much memory of books (or their characters) published six and ten years ago. Comparisons may be invidious but they are also inevitable. World War 2 is now a very fashionable period for mystery writers, and, more specifically, the London of 1944 is also the backdrop to the recently published, and excellent, AN EMPTY DEATH by Laura Wilson. When placed side by side with a book such as this, THE DEAD OF WINTER, for all its traditional virtues, seems as much stolid as solid.

Reviewed by Nick Hay, August 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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