Author of the Month

Name: Rennie Airth

First Novel:

Most Recent Book: The Dead of Winter

'This book ... has certainly made my crime reading year...'

During the winter of 1944 with the country feeling fatigue from a long drawn out war, a young Polish girl is found brutally killed in one of the blacked out streets of London. The murdered girl was on leave to visit an Aunt in London but had been working on a farm. That farm belongs to a certain ex-Inspector John Madden. As the investigation proceeds there are more murders that bear the hallmark of the same killer.

As a dark cold winter grips the country in an icy embrace and people batten down the hatches to try celebrating another miserable, poverty stricken Christmas, John Madden finds himself being pulled deeper and deeper into the machinations of the mind of a killer.

With a denouement on Christmas Eve, Madden and his ex-colleagues from the Yard must try to stop a killer who will stop at nothing to continue his freedom from the law and justice.

After some years waiting, we are finally treated to a John Madden novel in the Ďso-calledí trilogy (although it would be a good idea to read the authorís Q&A to see if a fourth could be forthcoming!). I am delighted to say that The Dead of Winter more than delivers the high calibre we expect from this author. With River of Darkness we had an excellent start that continued in The Blood-Dimmed Tide. Now we have leaped twenty years since the first novel to a case that is as cold as the winter portrayed throughout the pages of this novel.

Airth paints a picture of despair as the war drags on, combined with the coldness felt by the citizens of Britain as they face another winter getting by on a meagre diet of rations. Describing an underbelly of London during these desperate times, Airth weaves a manhunt during a time when DNA hadnít even been thought of and forensics were not observed. With simple brain power and intellect into the way a killer operates, Madden and his colleagues - including the marvellous Billy Styles - are determined to track down their killer.

The Dead of Winter is an intelligent, beautifully written novel that rivals the pace of any of the usual serial killer/race against time novels that are usually found written from Ďacross the pondí. There are references to the two previous novels but you would not feel at sea if you started with this book. The author has allowed for people to climb aboard if not already acquainted with Madden and his past. This book has been a long time coming but it was well worth the wait and will thrill many a crime reading fan. It has certainly made my crime reading year Ė and weíre only in May!

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) What makes a truly great crime/thriller novel?
The usual answer is a combination of plot and character, and this is true, but other elements also come into play. Pacing is all important, how the story develops, and the ending is crucial; it has to satisfy the reader. Detail counts, of course, but not if itís overused - to my taste at least. Itís the story as a whole that matters. Does it convince?
2) Now that the crime/thriller genre represents the largest section of fiction sold in the UK, do you think we do enough to celebrate the quality and diversity of the writing?
Perhaps not. Thereís been a big boom in the genre, but it still tends to be treated as that, a genre, rather than a means of story-telling which allows writers to probe deeply into human behaviour, something the public has recognized and responded to.
3) You have decided to take large leaps in time with the John Madden trilogy. The Dead of Winter takes place nearly twenty years after the events in River of Darkness. Why did you decide to set this latest book so long after the events of the last two?
Mainly because I didnít want to be trapped in a long series following the
Usual pattern of Ďanother case for Inspector MaddenÖí (Not that Iíve got anything against long series, it just wasnít something I wanted to do.) Rather I tried to place Madden and those around him, his family, and his friends at the Yard, in the context of their time, and to see their lives develop quite separate from the mystery element. Hence the clear historical links which all three books have. The first takes place in the shadow of the Great War, the second against the rise of fascism in Germany and the looming threat of another war, the third with the Second World War itself as the background to the investigation.
4) All three of the Madden books have been cases involving what today would be termed a Ďserial killerí. Is there something that attracts you to write about people who kill without compunction?
One of the impulses for the first book in the series, River of Darkness, came
from an idle thought. I wondered how the problems set by serial killers were dealt with by the police before there were serial killers. i.e. before the term was invented. This also led to the creation of another character who appears in the first two books, Franz Weiss, the Viennese psychiatrist who Madden turns to for help in understanding deviant behaviour. But the pattern is different in the third book, THE DEAD OF WINTER. Here the murderer is a much colder character, not subject to the kind of compulsions common to the classic serial killer.
5) What other writers have influenced your work
This is a question I find hard to answer. How do you know what writers have
influenced you? The effect is largely subconscious. But masters of narrative Iíve responded to over the years include Rider Haggard, from my boyhood, and later Graham Greene, Simenon and the early John Le Carres. Among the Americans I particularly like Elmore Leonard and now John Sandford.
6) You have a highly readable, visual style and write with a strong sense of place - is this something you deliberately cultivated or was it natural to you?
A natural taste, I think, but not a natural gift. Would that it were. Most writing is hard work, I find. Few things come easily.
7) This series was always meant to be a trilogy. Is this the last case for John Madden or do you feel he and the rest of the cast have more to say?
I started out with the intention of writing a trilogy, but now I feel I have at least one more book to write about my characters. More than that, I canít say.
8) What led you to set this trilogy during the First and Second World Wars? Many readers will know this period well. Does this help or hinder you in telling the story? How much research was needed to get the Ďatmosphereí of the time just right?
I had read a great deal about the First World War before I ever started on the
series and it seemed natural to begin it in the years following the conflict. This more or less determined when the books that followed would be set. I canít see any drawback in readers being familiar with this period, in fact I welcome it. As for getting the atmosphere right, itís true I did a certain amount of research, but it was largely superficial: I wanted to get the flavour of the times right. Itís important, too, to think about how people spoke to each other, how they behaved. Iíve tried not to fall victim to anachronism. For anyone who is interested, the book I found most useful - for the first two books in the series at least - was The Long Weekend, a social picture of England between the wars, by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge.
9) In a dream scenario who would you like to direct and star in the film/TV adaptation of your book?
I canít really answer that. Being based in Italy, Iím out of touch with BritishTV and Iím not familiar with the new batch of actors and directors. If I had to picture an actor most like the John Madden of my imagination I would plump for Sean Connery when he was younger. In other words, an actor who is tall, rough-hewn and with a commanding presence.
10) Which is more important, great plot or great characters?
I think Iíve largely covered this in an earlier answer. But all things considered Iíd go for the characters being more important, it being generally recognized that there are only three or four basic plots while human nature is infinitely variable.
11) What is your favourite movie adaptation of all time of a crime/thriller novel?
Iíll choose two, one from my childhood when mysteries first began to interest me. That would be The Maltese Falcon. The second and more recent one is Donít Look Now, Nicholas Roegís movie of the Daphne du Maurier short story.
12) What is your favourite crime/thriller novel of all time?
Impossible to answer with one title only, but I think Thomas Harrisís first book in his series, The Red Dragon, was extraordinary, a brilliant exercise in slow-building terror, so Iíll go with that.

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