River of Darkness

by Rennie Airth

Reviewed by Susan Gillmor

River of Darkness by Rennie Airth A "river of darkness" describes the mind of the killer in this psychological thriller set in Britain in the aftermath of World War I, an intriguing debut to a mystery series which introduces Inspector John Madden of Scotland Yard, a complex and haunted veteran of the war. It also explores the infancy of criminal profiling. In 1921, most law enforcement personnel ridiculed the idea that Sigmund Freud’s theories of consciousness could be used to help identify a murderer, yet Madden and his Chief Inspector know intuitively that a scene of seemingly gratuitous slaughter has “got the smell of madness about it.”

“Madden lives with ghosts,” having survived the wife and young daughter he lost to influenza before the War as well as “the abyss of the trenches” where most of his comrades perished on the Somme. He finds “in the day-to-day demands of investigative work at least a partial shield against the charnel house of memories.” His protégé, awkward young Constable Billy Styles, provides heartwarming color and a few light-hearted moments through the dark alleys of the story.

Characters and historical setting are portrayed with tangible depth and detail, permeated by the atmosphere of a world wounded by carnage but struggling to emerge into hope. In the French countryside surrounding the Somme, “a street still pitted with craters” is lined with “heaps of masonry [that] marked the sites of ruined houses.” A country village in Surrey which shelters the killer is not yet accessible by roads that motor vehicles can navigate.

River of Darkness advances in surprising, sometimes shocking, directions. Although the mind and identity of the man connected with the killings, "a heavy presence" with "eyes like stone," is revealed early and with increasing depth, the knowledge never spoils the unexpected twists and turns of a novel that kept this reader turning pages ever faster, ever more pleased to know it has at least two sequels. (1999; 386 pages)

More about River of Darkness at Powell's Books or Amazon.com

Other mysteries set during the aftermath of World War I:

A Test of Wills by Charles Todd (1996), about a Scotland Yard inspector suffering from shell-shock assigned to investigate a case of murder in which the prime suspect is a friend of the Prince of Wales; #1 in the Inspector Rutledge mystery series. More info

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear (2003), in 1929 London, a former World War I nurse working as a private investigator takes a case with roots in the war; #1 in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series. More info

The Good German by Joseph Kanon (2002), about an American journalist who returns to Germany at the end of World War II, hoping to find a woman he had an affair with, and stumbles upon a case of murder. More info

Nonfiction about criminal profiling:

The Anatomy of Motive by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker (1999). More info

Profilers by John H. Campbell (2004). More info

Criminal Minds: Sociopaths, Serial Killers and Other Deviants by Jeff Mariotte (2010). More info


Dangerous Minds by Malcolm Gladwell, a New Yorker article about criminal profiling

Back to 20th Century: Europe Between the Wars

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