"It can't be him." After a chance meeting, a moment of recognition fills Greta Hartmann, a resident of a small village outside Westminster. Preoccupied after the church service where she is a beloved organist, Greta hastily returns home. Later that day, she is found floating in the shallow creek near her home. Most likely an accident, say authorities. It is only her housemate who refuses to except the theory, adamant that Hartmann was murdered.
While John Madden is on holiday with his wife, their houseguest, former Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair, travels to Westminster for a visit with Sir Wilfred Bennett. Learning of the recent death in the village, the whiff of mystery reminds Sinclair of his love for his former profession and how much he misses it. On his way home from the visit, Angus takes a small detour to locate a person of interest in Hartmann's death. The retired inspector's return home is complicated by an approaching storm, snow blocking every road and stranding the inspector with no means of communication with the outside world. Fortunately, a new acquaintance from his visit, the beautiful and wealthy Julia Lesage, invites him to weather the storm at her estate nearby until he can safely return home.
The passage of time is an element of Airth's post-World War II thriller, the weight of a desperately fought war laced with the horrors of the Nazi regime. Then there is the problem of Sinclair's heart condition, for which his physician, Helen Madden, has prescribed tablets to carry with him at all times. Ensconced in Julia's comfortable estate complete with service and a chauffeur, comfort grows tedious as Sinclair realizes his traveling friends have long since returned from holiday; meanwhile, he is cut off from regular telephone service. Unable to contact the police with whom he had begun to discuss Hartmann's potential murder, Angus feels a growing sense of menace in Julia's home, the young widow too carefully monitored by those meant to serve her.
Madden has indeed returned, dismayed to find his friend gone and no trace of his whereabouts. Soon he is tracking the recent movements of his former boss, discovering the disturbing details of Hartman's demise. Madden harbors a growing suspicion that a murderer is lurking somewhere in the Cotswolds, perhaps even at Wicker Manor, Julia's secluded home.
This is an old-fashioned police procedural, peopled with Airth's familiar characters, set in the troubled atmosphere of post-World War II, where modern conveniences have yet to change the face of official investigation. Serious cases, like murder, are conducted within the limitations of the technology, communication at the mercy of time and weather, the world still reeling from the death and atrocities of war.
As in his other post-war thrillers, Airth captures the essence of the times, the slow recovery of a world after siege and the regulations of a murder investigation. The pace of events is dictated by time, technology and the vagaries of weather--a refreshing change from the nonstop intrusion of the world today. The lessons remain consistent: the curtailing of criminal activities by those dedicated to protecting the innocent, man's affinity for destruction pervasive and deep-rooted. The boundaries feel cleaner, better defined. Madden and Sinclair are honorable men; the world is of one mind in the face of evil; and Rennie Airth reminds us of the importance of the struggle to remain vigilant against the abuse of power.