Set in 1947, Airth’s latest novel takes us back to post-WWII England. The country still grapples with the effects of war and rationing, a slow recovery from the chaos and mayhem, and a welcome respite from the violence endemic to such a horrific event. When retired bank manager Oswald Gibson is found shot to death in Sussex, cut down while fishing from a river bank, local police are stumped with neither motive nor suspect. But when Billy Styles of Scotland Yard suggests there may be a link to another murder in Scotland—Mr. William Drummond, a physician assassinated in the same manner as Gibson—concern grows that the two deaths are somehow connected.
With a third, then a fourth murder (Tom Singleton of Oxford and General Sir Horace Canning, Ret., Knight Commissioner of the Order of the British Empire), there is no doubt that the killer is carrying out a private vendetta. Through tedious examination of Gibson’s private diaries, another name surfaces: retired Inspector John Madden, formerly of Scotland Yard. Though the reference to Madden is ambiguous, Styles asks his old mentor to consult on the perplexing cases. Madden in turn contacts his former supervisor, Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair, Ret., to learn what Sinclair can ascertain about the Drummond killing while in Scotland, hoping sufficient information will suggest the reasoning behind the crimes.
Though the reconnection of Madden and Sinclair allows Styles the benefit of their aggregate wisdom, he must answer as well to his current superiors. Through them, he requests the assistance of Detective Constable Lily Poole in the murder investigation, Poole proving invaluable to the case. After exhaustive research and interviews, the investigation turns to an earlier time: World War I and the significant battles fought in France in 1917. This is an era in Madden’s life he had hoped to relegate to distant memory, happily ensconced on his rural farm with wife Helen. But the past will not be put to rest while the killings continue and critical information remains out of reach, sealed by the government for reasons of security.
A country bravely fighting its enemies and losing precious lives to war is forever scarred by these years, many acts of bravery tainted by the unfortunate circumstances that drive men to extremes. While life goes on for some, Madden is forced to reexamine a troubling incident in which he was helpless to intervene on behalf of an unfortunate man, an event that comes home to roost years later in an England recovering from yet another devastating world war. Airth captures this sense of history and war, the resolute determination and fairness of a retired detective who hasn’t lost perspective or become jaded over time, retaining his respect for the basic humanity of every person.
The Madden novels portray more than the mysteries that drive them, drawing from the slower pace of years past to illuminate a society faced with the moral dilemmas that accompany actions in a time of war and the ramifications for future generations. There is always the excitement of the chase, the anticipation of a resolution, the final moments of danger, even death. But Airth’s work is consistently rich in character development and social awareness in the context of time. Madden, though past his active years as a detective, is a relevant protagonist, a mentor to the officers that follow in his footsteps. The Reckoning adds yet another volume to a solid series with a legion of loyal fans.