Thursday, 30 September 2010

"Dead of Winter" by Rennie Airth

I have just completed this, the last volume of the John Madden trilogy - though let us hope that Airth changes his mind and writes some more.

I can remember being bowled over by the first book, River of Darkness, which is the one I would recommend for starters, although each story is self-contained. Despite the first book having been published as long ago as 1999, and having won acclaim and prizes in other countries, Airth remains a neglected author in this country - why?

Perhaps because his books, despite being extremely well written, are somehow viewed differently in England because they are policiers. We have had this debate before on this blog, with reference to things like SF and historical fiction.

Perhaps because we seem to be awash with crime fiction, as the shelves of any public library reveal. While this is a testament to the enduring appeal of the genre, it must be admitted that much of it is indifferently written at best, and some downright appalling.

More likely, though, because in an increasingly illiterate and ill-read society we are now completely in thrall to television, and thus to what has or has not been adapted for TV, and there seems little rhyme or reason to this. Neither Airth nor Fowler, who are both very good writers, have been taken up, whereas Dexter and Wingfield, neither of whom would pretend to any great literary quality, have.

Don't get me wrong. I admire both the Morse and Frost TV series but what those viewers who have not also read the books may not realise is (1) that in neither case is the character portrayed on TV the same as that depicted in the books and (2) the books themselves, if one comes to them cold, are unremarkable, whereas both Airth and Fowler's books stay with you long after you read them, even for someone who reads as many books as I do (about 250 a year).

This was particularly so in the case of River of Darkness, which was written partly from the point of view of a deeply disturbed individual, and was gripping, chilling and horrific yet still managed to engage the reader and draw them in. This was in no small measure due to the excellent characterisation, particularly of the central character, Madden who returns from army service in the First World War to resume his job as a detective. Others have used this device, but none so sympathetically as Airth.

So, Airth's relative obscurity in his adopted country (he was born in South Africa) must remain a mystery, but there is no further excuse for not being "in the know". Go out and read these books. You will not be disappointed.

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