The Dead of Winter by Rennie Airth

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The Dead of Winter by Rennie Airth

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Iain Wear
Reviewed by Iain Wear
Summary: A fairly slow moving, but beautifully layered story. The characters are well developed and the scene set wonderfully around them.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 460 Date: May 2009
Publisher: Macmillan
ISBN: 978-0230714847

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A few years ago, I read Christopher Fowler's Full Dark House, a detective story partly set in the midst of the Blitz. The restrictions imposed by being in the middle of a major city at war put a different spin on solving a crime and I'd never read anything quite like it until I came across Rennie Airth's The Dead of Winter, which was set under similar circumstances.

During the blackout, an Air Raid Warden in London bumps into a young woman out alone. A short while later, he literally stumbles across her dead body. It appears to be a crime without motive and with very few clues. With police resources already stretched by the war and by criminals taking advantage of it, it's a crime that looks likely to remain unsolved. Especially as witnesses are murdered almost as quickly as the police can find them.

However, the murdered woman worked for John Madden, a former police inspector now retired and living as a farmer in Surrey. Feeling some responsibility for someone under his care, Madden is keen to help the police in any way he can. But as more and more victims turn up on London's darkened streets, it appears that this was more than just a single, opportunistic murder. The deeper they dig into the original crime, the more hidden the original motive seems to become.

The story is wonderfully layered, with almost every chapter seeming to add another aspect or provide a new avenue to the crime. Thanks to the slow burn of the story, these twists are often quite gentle and make the whole thing seem more complex, as the reader has longer to consider them before the next comes along. Rather than being a rollercoaster ride, the pace is more like a Tour de France rider going up a mountain stage, being far more measured and considered, but still leaving you wondering who will come out ahead at the end.

Whilst I have a personal preference for the faster paced thrillers, in this case the slower pace worked perfectly. The pace of life was slower in these times, particularly outside of the city where Madden was based. At some points, it did seem that things were moving too slowly, but once everything came together, I found it was well worth the wait. The ultimate ending did seem to come at a bit of a rush compared to what had gone before, but this didn't affect my enjoyment of the story.

As well as having a gentle pace, the way the characters were slowly built up also worked very well. Due to the setting, the characters were older than in the average police thriller, often forced into service beyond their years thanks to the war. This meant the slow pace of the story seemed quite natural, more like an Agatha Christie mystery or an episode of Inspector Morse than something out of The Bill. With the complexity of the mystery meaning it took some time to unravel, the slow progress towards the conclusion was very fitting.

I also enjoyed the character development, as this was also done quite gently. Airth swaps between the London and Surrey locations, building up all of the characters and their parts of the story slowly. You get to know everyone a little at a time, which feels more natural. Whilst the physical descriptions aren't terribly vivid, Airth almost spoon feeds their personalities piece by piece and I felt as if I was really getting to know them as people. The characters also have a sense of companionship and togetherness in a common cause which, as well as matching the feeling of the wartime setting, makes the whole cast of characters seem very likeable as a group. The contrast Airth builds into the emotionless loner who is the villain draws a clear line between him and those trying to catch him and, in common with the rest of the book, does so more subtly than in many such stories.

If there was one slight down side, it's that with the book being part of a series, there were references back to past events that suggested much that was missing here. Whilst this didn't seriously hamper my overall enjoyment of the story, some of them were frequent enough and large enough that they interrupted the flow of the story. There were a few moments where I felt I was drifting along with the book and then one of these references suddenly stood out, like a large rock in the middle of a stream.

As someone who tends to enjoy the cut and thrust of many crime thrillers, I wasn't expecting to enjoy The Dead of Winter as much as I did. However, it's so wonderfully crafter and pieced together than this gentler pace of things soon seemed very natural. It does seem a little slow at times, but after a while the pace of the story felt quite relaxing. It's almost deceptive at points, as whilst it's a slow paced story, it's readable enough that you suddenly realise that the pages have been turning very quickly. As a change of pace from what seems to be the norm, this was a wonderful read. As a well-crafted and well thought out crime novel, it's a wonderful book in that regard as well and worth a read.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For another crime novel set in the Blitz we can recommend Ashes to Ashes by Barbara Nadel.

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