Book: The Blood-Dimmed Tide

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The Blood-Dimmed Tide: A Novel

Author: Rennie Airth
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)

With The New York Times Notable Book River of Darkness, Rennie Airth established himself as a formidable master of suspense. Now, in The Blood-Dimmed Tide, Airth returns with a macabre tale, filled with fascinating historical detail, of the social struggles of post–World War I Britain and the looming menace of Hitler’s Germany.

It is 1932, and former Inspector John Madden leads a quiet life in rural England with his wife and children—until a young village girl is savagely murdered. The crime catapults Madden into the grisly world of a brutal killer. Along with his former colleagues at Scotland Yard, Madden soon finds himself enlisting the help of the British secret service and the German police. Together they use the burgeoning science of criminal psychology in order to grasp the workings of the twisted mind of a cunning, sophisticated murderer—but can Madden prevent him from killing again?


Rennie Airth’s first John Madden historical thriller, River of Darkness, found a place on more than a few “best of the year” lists in 1999—with good reason. Set in post-World War I England, it was serial-killer fiction of an unusually exalted order, with Madden, then a taciturn and wearily pragmatic veteran-turned-Scotland Yard inspector, investigating the eerie slaughter of a well-respected family in Surrey.

Fortunately, Airth’s first sequel was worth the six-year wait. The Blood-Dimmed Tide (which takes its title from a W.B. Yeats poem) finds Madden now retired and living peacefully on a farm in Surrey with his doctor wife, the former Helen Blackwell, and their two children, 10-year-old Rob and 6-year-old Lucy. The year is 1932, and the precipitous rise of the Nazis in Germany leaves many of their fellow countrymen, as well as no few Brits, worried for the future peace and stability of the European continent. More immediately concerning for Madden, however, is his discovery of the corpse of pubescent Alice Bridger—raped, disfigured, and secreted near a tramps’ backwoods campsite. Suspicion falls quickly on a vagrant known as Beezy, who was supposedly visiting the area, but Madden—with his remarkable insight into crime (“Madden’s always had a way of seeing things clearly, of seeing through them, or rather beyond them,” relates a former police colleague)—thinks this is more than an isolated homicide. Sure enough, a records check turns up similar slayings elsewhere in England, dating back to 1929, as well as an active investigation by German law enforcement into half a dozen dead girls in Bavaria and Prussia. What accounts for both the wide range of these mutilations, and the lengthy lag time between them? Could the police be looking for a psychopathic traveler, or worse, a rogue spy who’s managed to maintain a respectable front at his international postings, while satisfying his malevolent appetites in his spare hours? And what is the “devil’s mark” that this killer reportedly bears?

Airth is a fastidious plotter, expert in trickling out twists that heighten story tension but don’t leave readers awash in red herrings. Although Madden’s role here is somewhat less than it was in River of Darkness—a consequence of his strong-willed wife trying to protect him from further hurt, after the horrendous events of that previous tale—the author compensates by giving us a supporting cast of amply dimensioned Yard types, led by Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair, a perceptive Scot whose doggedness pairs well with Madden’s gift for inspiration. While Airth fails, oddly, to exploit a couple of opportunities for interesting plot turns at book’s end, his psychological portrait of the murderer imbues Tide with a fine pathos, and the backdrop of Nazi power-grabbing sets the stage for what is supposed to be a third and final Madden yarn. Let’s hope that novel appears in more expeditious fashion. —J. Kingston Pierce

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