Inspector John Madden—who debuted in the acclaimed River of Darkness—returns in a gripping post–World War II murder mystery. Rennie Airth's The Death of Kings is now available from Viking.
On a quiet afternoon in 1947, retired bank manager Oswald Gibson is shot in the head while fishing. In Scotland, a respectable family doctor is killed in the same manner—and with the same gun. What is the connection? Scotland Yard’s Detective Inspector Billy Styles and local detective Vic Chivers are baffled until a letter from Gibson is discovered that might shed some light on the case—a letter concerning former Scotland Yard detective John Madden. Despite Madden’s legendary memory, he has no recollection of meeting Gibson or any idea of what their relationship might have been. Madden is happily retired from police work, but agrees to help his former protégé Styles and the clues they uncover only deepen the mystery. When a third man is killed in a similar fashion, Madden and Styles find themselves in a race against time to find the killer before another man ends up dead.
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Rennie Airth is the author of six novels, including the John Madden series. The first, River of Darkness, was nominated for Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity awards, and won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2014 by Rennie Airth
Lewes, Sussex, 1947
As he was fitting a new fly to his hook, Oswald Gibson looked up and saw two figures on the ridge above, both of them carrying what looked like fishing gear over their shoulders, long, cylindrical cases of the kind that you could fit two sections of a rod in.
They were coming over a saddle in the low green hills and, having spotted the grassy bank where Oswald was standing with his rod, were probably heading for that very spot. Upstream from a small pool where the trout paused, as though waiting for any tempting flies that might come their way, it was the best fishing site on the stream and one that Oswald had come to think of as his own.
And he knew what was going to happen next, almost as though it were fated. The men would turn up, they’d exchange polite greetings and then, after looking around and seeing that this was the place to be, they’d say, ‘Mind if we join you?’ and take out their rods, probably not even waiting for a reply.
And Oswald would say nothing. He’d make no complaint, not say that he did mind and would they kindly shove off and find somewhere else to do their angling. No, he’d stand there dumb and resentful, accepting – as he always had – his failure to stand up to others, unable to escape the vision he had of himself as one of life’s doormats.
‘For heaven’s sake, Oswald! For once in your life assert yourself.’ The words were inscribed in his memory as though on marble, which wasn’t surprising, given the number of times he had heard them. ‘Why do you let people walk all over you?’ He could hardly have replied that it was because he was a doormat (though he’d been tempted to, and more than once). Still, the whirligig of time brought in its revenges. (The saying was one of Oswald’s favourites.) Fresh in his mind still was the memory of the morning a year ago when he had come upstairs with Mildred’s breakfast tray and found her lying in bed, with her eyes staring and her mouth agape: stone-dead.
‘Stiff as a rod,’ he had murmured to himself in wonder as he’d touched his wife’s hand for the last time.
Meanwhile the men had crossed the saddle in the ridge and were coming down the hillside, close to where a flock of sheep were grazing, watched over by a dog. They were on a path that would join the one that ran along the valley floor, which in turn would bring them to his doorstep. Oswald braced himself for the encounter he was sure was about to take place. He could at least be cool with them, he thought: he would let them see they were not welcome. Perhaps they would take the hint and depart. As he stood there, already uncertain in his resolve, knowing in his heart that he was simply unable to deal with confrontation, he heard a piercing whistle and saw the sheepdog, a border collie, rise from the grass and begin to circle the flock it was guarding, coaxing them into movement. He scanned the hillside for their shepherd, a man he knew by sight, but it was some moments before he spotted him standing at the edge of a small copse near the crest of the ridge, his familiar figure blending with the shadow cast by the trees. For some minutes the sheep continued to move across the hillside, urged on by the dog, until a final whistle, different in pitch, brought it to a halt and the flock settled down again.
Distracted by the spectacle, Oswald had half-forgotten the approaching threat, but when he turned his gaze on the fishermen again it was to discover that he’d had a reprieve. During the minute or so that he had spent watching the shepherd, the pair had reached the intersection of the two paths, but instead of coming upstream to join him, as he had feared they would, they had gone in the other direction; in fact he could hear the sound of their voices growing fainter as they moved away. His solitude was preserved.
‘Well, thank heaven for that.’
With a sigh of satisfaction he turned back to face the stream and a moment later his line, with the fly attached, went soaring off in an arc to fall softly on the still surface of the pool. He felt better already.
Earlier that morning he had awoken from a fitful sleep still troubled by the memory of an uninvited visitor who had called on him the week before, a nosy intruder he’d never met or heard of, who had knocked on his front door and, without so much as a by-your-leave, had proceeded to question him, sharply at times, about some long-forgotten episode in his past. Names, dates, places – the questions had been fired at him like so many missiles, as if he could be expected to remember details of that kind after all this time; and when he had dared to object to the interrogation, he’d been assured that the enquiry had official backing – something he’d been unable to challenge, but suspected was true, as this new Labour government seemed to think it had the right to stick its nose into everything. Oswald had endured the ordeal sullenly. He had sensed the hostility of his questioner without being able to identify its source and for this reason had been as uncooperative as he dared.
In particular he’d neglected to mention the journals he had kept as a young man, when he had still thought his experiences might have some value – that his life might amount to some- thing – and which were gathering dust in a desk drawer. When his inquisitor had left at last, and without a word of thanks, he had dug them out and quickly found the volume that dealt with the events in question. Yes, there it was, the whole business faithfully reported in his own unique style, a mode of expression clear to him, but not to prying eyes (Mildred’s, for example). And although Oswald had been surprised by the amount of information his tormentor possessed, at least he’d been given an avenue to pursue: one possible means of getting to the bottom of what had been an unusually disagreeable experience.
Among the names flung at him, most of which he had forgotten, was one that struck a special chord in Oswald’s memory: not because it had seemed important at the time (on the contrary, he hadn’t even bothered to record it in his journal), but because he remembered some remarks this individual had made that prompted him to wonder now if the fellow was still alive and whether he could track him down. He’d be just the chap to ask about this so-called investigation, Oswald told himself: he would know, if anyone did, what lay behind it all. Finding him had been the problem, however. The only way Oswald could think to do so was to write to the man’s former employers on the off-chance they were still in contact with him. But although he had begun to pen the necessary letter, he had quickly lost heart and put it aside. What was he getting himself into? he had wondered. The truth was that he hadn’t enjoyed having his past raked up – not that bit, anyway – and when he’d thought more about it, and about his strange and unsettling interview with his recent visitor, he’d been inclined to let the whole matter drop: to let sleeping dogs lie.
But for some reason the business had continued to bother him. When, a few days later, he had travelled to Hastings to spend a long weekend with an old friend of his who had retired to the seaside town, he had found himself still dogged by the memory of his impromptu interview and, even before he set out to return home, he had resolved to talk the matter over with his elder brother, Ned. Ned was the person he turned to most often for advice and, as luck would have it, Ned was coming down from London to spend the following weekend with him.
Oswald looked at his watch. It was after five. Mrs Gannet, his daily, was usually gone by half-past four and he would have to wait until tomorrow to have a word with her about his weekend guest and how to feed him. With rationing still in force – and that in spite of the war being over for two years now – food was perpetually in short supply; fortunately Edna Gannet was a resourceful woman (and a great relief to have about the house after thirty years of marriage to the relentless Mildred) and Oswald was sure that somehow she would make ends meet. For one thing, there were the trout, which continued to attach themselves obligingly to his hook and line, and which were at least beyond the ration man’s reach. Only that afternoon he’d caught a fine specimen – it was still flopping in its death-throes on the grass bank behind him – and by Saturday, which was four days off, he might have caught more. The thought brought a grin to his lips as he sent his line winging over the water for the last time. Though something of a novice as an angler – he’d never had the time for it when he’d been married, Mildred had seen to that – he’d found he had an unexpected talent for the sport and, now that he was retired (and a widower to boot) and able to devote more hours to his hobby, he was reaping the re- wards of his determination to master its finer points.
Reeling in his line, he heard the shepherd’s whistle again, coming from the hillside behind him; this time he ignored it, continuing instead to gaze at the scene before him: at the willow trees on the far bank bending to touch the stream, and at the water itself, which still sparkled in the last of the sunlight. It had been a gem of an autumn day, with the October sun only now beginning to pale in the blue sky and the shadows starting to lengthen, and throughout the quiet afternoon Oswald had hummed contentedly to himself, as if in harmony with the chorus that came from a pair of ringdoves in the giant oak tree that overlooked the stream at that point, and whose spreading branches offered welcome shade. For many years he had been a member of the local choral society and for some weeks had been attending rehearsals for the concert of Gilbert and Sullivan favourites that the group planned to give at their annual autumn concert in a few weeks’ time.
Oswald had been picked to sing one of the solo numbers and had been practising hard.
‘A wandering minstrel I . . .’
As he bent down to collect his things from the grassy bank, stowing the trout in the old kitchen basket he used as a creel and gathering up the crumbs of his lunchtime sandwich to put in a piece of greaseproof paper, he broke into song.
‘A thing of shreds and patches . . .’
He searched about him for his tin of flies; he knew he’d put it down on the grass somewhere.
‘Of ballads, songs and snatches, And dreamy lullaby . . .’
Spying it some way up the bank, he began to move in that direction; but stopped when he saw a shadow fall across the tin.
Oswald looked up. Squinting against the setting sun, he saw the silhouette of a man on the bank above him. Dressed in hiking clothes – breeches of some kind – topped by a baggy sweater, he stood faceless in the shadow cast by his hat brim.
‘Yes . . . ?’
Uncertain as ever, Oswald hesitated – and in that moment recognition dawned on him and he stared, open-mouthed, as the figure moved, coming down the bank towards him with unhurried steps.
‘What in heaven’s name—?’
The question died on his lips. He had been gaping in wonder at the face beneath the hat brim. But then the glint of metal had caught his eye, and his heart had lurched.
The word was his last. Struck dumb in the last minutes of his life, in the grip not only of terror but of sheer disbelief, he could only stay where he was, planted like a tree on the bank, crouched over his knees, until he felt the cold touch of steel on his neck.
And then nothing more.
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