The Rhythm of Life: The Decent Inn of Death by Rennie Airth
The latest in Rennie Airth’s Detective John Madden series is The Decent Inn of Death (John Madden #6) (Penguin, January 2020). With many ingredients of a locked-room mystery, the novel has Madden trapped in a snow-bound country house with an endangered victim and a handful of suspects. The book perfectly evokes a British winter in the 1950s.
In this series, Airth follows Madden across several decades of the 20th century, rather than restricting his adventures to one period. “I decided from the start that I would move the series on in time. I wanted to set the plots against a changing social background and give some colour to the main characters’ lives outside whatever investigation they were involved in. Madden marries and has a family, the chief inspector grows older and retirement looms. I don’t go in for deep research: what I try to do is picture the rhythm of life at the time. The ordinary physical facts – the clothes people wore, the cars they drove etc. – are easy enough to check. What was more important to me was how they behaved and interacted, in particular how they spoke to one another, and in this last respect I had my memories of my father to call on. He was roughly of the same generation as Madden and I had the advantage of being able to ask myself whether he would have expressed himself in the same way, whether he would have used this or that figure of speech.”
Women take a more central and active role in the Madden stories than readers might expect from police procedurals set in the first half of the 20th century. “It’s a mistake,” says Airth, “to think of women as being generally downtrodden until the great feminist movement which began in the last century. There have always been strong-minded women active in society going back through literature and history – think of Shakespeare’s women for example. In the first of the series Helen [Madden’s wife] is a crucial character and I chose to make her a doctor at a time when women doctors were still relatively few in number. Without her it’s doubtful whether Madden would have been able to recover completely from the mind-numbing effects of his time in the trenches. It is she who tells him he is making a mistake trying to block out the memory of his dead comrades. ‘We have to remember before we can forget,’ she tells him.”
Airth has also created a very determined policewoman for the series. “Lily Poole is one of my favourite characters. Not surprisingly it is she who has to endure the full effect of male chauvinism, which was rife in the police force at the time.” These female characters have not been introduced to make a particular statement. “I didn’t create these characters from ideological conviction: I just think the stories work so much better with women like this in them.”
Despite Airth’s background as a foreign correspondent, “the Madden books are firmly rooted in the Britain of the inter-war and post-war years and probably reflect the time when my imagination was first captured by the magic that books seemed to hold. I fell in love with the great story-tellers – Kipling and Rider Haggard – early on and moved on from them to other fiction of the day and when I came to try my hand at novels I felt drawn to that period.”
Madden, an intelligent and reserved investigator who has been affected by his Great War service, is partly developed from the legacy of Airth’s uncle as recorded in a family scrapbook. “I knew very little about my uncle, only what I learned from my father who was his younger brother, and the scrapbook in question, which was put together by his parents, my grandparents, was mainly made up of old snapshots, school reports, and most touching of all the brief letter they received from his commanding officer after he was killed.” Airth discovered the scrapbook at a pivotal time. “It so happened that when I came on the scrapbook among some old family possessions I had already been reading a good deal about the Great War as it came to be called. In particular a book called 1914 by Lyn Macdonald caught my interest. Based almost entirely on the accounts of survivors, and on their letters home and diaries, it was deeply moving and together with the scrapbook formed the seed of what would later become the Madden series.”
Airth’s detective is emblematic of returned soldiers across the ages. “As for Madden himself, he personifies for me, among other things, the demons which men who came back from the trenches still had to fight before they could resume a normal life, a battle that many of them could never win.”
The consideration of how historical events affected ordinary people is one of the more engaging aspects of these books. “Finally, there was something else that struck a chord with me and made me think of those left at home who had to wonder if their loved ones would ever return. In the case of my grandparents they received two telegrams from the War Office in the same week: the first told them that their elder son had been killed in battle, the second that his younger brother (my father) was missing. In the event, he had the good luck to be captured, but they did not learn this for some time.”
“What must they have felt?”
About the contributor: Clare Rhoden, a writer and reviewer from Melbourne, Australia, holds a PhD for her study of Australian Great War literature. Her WWI novel, The Stars in the Night, was published by Odyssey Books in 2019. Clare blogs and reviews here.