Written by Rennie Airth — We are in an England slowly trying to come to terms with the fact that, despite sitting on the victorious side of the table after a brutal war, it is in a mess. Food is still rationed. Whole districts of London and other major cities are bomb sites, with shattered buildings sticking up like decayed stumps in a ruined mouth. It is the autumn of 1947, and despite the austerity, the long suffering people are anticipating the forthcoming wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Phillip Mountbatten. In Sussex, far away from the former targets of the Luftwaffe bombers, Oswald Gibson – a mild-mannered retired bank manager – is fishing for trout on his favourite stream. He senses that he has company. He turns around to see who is disturbing his afternoon idyll. Seconds later, he is dead, with a bullet through his skull.
The local police identify the victim promptly, but can find no motive for the shooting. A detective from Scotland Yard arrives on the scene without being summoned, and explains that when news of the Sussex shooting reached London, it was horribly similar to another unexplained shooting in Scotland a month earlier. An unposted letter is found among Gibson’s papers. It is addressed to The Commissioner of Scotland Yard, and seeks the whereabouts of a former officer – John Madden. He will need no introduction to readers of this series. For newcomers, after distinguished service in The Great War, Madden went on to be one of the top detectives in the Metropolitan Police. Now retired to a Sussex farm, Madden joins the investigation.
As the police in both Sussex and London go round in circles, there is another shooting. A retired schoolteacher is shot dead while walking his dog on the banks of the river in Oxford. When ballistics reports from the three killings match, it’s obvious to Madden and his younger colleagues that deaths are linked. However it also dawns on Madden that he is linked to all three killings via a terrible event which happened in France 30 years earlier. The jigsaw starts to come together, but the police are literally seconds too late to prevent a fourth death.
Once the focus of the investigation changes, the police find a suspect and are able to identify the remaining potential targets. At this point, a spoiler alert must kick in. Suffice to say that the brilliant plot links two world wars, men and women placed in impossible situations, love, hate and, finally, revenge. Madden is a deceptively complex character. Despite his happy marriage, comfortable retirement and avuncular appearance, he is a man haunted by the past, reassured by the present, but fearful for the future.
One of the great charms of this book is the evocation of the period. Older readers will remember their childhoods when it was perfectly possible for people of their parents’ generation to have experienced both world wars. Details like coal fires, ration books and all-important public telephone boxes are all there. Readers for whom this is merely history will be drawn in by the brilliant description of a country ravaged by war, and slowly coming to terms with peace. This may be old school crime fiction, but it is far from cosy, and The Reckoning will grip readers from the first page to the last.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars