Book review: The Death of Kings by Rennie Airth

The Death of Kings by Rennie Airth
The Death of Kings by Rennie Airth
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The 1938 murder of a young actress was an open-and-shut case for Kent police… an itinerant farm worker confessed and was hanged for his crime. But was it a miscarriage of justice?

Former Scotland Yard Inspector John Madden is once again lured out his comfortable retirement in Surrey to investigate an intriguing case in the fifth book of South African born Rennie Airth’s beautifully written and atmospheric crime series set in post-war England.

This outstanding series, which harks back to the golden era of Agatha Christie, has won critical acclaim for its stunning historical detail and fascinating psychological insight into a country living through and now recovering from the turmoil of war, and The Death of Kings continues to impress with its authenticity and classical appeal.

In 1938, itinerant farm worker and local troublemaker Owen Norris confessed to the murder of small time actress Portia Blake in the grounds of Foxley Hall, wealthy landowner Sir ‘Jack’ Jessup’s grand estate near Canterbury. Despite later recanting his confession, Norris was quickly convicted and hanged for the crime.

Eleven years later, the reappearance of a jade necklace which went missing from Portia Blake’s body at the time of the murder raises questions about the case. Was Norris truly guilty or was he wrongly sent to the gallows?

At the request of former Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair, who was involved in the case and now fears that he was responsible for the death of an innocent man, Madden – with the approval of Scotland Yard – agrees to discreetly re-open the case.

Madden learns that Portia had been amongst a group of people visiting the Jessup estate and with the help of the late ‘Jack’ Jessup’s son, he tracks down the guests at that fatal weekend party and Portia’s former flat mate Audrey Cooper.

But as the investigation deepens and another woman is murdered, Madden’s search for the truth leads him to a deadly Chinese gang…

Airth is a master of character and plotting as he deftly, intelligently and compassionately explores timeless social themes like injustice, privilege, the immorality of capital punishment, truth and deceit.

In his latest case, the quietly determined and highly principled Madden is at the heart of a complex mystery that takes us from his rural home in Surrey to the idyllic countryside of Kent, the bomb-scarred streets of London and into the dangerous criminal underworld of the ruthless Chinese Triads.

The Death of Kings is not just fine whodunit crime fiction of old school quality – thoughtful, perfectly paced, intriguing and written with prose that is a joy to read – but also a superb evocation of the post-war period.

(Mantle, hardback, £18.99)