Monday, July 4, 2011

A is for Airth: Rennie Airth

Mystery Readers Journal's latest issue focuses on London Mysteries II: Crime fiction set in London. This issue is available as a PDF and in hard copy. For more information and the table of contents, go HERE. This article appeared in the London Mysteries II issue of MRJ. Perfect for the Author Alphabet Meme here on Mystery Fanfare 

A is for Airth: Rennie Airth

Rennie Airth's work has been translated into more than a dozen languages and has been nominated for the Edgar Award in the US, the Historical Dagger award in Britain and won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in France. Born and educated in South Africa, he spent his early years working in journalism, first for the Johannesburg Star and later for Reuters as a foreign correspondent. His postings included Washington, Havana and Saigon. Turning from journalism to fiction, he wrote Snatch and Once A Spy before starting work on the John Madden trilogy, an idea that came to him after he found a scrapbook devoted to an uncle of his who was killed in World War I. 


Although the books I've written in the Madden series are sometimes described as historical, I prefer to think of them as heralds of the modern age. Historical for me means men in funny hats and people travelling in horse-drawn carriages. Once women's skirts rose above ankle length the old world crumbled.

The idea of embarking on the Madden series came some years ago from an idle thought: how would the police have dealt with the problem posed by serial killers before they were recognized as such—before the very concept of forensic psychology had been developed? By chance, at around the same time I happened to be going through some old family albums and came across a scrapbook kept by my paternal grand-parents in memory of their elder son who was killed in the First World War. Paging through it I discovered something I hadn't known before: that the telegram they had received advising them of his death had arrived the same week as another from the War Office informing them that their second son, my father, who like his brother was an officer in the British army, was missing. Luckily he proved to have been captured, but I was struck by how appalling these twin blows must have been to them at the time and from that point on I began to read more about that terrible conflict and the scars it left on society. These two trains of thought came to-gether and eventually led to the first of the Madden books, River of Darkness, in which the psychological damage inflicted on both protagonists, hunter and hunted, by their experiences in the trenches plays a major part in the story.

I'd resolved from the start, too, that I wouldn't get trapped in a long series following the usual pattern of one case after another. Rather, I wanted to place Madden and those around him—his wife and family, and his colleagues at Scotland Yard—in the context of their time; to see them grow older and their lives develop quite apart from the mystery elements in each story. Hence the clear historical links which all three books have. The first, as I said, takes place in the shadow of the Great War, the second, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, against the rise of fascism in Germany and the looming threat of another war, while the third and most recent, The Dead of Winter, has the bombed-out ruins of London in the closing months of the Second World War as a backdrop.

Mystery writers are sometimes asked which they think is more important—plot or character; I would unhesitatingly plump for the latter. Of course it's necessary to have a good story; apart from anything else it prompts the reader to keep turning the pages. But there aren't that many plots when you think about it, only variations of them, while human nature is infinite in its variety. I set out from the start to give my characters lives larger than the stories they happened to be caught up in and to watch them as they developed over a period of time that now spans more than two decades.

That said, getting the atmosphere right, avoiding anachronism, is always crucial in books set in the past. The physical side is easy enough. It's not difficult to bone up on what people ate, how they dressed, what cars they drove etc. But what's more important is determining how people behaved to one another. At the time when my books are set, particularly the earlier ones, they were generally politer than now, more gentle. Set against that, however, was the hierarchical nature of society, a product of the notorious British class system. Certainly there was too much forelock-touching for our taste, too much deferring by the so-called lower classes. But all this was a necessary part of the books' atmosphere. Mostly it boiled down to how people spoke to one another and in that I was helped by my memories of my father, who grew to manhood in that period. Whenever I wrote a piece of dialogue I was uncertain about, I'd ask myself how it would have sounded to his ears. Or, better still, would he have put it that way?

To return to the question I started with—how the police might have hunted a serial killer then—I resolved early on to introduce a form of 'profiling' into my plots, while recognizing that this would have been resisted by diehard elements in the police force at the time, and for that reason I created the character of a Viennese psychoanalyst, Dr. Franz Weiss, who appears in the first two books. A pupil of Freud's, he is able to offer invaluable advice to the detectives investigating the series of murders, and being Jewish he also becomes a symbolic figure in the second of the two stories as the Nazi party comes to power in Germany. It was through the character of Weiss that I was able to explore the roots of Amos Pike's murderous impulses in psychological terms recognizable to a reader of today, though perhaps not to one of the time in which the book was set. He became to my mind like the dark figure in Yeats's poem, slouching not towards Bethlehem certainly, but perhaps into our modern consciousness.

Although this piece is included in a 'London Mysteries' issue, in fact the capital plays only a small part in the Madden books. True, there are periodic glimpses of Scotland Yard and readers of the series must be well used to the view of the Thames and the tree-lined Embankment it offers. And the third book does feature a London damaged by war and bone-weary of the long struggle. It's a city I never knew, of course, and barely recognizable in the present-day metropolis. But the image we all carry of London in those days, with the bombs falling and the searchlights piercing the night sky, is so familiar that even as I was describing them I half felt I'd been there.

However, most of the action in the books takes place in a still unspoiled countryside, and this is deliberate. The image of terror stalking the fields and quiet country lanes of England seemed a potent one, given that the books' overarching theme is the change brought about by the First World War: not simply to society but to the very way we think about ourselves. Still suffering from the after-effects of his experience, Madden is one of the few to understand the dire message of the carnage inflicted in the trenches. That now we truly know ourselves and the world will never be the same.

Philip Larkin summed it up best in a marvellous poem titled 'MCMXIV.' He pictured a crowd of men, moustached, good humoured, waiting patiently in long lines, happy to be setting out on what seems like a holiday. He doesn't say why they are there, but we're told what they are leaving behind—the familiar shops and pubs, children at play, flowering fields; and marriages that will last 'a little bit longer'—and we soon sense without being told that that this is 1914 and they are enlisting in the army. He ends the poem with a single, devastating line:

Never such innocence again.

Following this Mystery Author Meme? Be sure and check out B is for Block: Lawrence Block