By Rennie Airth
Viking, $26.95, 368 pages
Perhaps the darkest memories of war are of the courts-martial that lie in its bloody shadows, especially when they are cast in the stone of injustice.
In “the Reckoning,” a grim recollection of an even grimmer past, Rennie Airth evokes the postwar atmosphere in Britain after two world wars that stripped the nation of its manpower and much of its sense of superiority. His plot stretches across half a century yet focuses on the terrible days of World War I, when hundreds of thousands of men died unnecessary deaths in the trenches of France. Some were executed in courts-martial of questionable justice and those became a permanent memory in the minds of those who lived.
He writes of apparently random murders and the fragile cobweb of clues that bind them to an execution that came about because of the incompetence and cowardice of the military commander. Now retired Detective Inspector John Madden is again the man on the track of the killers, and it is especially chilling for him since he discovers that he was reluctantly involved in that long-ago court-martial that was never forgotten by those seeking to avenge it. The murders are clever, and skillfully carried out, yet it is still true that there are clues to be found, and Madden is the man to find them, even at the risk of his own life.
Mr. Airth’s cast of police characters is admirably drawn. It even includes a female police officer who was among the first of her kind in an indisputably man’s world. Getting a black eye is one of the first things the indefatigable Lily does right. Yet what is fascinating is how the clues slowly knit together, with what seems the least important suddenly becoming a key development — as in never underestimate anyone selling a Hoover.
Apart from the strength of Mr. Airth’s characterization, he is especially good at creating the real world in which investigators live. While making inquiries on what becomes a series of cold-blooded shootings, he also helps supervise the renovation of the house occupied by his wife’s Aunt Maud, who is 93 and still takes no nonsense from anyone, especially noisy workmen determined to rewire her bedroom.
It is fascinating that a woman with no real connection to the killings proves to be essential in her recollections of a long-dead friend and, more crucially, the friend’s daughter, Alma. It was Alma’s mother who was obsessed with the husband she thought had been honored for his gallantry. However, the collapse of that cherished legend and its replacement by disgrace is what obsesses Alma and sends her on a deadly course.
The character of Alma, who is steeped in anger and revenge, is excellently done. She is not just a murderer. She is obsessed by a rage that can only be resolved by death and, unfortunately for her victims, she is a former Resistance worker in France who developed an icy indifference to whom she had to kill. Alma’s logic is terrifying, especially because she is so good at what she does. She even hates those who know too much, like the architect who might once have known her as a human being. It is also logical that Madden is one of her targets, simply because of his presence at a terrible event and not because he approved or condoned it. Alma has the singleminded philosophy of a psychopath, and what makes Madden’s character so engaging is his sad understanding of the doomed creature with whom he is dealing.
Mr. Airth relives the postwar bitterness that afflicted Britain twice in the 20th century, when it seemed to some that winning the war was not enough, and that it had cost far too much. Even those who survived to continue with a normal life still paid a price for what they had done and even what they had seen.
Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.