Airth, Rennie 1935–
Airth, Rennie 1935–
* Indicates that a listing has been compiled from secondary sources believed to be reliable, but has not been personally verified for this edition by the author sketched.
PERSONAL: Born 1935, in South Africa.
ADDRESSES: Home—Italy. Agent—Caroline Dawnay, PFD, Drury House, 34-43 Russell St., London WC2B 5HA, England.
CAREER: Author. Worked as a journalist for the Reuters news service.
AWARDS, HONORS: Grand Prix de Litérature Policière and Edgar Allan Poe Award finalist from Mystery Writers of America, both for River of Darkness.
Snatch!, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1969.
Once a Spy, Cape (London, England), 1981.
The Blood-Dimmed Tide (second in the "John Madden" trilogy), Viking (New York, NY), 2005.
ADAPTATIONS: Plans are in progress by the British Broadcasting Co. (BBC) to adapt the John Madden novels to television.
SIDELIGHTS: Rennie Airth is a former journalist whose first novel, Snatch!, features Harry Brighton, a crook who lives in Rome and sells forged passports. Brighton joins con man Jonathan Morland in a scheme that involves switching babies and collecting a fortune for the return of the child of a wealthy financier. Alberto, who was rented to be the substitute, is cared for by Paula, and in the epilogue Brighton says he wrote the book to earn money to care for Paula, Alberto, and himself after the plot failed. New York Times Book Review contributor Allen J. Hubin observed that the humor "derives from situation rather than wit." Snatch! was deemed "thriller of the year" by a Times Literary Supplement reviewer.
The central character in Once a Spy is Blaney, the owner of a security agency who, as a young man, was in British intelligence. Blaney had been involved with an undercover group that targeted a high-level Russian official in West Berlin, an operation that ended badly. Now, seventeen years later, the members of the group are being killed, and the head of the Secret Service enlists Blaney's aid in solving the puzzle. Blaney leaves his business in the hands of his female assistant and lover, who has convinced him to stop smoking and eat healthy, but whose main goal may be to take over the business. Listener contributor Marghanita Laski called Once a Spy "more serious" than Snatch! and considered it a problem that the numerous names are difficult to associate with their characters. Laski concluded that the story "is clever and well made" but hoped that Airth's next book would be "more cheerful." "The novel which is funny, convoluted and tense displays more brain than brawn in the telling," wrote Harriet Waugh in Spectator. Times Literary Supplement contributor T.J. Binyon called Once a Spy "subtle, ingenious, and neatly fashioned."
Airth based his third novel, River of Darkness, on a family scrapbook dedicated to an uncle who died in World War I. The story is set in the 1920s and involves serial killings. Booklist reviewer David Pitt commented that "readers who are looking for smart, well-plotted psychological mysteries will be delighted" with the story. The protagonist, John Madden, is a World War I veteran and a man grieving over the loss of his wife and child from influenza. Now a Scotland Yard detective, he is faced with the horrific murders of a family in pastoral Surrey. As Madden investigates the stabbing deaths, he discovers that the killer has used a bayonet in correct military fashion in murdering all but one of the victims. Helen Blackwell, the town doctor, the victim's best friend, and soon Madden's love interest, invites him to a lecture by a Viennese psychoanalyst from whom she hopes they can learn how to understand the killer's motives and patterns—this during a time when psychiatric theories were seldom applied to understand the minds of killers.
The killer in River of Darkness is Amos Pike, a decorated war hero who had fought in the third battle of Ypres, during which 300,000 British troops were killed, many from poison gas. Pike has been shaped by the violence he witnessed during the war and has only one instinct left: to kill. He saw a man beheaded by German artillery and others die slowly all around him. When Pike was found after days of lying in mud, his rescuers had to break him out of the hardened shell that had formed on his body. A Publishers Weekly contributor explained that the plot shifts back and forth between Madden's investigation and Pike's plotting for his next kill, reporting that "the gifted Airth builds suspense from elements that, with fascinating period authenticity, give the book the feel of a Christie or Du Maurier mystery." Christopher Dickey wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "the inspector is admirable and sympathetic. But it is … Pike, the murderer, whose personality dominates River of Darkness. He's a true creature of violence, made by it and for it." Dickey noted that the killer is known from the beginning of the novel, "and we are made to wonder only when and how he'll kill again, and when and how he'll be caught. All the broad outlines are predicable…. It's the tactics and terrain, the morale and the characters that make the difference between an average thriller and one as good as this." Library Journal reviewer Nancy McNicol felt that fans of Thomas Harris will enjoy River of Darkness, and added that they "can take heart in knowing that another Madden tale is already in the works."
Winning the Grand Prix de Litérature Policière and nominated for an Edgar Award, River of Darkness was a strong debut for Airth's planned trilogy featuring Madden. With the second installment, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, patterns begin to emerge in the trilogy, including psychopathic serial killers and the deeper theme of "a civilization disintegrating under economic and political pressures too monumental to be alleviated by traditional methods," as Mitzi M. Brunsdale described it in a Strand Magazine online review. In the case of The Blood-Dimmed Tide, Madden returns to work after retiring to investigate the brutal rape and murder of a twelve-year-old girl. He soon discovers a pattern of killings linking similar murders in both England and Germany. Airth combines a vivid 1930s setting, psychological insight into his murderer, and a humane perspective that takes time to show the effects on the victim's family in this novel, all facets that critics praised. Although a somewhat slow beginning to the story, which reminded some reviewers of Agatha Christie's mysteries, might prove to be a challenge for some readers, the "humanity [of the tale] pulls readers in and keeps them even during repetitive or dull spots," asserted a Detroit Free Press contributor. Brunsdale particularly praised the "brilliant denouement reaffirming the powers of decency and morality."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Best Sellers, April 15, 1969, review of Snatch!, p. 32.
Booklist, May 5, 1969, review of Snatch!, p. 1060; April 15, 1999, David Pitt, review of River of Darkness, p. 1466; June 1, 2005, David Pitt, review of The Blood-Dimmed Tide, p. 1759.
Detroit Free Press, August 3, 2005, "'The Blood-Dimmed Tide' Tosses the Typical Police Story."
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), May 22, 1999, review of River of Darkness, p. D11.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1999, review of River of Darkness, p. 548; April 15, 2005, review of The Blood-Dimmed Tide, p. 452.
Library Journal, March 1, 1969, review of Snatch!, p. 1023; May 15, 1999, Nancy McNicol, review of River of Darkness, p. 123; July 1, 2005, Nancy McNicol, review of The Blood-Dimmed Tide, p. 58.
Listener, August 20, 1981, Marghanita Laski, "Blessed Releases," review of Once a Spy, p. 184.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 20, 1999, Eugen Weber, "L.A. Confidential," review of River of Darkness, p. 13.
New York Times, August 1, 1999, Christopher Dickey, "The Bad Soldier," review of River of Darkness.
New York Times Book Review, June 1, 1969, Allen J. Hubin, "Criminals at Large," review of Snatch!, p. 23; August 1, 1999, Christopher Dickey, "The Bad Soldier," review of River of Darkness, p. 10.
Observer (London, England), March 9, 1969, review of Snatch!, p. 29.
Publishers Weekly, May 3, 1999, review of River of Darkness, p. 65; June 20, 2005, review of The Blood-Dimmed Tide, p. 60.
Spectator, April 4, 1969, review of Snatch!, p. 446; June 27, 1981, Harriet Waugh, "Thrillers," review of Once a Spy, p. 25; April 3, 1999, Kate Grimond, review of River of Darkness, p. 38.
Times Literary Supplement, April 24, 1969, review of Snatch!, p. 448; June 19, 1981, T.J. Binyon, "Criminal Proceedings," review of Once a Spy, p. 710.
Washington Post, July 25, 2005, Patrick Anderson, review of The Blood-Dimmed Tide, p. C3.
Curled Up with a Good Book, http://www.curledup.com/ (December 13, 2006), review of The Blood-Dimmed Tide.
Mystery Reader, http://www.themysteryreader.com/ (December 13, 2006), Jeri Wright, review of River of Darkness.
Romantic Times, http://www.romantictimes.com/ (December 13, 2006), Toby Bromberg, review of River of Darkness.
Shots, http://www.shotsmag.co.uk/ (December 13, 2006), John Escott, review of The Blood-Dimmed Tide.
Strand Magazine, http://www.strandmag.com/ (December 13, 2006), Mitzi M. Brunsdale, review of The Blood-Dimmed Tide.