John Madden comes out of retirement in post–World War II Britain to help solve a case from his past.
Hikers enjoying the countryside near the Sussex town of Lewes see a slightly built man in a red sweater approach Oswald Gibson as he’s enjoying a peaceful day of fishing. But no one sees when Gibson is ordered to kneel and is shot execution style, and no one sees the killer leave. Chief Inspector Detective Billy Styles orders a thorough investigation and police search, but the murderer seems to have vanished. Besides noting similarities between Gibson’s death and that of a doctor in Aberdeen, Styles finds a letter Gibson was writing to Scotland Yard to inquire about the whereabouts of John Madden, the former detective who taught Styles his trade. Madden doesn’t recognize Gibson from the photographs the murdered man’s brother shows him, and the only clue so far is that Gibson and the Scottish doctor were both shot with identical bullets, German-made with iron cores. The execution of a third man confirms the killer’s pattern of visiting the victims in advance, apparently to establish their identities before delivering the coup de grace. Then an entry in Gibson’s diary gives Madden the link he needs to the killer and to his own past: a tragic incident he tried and failed to prevent during World War I. Now he realizes he’s in search of someone skilled at deception and disguise and who won’t stop until all the parties involved pay for a long-ago injustice. Although the exposition, interspersed with scenes from Madden’s domestic life, is leisurely, momentum builds to a satisfying ending.
Madden’s fourth case (The Dead of Winter, 2009, etc.) maintains Airth’s reputation for carefully constructed, highly detailed plots. Although the hero doesn’t dominate the present-day action, his past involvement adds an emotional element to his determination to end the killings.