With the publication of the New York Times Notable Book River of Darkness, Rennie Airth established himself as a master of suspense. The Blood-Dimmed Tide, set in 1932, marks the return of the beloved Inspector John Madden, whose discovery of a young girl's mutilated corpse near his home in rural England brings him out of retirement despite his wife's misgivings. Soon he finds himself chasing a killer whose horrific crime could have implications far afield in a Europe threatened by the rise of Hitler. A riveting, atmospheric, multilayered mystery, this intense and intelligent tale more than delivers on the promise of Rennie Airth's first thriller.
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ONLY CHANCE brought the Maddens to Brookham that day.
Earlier, they had driven over to Reigate to attend a luncheon party and in the normal course of events would have returned directly by the main road to Guildford. But the fine weather had tempted them to break their journey in order to climb a narrow bridle path that led up the steep slopes of Colley Hill to the top of the North Downs.
It was a walk they had made many times before - the view from the crest was justly famous - and for more than an hour they had strolled arm in arm in the late summer sunshine, pausing now and then to gaze out over a wide sweep of southern England, a patchwork of fields and hedgerows and woods extending to the distant horizon.
A land at peace in that year of 1932.
By the time they returned to their car, however, the afternoon was well advanced and they had found the main road clogged with slow-moving Sunday drivers out for a spin. It was then they had decided to make a detour and to return home by quiet back lanes.
Madden had driven with one eye on the road ahead and the other on the darkening sky. A bank of clouds had been massing in the west for some time, and although the harvest was over and the haymaking done, a hailstorm now would do costly damage to crops of vegetables still ripening in the fields.
Glancing up through the windshield, he might have driven past the line of cottages without noticing anything was amiss if Helen hadn’t touched his arm.
They were passing through a small hamlet called Brookham, still a few miles from home. A group of men had gathered in front of one of the cottages in the row. Some were in the garden, others outside the fence. An air of expectancy hung over them.
Madden stopped the car.
‘What is it, do you think?’ Helen was a doctor and her first thought had been that her services might be needed.
Madden made no reply. The scene struck a chord in his memory. It had a grim familiarity, albeit one he hadn’t encountered for many years.
At that moment the door of the cottage opened and the uniformed figure of a police constable emerged from within. Tall in his helmet, he towered over the men before him.
‘Good lord!’ Helen gasped in astonishment. ‘It’s Will!’
Will Stackpole was the village bobby at Highfield, where they lived.
‘What on earth’s he doing over here?’
Unwilling to hazard a guess, Madden simply shook his head.
But already he felt the chill of premonition.
The child’s name was Alice, Will Stackpole told them. Alice Bridger. She and a friend had set out shortly before midday to walk to the neighbouring village of Craydon, little more than a mile away, along a path bordering the road that linked the two.
‘They were going to have lunch with a friend there and then all three of them were going to a birthday party later.’
Catching sight of Madden and Helen as they got out of their car, the constable had left the group of men and crossed the road at once to speak to them, his forehead grooved with worry. He had made no secret of his relief at seeing them.
It seemed that Alice, recently turned twelve, and her friend, a girl named Sally Drake, had got only halfway to their destination when Sally realized that she’d forgotten to bring the birthday present her mother had wrapped for her that morning - it was a box of homemade fudge - and had dashed back to Brookham to fetch it, leaving Alice at a point on the path where it ran alongside a stretch of densely forested land known as Capel Wood.
They had agreed that Alice would wait for her there, Sally said later, but when she got back - after not more than ten minutes - there was no sign of her friend. Thinking she must have decided to continue without her, Sally had gone on to Craydon herself, only to discover that Alice hadn’t arrived at their friend’s house and no one had seen her.
‘The family rang the Bridgers and Fred walked over to Craydon himself, looking for his daughter,’ Stackpole told the Maddens. ‘He’s the dairy manager on a big farm hereabouts. Anyway, they were going to ring the local bobby when they remembered he was away on leave, so they got in touch with me, since I was next nearest. That was three hours ago.’
As the constable was speaking, thunder rumbled in the distance. Meanwhile, the men gathered across the road had turned to watch them and Helen saw that their glances were directed towards her husband. Before their marriage Madden had been a policeman himself - a Scotland Yard inspector - and his name and reputation were widely known in the area.
‘There’s been no shortage of volunteers wanting to help,’ Stackpole said, mopping his brow. With the approach of the storm the air had grown still. ‘We’ve been up and down the road, searching the fields on either side, and the wood, as well, but there’s no sign of the lass. All we found was her gift.’
‘Her gift?’ Helen asked.
‘The present she was taking for the birthday child. A pair of mittens wrapped in coloured paper. It was lying in a ditch by the path, near to where the other girl left her.’
Helen glanced at her husband. Madden had shown no reaction so far. He’d simply listened. ‘Where are the Bridgers?’ she asked.
‘Fred helped with the search, but he’s gone to join his wife now. Some of the women have been keeping her company. That’s their cottage.’ The constable gestured behind him. He wiped his brow again. The strain of the past three hours was beginning to show.
‘Has her doctor been notified, Will? Brookham’s in David Rowley’s practice, I think.’
‘He turned up half an hour ago and gave her a sedative. Then announced he’d be on the golf course, if needed.’ Stackpole’s lip twitched.
‘He won’t be there much longer,’ Helen remarked as lightning streaked the advancing clouds, followed by another rolling boom of thunder. ‘I’ll go and see her myself.’ But increasingly uneasy, she stayed where she was, her arm linked with her husband’s, unwilling to leave him now.
‘Is there anything I can do, Will?’ Madden spoke for the first time. He, too, was aware of the glances being directed at him. He had already nodded to one or two of the men whom he knew by sight.
‘Thank you, sir, but I’ve rung Guildford and they’re sending reinforcements. It looks as though we’ll have to widen the search area.’
‘What about detectives?’ Madden’s scowl was unconscious. It signalled his concern.
‘I’ve asked for them, and I’m told a couple of plain-clothes men are coming.’ Stackpole grimaced in turn as he caught the other man’s eye. ‘Ah, there’s nothing worse in this job, is there, sir? Nothing so bad as a child gone missing. All we can do is put out the word to other stations and keep looking.’
Distressed though she felt, Helen was relieved to hear that her husband wouldn’t be needed. She pressed his arm. ‘I’ll go and see how Mrs Bridger’s doing,’ she said, but just then her attention was caught by something she saw on the other side of the road, and she paused. The front door of a cottage near the end of the row had opened and a sandy-haired man had come outside. He was looking about him in an agitated manner.
‘Isn’t that Dick Henshaw?’ she asked. ‘He and Molly used to live in Highfield. She was a patient of mine.’
Stackpole glanced round, and as he did so the man caught sight of him and hastened in their direction. ‘That’s Dick, all right.’ The constable frowned. ‘Now what’s this about, I wonder?’
He moved away and the two met in the middle of the road. Taller by a head, Stackpole had to bend to listen to what the other man was saying. They stood like that for perhaps two minutes while Madden and his wife watched from beside their car.
Abruptly, the constable wheeled and came striding back to them.
‘It seems I’m going to need your help after all, sir.’ He spoke to Madden in a low, controlled voice, but there was no disguising the urgency of his manner.
‘What is it, Will? What’s happened?’ Helen’s fingers tightened on her husband’s arm.
‘I’ll tell you in a moment, Miss Helen. But could you come with me now, both of you? Just move away quietly. I don’t want that lot over the road getting wind of this.’
Accompanied by Henshaw, they walked up the lane to the end of the line of cottages and then, following the constable’s lead, joined a path that went around the back of the houses. As soon as they were out of sight of the men, Stackpole halted.
‘Run along and tell Molly we’re coming, Dick. And mind you keep this quiet now.’
He waited for Henshaw to move out of earshot. But Helen couldn’t contain her anxiety.
‘What is it, Will?’ she whispered. ‘What’s this about?’
The constable shook his head in frustration. ‘I can’t say for sure. All I know is there’s an old friend of yours sitting in Molly Henshaw’s kitchen and he’s acting strange.’ He eyed them meaningfully. ‘It’s Topper,’ he said.
Helen’s eyebrows rose at the name. She glanced at her husband. ‘I didn’t know he was back. We’ve been expecting him for weeks. I was starting to get worried.’
‘Has he seen the girl?’ Madden asked urgently.
‘That’s just it, sir. I don’t know...’ Stackpole’s face was grim. ‘There’s some business about a shoe. Molly’ll tell us more. But the thing is, he’s gone silent. She can’t get a word out of him. Now you know old Topper. One sniff of a police uniform and he’ll close up tighter than a clam. So what I was wondering, sir, is would you try? See if you can get him to open up.’
As he waited for an answer, thunder boomed out again, louder than before, and the afternoon light dimmed still further.
‘I’ll try if you want me to, Will,’ Madden said, after a pause. He sounded dubious. ‘But you’ve got the wrong person.’ Smiling, he glanced at his wife. ‘Helen’s the one to ask. If he’ll talk to anyone he’ll talk to her.’
‘THANK GOODNESS you’ve come, Will.’ Molly Henshaw’s plump, motherly features were flushed with distress. Before Stackpole had even unlatched the gate she appeared at the back door of the cottage, with her husband behind her, and came hurrying across the bricked yard to meet them. ‘I can’t keep old Topper sitting still any longer. He’s all for running off. Dr Madden ... !’ Her face lit up when she saw Helen and she bobbed her head in greeting.
‘Molly, dear! How are you? What a dreadful business this is.’ Helen took her hand. ‘Have you met my husband?’
Molly Henshaw’s reply was drowned in a clap of thunder. Stackpole glanced anxiously at the heavens.
‘Quick now, love, before we go inside - tell us about this shoe. Did Topper give it to you?’
‘Give it me?’ She appeared not to understand the question.
‘Of his own accord?’ Madden spoke for the first time, and she stared at him as though she had not yet taken in his tall, commanding presence.
‘Oh, I see what you mean - yes, sir, he did.’ She nodded vigorously. ‘He knocked on the door - it must have been half an hour ago - and I asked him in. We know Topper, Dick and I.’ She nodded to her husband beside her. ‘He’s been coming to these parts for years, usually in the summer. If there’s something needs doing in the garden he’ll lend a hand, otherwise I’ll just give him a meal and a cup of tea. He never says much. Sometimes you don’t get a murmur out of him. But he likes to sit here with us. I reckon he knows he’s welcome.’
‘The shoe, Molly,’ Stackpole urged her.
Mrs Henshaw bit her lip. She wiped her hands nervously on her apron. ‘I could see he was bothered about something as soon as I opened the door, but I wasn’t surprised, not with all the fuss going on. I brought him inside and right away he went and sat down in the corner. Then I noticed he was carrying something in his hands, both hands, and when he held them out to me I saw what it was ...’
‘A child’s shoe?’
She gave the barest nod.
‘Do you know that it belongs to Alice?’
‘Oh, no, not for sure.’ She swallowed. ‘But Jenny Bridger brought her a new pair only the other day. Alice came and showed them to me. They were shiny black with pearl buttons on the straps, just like the one Topper brought.’
‘But he wouldn’t say where he’d found it?’
‘No, nor anything else.’ Molly Henshaw dabbed at a teary eye. ‘So I gave him a cup of tea to keep him occupied and ran outside to look for Dick.’
‘We’d just come back from the fields, Will, and I saw Molly waving to me.’ Her husband took up the story. ‘She told me what had happened and I went in to see Topper myself, tried to get him to talk. But it were no good. He wouldn’t say a word. So I came to fetch you.’ Noticing the tears that were coming down his wife’s cheeks now, Henshaw put his arm around her shoulders. ‘There, there, old girl,’ he said gruffly. ‘Don’t take on now.’
Stackpole caught Helen’s eye, his glance bright with urgency.
‘Molly, dear, could we go inside now?’ She pressed the hand she was holding. ‘I need to see Topper myself.’
The room lay in shadow, the only illumination coming from a shaft of dull grey light entering through the back window. It fell on the kitchen table, where a child’s shoe, black and shiny, showed starkly against the scrubbed wooden surface.
Surveying the scene from the doorway, Helen heard the murmur of Stackpole’s voice. It came from the hallway at the front of the cottage. He was speaking on the telephone to the Surrey police headquarters in Guildford. Madden stood behind her in the narrow passage, out of sight of the shabby figure seated on a straight-backed chair in the far corner of the room. She felt his reassuring hand on her shoulder and reached up to press it with her own. Then she crossed the room to where Topper was sitting.
He showed no awareness of her approach. Well into middle age, or perhaps past it - his white-stubbled cheeks were deeply grooved - he sat slumped in the chair with his chin resting on his chest and his hands loosely linked on his knees, seemingly oblivious of his surroundings. Like others who’d encountered the old tramp in the past, Helen knew him only as Topper, a name that derived from his hat, a battered piece of evening headgear, cracked at the brim and missing half the crown, but given a jaunty, individual air by the addition of a cock pheasant’s tail feather stuck in a red velvet band. The manner in which he wore the hat - square, and pulled down low - gave it the appearance of a permanent feature, and he was seldom seen without it. Dressed in a black cloth jacket over striped trousers, his feet were shod in heavy boots, worn down at the heels and tied with a combination of string and broken shoelaces.
‘Hullo, Topper,’ she said softly.
At the sound of her voice he lifted his head. She drew up a chair beside him.
‘How have you been?’
He gave a slight shrug, but made no other response.
‘Are you well?’
He nodded. A smile came to his lips, and he fixed her with a look of shy affection.
‘We missed you at harvest time. Why haven’t you come to see us?’
‘Was coming ...’ The muttered words brought a faint gasp from the doorway behind Helen where Molly Henshaw had appeared and was watching them. ‘Had to meet Beezy first ...’
The tramp nodded again.
‘Who’s Beezy? Where were you meeting him?’
Topper’s grey eyes lost focus. He looked away.
Helen regarded him in silence for a few moments. Then she took his left hand in hers. ‘Let me see your arm.’ She pushed up the sleeve of his jacket and then the threadbare flannel shirt beneath it, revealing a fresh scar fully six inches long running from the top of his wrist up the back of his sunburned arm towards the elbow. She ran her fingers lightly over it.
‘Look, Molly,’ she said over her shoulder. ‘That’s where Topper cut his arm last year. He was helping us with the haymaking and his scythe slipped. I had to sew him up.’
‘You fixed it ...’ The old tramp chuckled. He brought his eyes back to hers. ‘You mended old Topper.’
‘It was a nasty cut, but it’s healed well.’
Still holding his hand in hers, and continuing to stroke his arm, she spoke again. ‘You were right to bring the shoe, Topper. But we need very badly to know where you found it. Can you help us?’
The fingers she was holding stiffened and she saw the fear in his eyes. His glance shifted and went past her shoulder. She looked round again. Madden had come quietly into the room with Molly Henshaw. Stackpole’s uniformed figure hovered in the doorway behind them, and when Topper caught sight of it his eyes fell. He slumped lower in the chair.
‘Now none of that,’ the constable rumbled. ‘You know me, Topper. There’s no need to take on.’
Helen turned back. ‘The shoe,’ she said in a low voice. ‘Where did you find it? You must tell me, Topper. Please ...’ She had kept hold of his hand, and after a moment she felt renewed pressure on her fingers. When she bent closer he whispered in her ear.
‘What was that?’ She struggled to hear his husky murmur. ‘Did you say Capel Wood?’
Behind her, Stackpole stiffened in the doorway. ‘We’ve already looked there,’ he muttered to Madden. ‘Is he sure?’ he asked Helen.
‘Capel Wood?’ She repeated the name clearly and looked into the tramp’s eyes for confirmation. He nodded. ‘Would you take us there?’ she asked. ‘Would you show us where you found it?’
A tremor went through his body and his grip on her fingers tightened. He shook his head violently.
Helen studied his face for a few moments. Then she leaned close again. ‘Whereabouts in the wood, Topper?’
Silent at first, he simply stared at her. But then, as though drawn by her steady gaze, he bent forward and whispered to her once more.
Helen glanced behind her. ‘By the stream, he says ...’ She rose and came over to him. ‘Will, this is going to take a long time, and I’m not even sure how much more I can get out of him.’
A scowl crossed Stackpole’s features. ‘Sir?’ He addressed Madden. ‘Could we have a word?’ The two men went out into the passage. The constable gestured. ‘What do you think, sir? Should I try and squeeze him harder?’
Madden shook his head. ‘Helen knows him better than anyone. You’d be wasting your time.’
‘By the stream ...’ Stackpole grimaced. ‘It’s not much to go on. And we’ve already been there. There’s a path that runs alongside it. It goes through the wood. I took some men and we walked the length of it, calling her name. Once you get off it you can’t see three feet in front of you.’ He shook his head in despair. As he glanced at his wristwatch, a flash of lightning lit the dim passageway for an instant, and the answering peal of thunder set the windowpanes in the kitchen rattling. ‘Well, those detectives from Guildford will be here soon. Better wait for them, I suppose ...’
His glance seemed to suggest another course of action, however, and Madden responded to it. Despite the formality of address which the constable insisted on maintaining towards him, they were friends of long standing.
‘No, we can’t do that, Will. We must get out there right away. I think Topper found more than a shoe.’
THE FIRST fat drops of rain splattered the windscreen of Madden’s car as he turned off the paved road onto a rough track that ran through hedgerows and overhanging trees around the dark flank of Capel Wood. The dull grey afternoon light had changed to a deep leaden gloom. Black, swollen clouds were racing in from the west.
‘Won’t be long now,’ Stackpole predicted, squinting up through the glass. He glanced behind him at the roll of canvas lying on the back seat as though to reassure himself of its presence there. It was Madden who’d suggested they bring it with them.
‘I don’t know what we’ll find, Will, but you may need to cover the area.’
The piece of tarpaulin had been provided by Dick Henshaw. He’d used it to patch a hole in the roof of his cottage the previous year when a number of shingles had blown off in an autumn gale. While he was fetching it from the garden shed Helen had come out of the kitchen to talk to Madden.
‘I must go and see how Jenny Bridger is. I won’t say anything to her about Capel Wood.’ She eyed her husband unhappily, upset to see him becoming involved. Madden’s life as a policeman lay in the distant past, and it was one she did not wish to recall. To the constable she added, ‘You’d better keep an eye on Topper, Will. He’ll slip off if he gets the chance.’
Stackpole had charged both Henshaws with this duty and cautioned them to say nothing to the neighbours until the reinforcements from Guildford arrived.
‘I don’t want word of this spreading. Not till we’ve gone over there and seen what there is to see.’
‘Please God you find her,’ Molly Henshaw had murmured as they departed.
The hope - it was more of a prayer - that the child might be no worse than lying injured and in need of succour had lent speed to their preparations, but glancing at Madden’s expression as he steered the car down the narrow, rutted lane, Will Stackpole felt they shared the same grim premonition as to the girl’s fate.
‘We’ll be taking the same route Topper took, will we?’ Madden’s low voice was barely audible over the sound of the car’s motor as they ground along in bottom gear.
‘Yes, sir. If he was heading for Brookham he’d have come into the wood from the other side and walked through it on the path, the one that runs by the stream. It leads straight to Brookham.’
They’d debated taking this same path themselves, following Topper’s route in reverse and walking up to the wood from the hamlet. But the likelihood of being caught in the open by the advancing storm had persuaded them to use the car instead and they had driven along the road to Craydon for half a mile before turning off it close to the point where Alice Bridger had last been seen.
As the track they were on now continued to circle the wood, the hedgerows on either side dropped away and they saw to their right a wide, open field where a herd of Friesians stood close together, their sturdy black and white bodies barely visible in the dying light. Although the rain continued to fall in isolated drops the storm was fast approaching and a number of cows were already lying down in anticipation of the deluge that was about to break on them.
Their way ran close to the wood now, the spreading branches of oak and chestnut brushing against the side of the car, the road making a slow bend to the left which they followed until they came to a circular patch of dried mud where the track petered out and where two haystacks shaped like beehives stood close together beside a wooden fence bordering a field beyond.
As Madden brought the car to a halt he glanced at the dashboard and saw they had covered just over two miles since leaving Brookham. He got out and briefly inspected the ground around them. The bare strip of earth showed only the deeply engraved ruts made by cartwheels at some earlier date.
‘Are you thinking someone might have brought her here?’ Stackpole asked. ‘Come the same way we did?’ He’d climbed out of the car himself and was putting his helmet back on.
Partly shielded by the haystacks, the spot where they’d ended up looked out over empty fields with a distant vista of tree-clad hillocks.
‘It’d be a quiet spot,’ the constable observed. ‘Nobody working in the fields on a Sunday. No reason for anyone to come here.’
‘It’s possible.’ Madden shrugged. ‘But we’d only be guessing. Let’s get moving, Will. There’s no time to lose.’
The constable donned his cape, then retrieved the roll of tarpaulin from the back seat of the car, tucking it under his arm. He pointed ahead of them to a line of willows and low bushes that wound across the field towards the tree line.
‘There’s our stream, sir. It runs clear through the wood and comes out on the other side not far from Brookham.’
The two men set off, with the constable leading the way, forging a trail through knee-high grass around the outskirts of the wood until they came to the stream. A pathway was visible running alongside it on the further bank and they crossed to it by means of a fallen log. Thunder crashed all around them and they hurried to seek the shelter of the forest. When they got there, Stackpole stepped aside off the path.
‘You lead the way, sir. Your eyes are better than mine.’
Madden went ahead and soon found himself in a zone of twilight cast by the dense canopy of foliage, which deepened as they moved further into the trees. Rain pattered on the leaves overhead, but did not reach the ground, which remained dry. A layer of damp leaf mould underfoot muffled the sound of their steps.
The path continued to run parallel to the stream, which was visible most of the time, disappearing only briefly behind tree trunks or overhanging branches. Madden kept his eyes on it, knowing that Topper must have come this way himself since he was heading for Brookham and that whatever he had found would not be far from the water.
‘How big is the wood, Will?’ He spoke over his shoulder. ‘How long will it take us to walk through it?’
‘Twenty minutes, at least. It’s a fair size.’
Half that time had elapsed, and so far they had seen nothing of note, apart from a set of stepping stones in the stream which they had passed and which Madden had inquired about. Stackpole told him they connected with a secondary path that ran down to the road between Brookham and Craydon.
‘So Alice Bridger could have walked into the wood?’
Stackpole nodded. ‘Or been brought. I came that way myself with the men when we searched up here earlier.’
Not far beyond this point the path changed direction, crossing the stream by a second set of stepping stones and then apparently taking a course away from the brook into the depths of the forest. Madden halted.
‘Topper said by the stream ...’
The constable came up to his shoulder. He saw what Madden meant. ‘They only separate for a short distance, sir. The path and the stream. They join up again a little further on.’
Madden shook his head, unconvinced.
‘No, I want to stay by the water.’ He peered downstream, but his view was impeded by thick undergrowth and overhanging trees. The rain was steadily increasing in volume and the thunder boomed louder overhead. Madden stood for some moments, hands on hips, looking about him. Then something caught his eye and he switched his attention to the brush lining the path, studying the ferns and low, stunted bushes that filled the spaces between the tree trunks.
‘Look—!’ He went down on his haunches. The constable peered over his shoulder. ‘Someone left the path here, or rejoined it.’ Madden indicated a fern that had been broken at the base and, near it, a slender oak sapling bent askew. ‘If Topper was following the stream rather than the path he might have come this way.’
‘But why would he do that?’ Stackpole was puzzled. ‘It’s hard work pushing your way through that.’ He gestured at the dense underbrush.
‘I’ve no idea.’ Madden bent lower to scan the ground, hoping to find some trace of a footprint, but the damp mould was too loose to hold an impression. He stood up. ‘Will, I’m going to carry on down the stream on this side. You stay on the path. If what you say is right, we should meet up further on.’
Had the circumstances been different, his words might have brought a grin to Will Stackpole’s face. Without realizing it, Madden had reverted to his old role, taking charge. He was behaving like the police inspector he’d once been.
‘I’ll do that, sir. Call out if you see anything.’
The constable waited until his companion had moved into the underbrush and then continued along the path, crossing the stream on the stepping stones and following the course of the footway, which left the brook initially, but then bent back so that it was running parallel to it again, only further from the bank than before. He found that, although he could still hear the rushing water, his view of it was blocked by the intervening trees and a screen of tangled bushes.
‘I’m here, sir.’ Stackpole halted. Madden’s voice had reached him clearly from the other side of the stream. He wasn’t far off.
‘Someone’s come this way, all right... there’s a trail of sorts ...’
Stackpole shifted the roll of tarpaulin from one arm to the other. He waited for a moment, then walked on, but after only a few paces he heard the other man call out again.
‘What kind of clothes was she wearing, Will? What colour were they?’
The constable thought. ‘She had a blue skirt on, sir. Blue skirt, white blouse, black shoes.’ Dry-mouthed now, he waited anxiously.
‘I can see a bit of thread caught on a bramble. It might be blue ... it’s difficult to see in this light...’ Madden’s voice trailed off. But he called out again, suddenly, ‘No, wait! There’s something else!’
Stackpole stood riveted to the spot, awaiting Madden’s next words. Ears pricked, he stared at the dense wall of greenery blocking his view of the stream and presently fell into a half-trance which was abruptly shattered when a bolt of lightning ripped through the low clouds overhead, followed almost instantaneously by a tremendous clap of thunder.
The air about him seemed to shiver and he caught a whiff of ozone. Curiously, the patter of rain drops on the leaves above had diminished in the last few seconds, but the sky continued to darken. It was as if the elements were gathering themselves to unleash an assault, and the constable felt a comparable coiling of forces within him, a rising tide of agonized tension that cried out for release.
‘You’d better get over here!’
The sharpened note in Madden’s voice caused the hairs on the back of the constable’s neck to rise, and he caught his breath.
‘You won’t get through those holly bushes, Will. Better to go back to where I left you and come the way I did.’
‘What is it, sir?’ Fearful of the answer, Stackpole’s voice was choked. ‘Have you found her, then ...?’
The few seconds it took Madden to reply seemed to stretch into an eternity. Then at last he spoke.
‘Yes, I’ve found her, Will.’
He said no more. But his voice told all.
It was only by chance that Madden had spotted the body.
Earlier, picking his way through the brush and clinging brambles, his attention had been focussed on the abundant signs that one or more people had come by this route: snapped twigs and ferns bent back and flattened marked the rough passage that had been forced through the undergrowth.
The disturbance seemed recent - some of the broken twigs were green, with the sap still wet in them - and had probably occurred within the past few hours. Closer study might have told him more, but there was no time to linger and he had carried on downstream until his attention was caught by the piece of thread, which was snagged on a bramble at waist height. This he had paused to examine, but such was the gloom brought on by the approaching storm he’d been unable to determine its colour with any certainty and had decided to leave it where it was.
All this time he had kept the stream in view, though his glimpses of it were intermittent and hampered by the thick brush that clung to the banks. But a few steps further on a sudden break in the bushes gave him a clearer sight of the water. He found he was standing at the edge of a small rectangle of leaf-strewn turf bordering the stream, whose opposite bank was hidden by the overhanging branches of a willow tree behind which an unbroken wall of holly bushes, a little higher up the bank, formed an impenetrable barrier.
Sheltered from rain and sun by the spreading branch of an oak tree, it struck Madden as being a tranquil spot and he was surveying an irregular ring of stones, much overgrown by grass, which lay at one end of the rectangle, wondering whether they’d been placed there by human hand, when his eye was caught by another object on the ground, closer to where he was standing. , ‘No, wait!’ he had called out to the constable. ‘There’s something else!’
What he was looking at was nothing more than an oak leaf, and it had taken him several moments before he realized why his gaze had suddenly become fixed on it.
The colour, dark brown in the dreary light, was starting to run.
He’d bent down on his haunches at once and picked it up delicately by its stem. The patina coating the leaf’s surface had been smeared by falling raindrops; the dry crust was reverting to its liquid form. There was no doubt in Madden’s mind as to what it was.
Looking around then, he saw other bloodstains; other leaves bearing the telltale marks. The green grass, too, was spattered with tiny rust-coloured flecks.
Backing into the bushes a little, Madden went down on his hands and knees.and brought his face even lower so that he could examine the ground minutely, and it was while he was in that position, like some hound questing on a scent, that he saw, protruding from beneath the drooping willow branches across the stream, at the same level as his eyes were now, a sock-clad foot.
Next moment lightning split the sky above him and the thunder came crashing on its heels. Before the last echoes had died away, Madden had scrambled to his feet, torn off his socks and shoes and waded through the cold, ankle-deep current to the opposite bank. Parting the trailing willow fronds he found the body of a young girl lying on its side on a narrow ledge. Without hope he bent down and felt for a pulse in the thin white wrist that rested on her hip. There was none. She was dead. He had called out then to Stackpole.
During their shouted exchange, Madden’s eyes remained busy. The position of the body, wedged beneath an overhang in the bank and screened by the drooping branches, indicated that the killer had meant to conceal it. And it might have remained hidden longer, he thought, had a piece of the ledge on which it lay not crumbled away and fallen into the stream below, causing the girl’s foot to slide down into view.
Was that how Topper had found her? Had he taken the shoe off her foot? It seemed unlikely.
The cause of death would be determined later by medical examination, but judging by her blood-soaked hair, which covered her face as she lay, she appeared to have been struck about the head, and the evidence pointed to the assault having taken place on the bloodstained grass behind him ...
Coolly, Madden continued to compile his mental notes, aware that he was acting from habit, doing something he hadn’t done for many years, but had once been trained to do, keeping his emotions separate from the process of observation. But his poise deserted him a moment later when he drew aside the matted hair to look at the girl’s face.
‘Dear God!’ A gasp of horror escaped his lips.
No stranger to violent death, he’d seen more than one murder victim cruelly battered and during two years spent in the trenches had been witness to unspeakable injuries: he’d seen bodies rent and flayed and blown to pieces. But nothing in his experience had prepared him for the sight of Alice Bridger’s face, beaten flat to a red pulp on which no trace of a human feature remained. As he stared at it in disbelief he heard Stackpole’s voice calling to him from close by.
‘Am I getting near, sir?’
‘Keep following the stream, Will.’ Somehow Madden found his voice. ‘You’ll come to me. And hurry. It’s going to pour in a minute.’
As he spoke, thunder boomed out again like a great bass drum and the rain grew heavier. Madden glanced uneasily at the stream in which he stood. The ledge where the child’s body lay had been carved out of the bank by the water on some earlier occasion and there was no telling how fast it might rise again in the cloudburst that now threatened. Quickly he bent again to study the corpse, noting its position, attentive to details.
The pale blue skirt bunched about the girl’s hips was smeared with blood, as were her white thighs. Livid marks that were turning into bruises showed on her small bare buttocks. The water where he stood was littered with loose stones and rocks and Madden supposed that one of them might have been used as a weapon. If so, it would be washed clean by now.
Studying the position of the body, he realized that he was able to observe the full effect of the damage done to the girl’s face because her head was twisted around at what he saw now was an unnatural angle. It seemed likely that her neck was broken.
Was this how she had died? He hoped so. The thought that she might have been alive and conscious when the stone was raised above her head was close to unbearable.
‘Ah, Christ ... no!’
Madden looked behind him. Will Stackpole’s tall figure had appeared through the bushes on the far bank. Water dripped from the constable’s heavy blue cape. His glance dwelt on the pathetic huddled shape revealed behind the drawn willow branches.
‘What did he do to the lass?’ He pointed. ‘Is that her face?’
‘Yes, it’s been smashed in. God knows why.’ Madden let the branches fall, hiding the corpse from sight. Pale beneath his helmet, Stackpole stood rooted. He seemed unable to take in what he’d seen. ‘There’s blood on the grass over there, Will.’ Madden gestured. ‘You’d better keep off it. That’s probably where she was killed. And raped, by the look of it.’ The words he chose, as much as the harsh tone in which they were spoken, served to jerk the constable back to a state of awareness. He listened to what Madden was saying.
‘We can either protect that patch, or try to cover the body. But we can’t do both.’
Nodding that he understood, Stackpole looked up at the sky. Although the rain was increasing steadily, the full force of the storm was yet to break on them. He took the tarpaulin from under his arm. Unable to make up his mind, he looked from where the body lay to the grass at his feet and back again. A sudden gust of rain blew a shower of raindrops into his face.
‘What do you think, sir?’ His glance was pleading.
Madden scowled in reply. ‘Well, the stream’s bound to rise, so we may have to move the body.’ He paused, turning the problem over in his mind. ‘Let’s cover that piece of grass,’ he decided.
While Stackpole busied himself unrolling the canvas, Madden recrossed the stream, pausing to collect an armful of stones from the river bed which the two men then laid at the corners of the spread tarpaulin on which the rain now drummed steadily.
‘The Guildford police won’t find their way here. I’ll have to go and fetch them.’ Madden had to shout to make himself heard above successive peals of thunder, meanwhile struggling to put on his socks and shoes again, balancing first on one foot, then on the other. After standing for so long in the icy water he’d lost all feeling in his toes. ‘Keep an eye on that stream, Will. You won’t get much warning once the water starts rising.’
He waited a moment longer to look around him, torn between the need for haste in summoning the detectives and the equally urgent task he had set himself of searching for any clues left behind by the killer, evidence that might be destroyed or washed away in the storm, which now broke in earnest upon them. As Madden stood there, shivering in his drenched tweed jacket, a curtain of rain descended and in a second he was immersed in a mist of spray and falling drops as water poured through the flimsy canopy of leaves above him.
Caught there in the downpour his eye fell again on the ring of stones he’d noticed earlier. In the last few minutes an answer had occurred to him to a question he’d been asking himself since entering the wood and he looked around now for other indications that might confirm it. His inspection of the rain-blurred scene had hardly begun, however, when he was interrupted by a yell from Stackpole. Madden glanced up in time to see the constable plunge into the stream in his boots. Just as he’d forecast earlier, the level of the water had risen with alarming speed and Stackpole was already knee-deep in the frothing torrent, struggling to keep his footing while he tore off his cape.
‘Hand her to me, Will!’
Madden was at the bank in a moment, and stood poised and ready as the constable tugged aside the screen of willows and lifted the body of Alice Bridger from the lapping water, wrapping her slight form in his cape and turning unsteadily to hand the bundle to Madden.
Even encased in the heavy waterproof material the child’s body was a negligible burden. Backing carefully so as to avoid stepping on the tarpaulin, Madden laid her on the ground beside the piece of canvas. The cape fell open as he did so and he was stricken once more by the sight of the girl’s ruined features. Hastily he covered her again.
Stackpole, meantime, had clambered out of the stream and stood shaking himself like a dog as the water cascaded off his helmet. He walked daintily around the piece of turf, trying not to leave footmarks in the soggy grass, and joined Madden at the edge of the bushes. The two men looked at the rushing water, which had now flooded the ledge where the body had lain and was already dangerously close to overflowing onto the bank where they stood beside the spread tarpaulin.
‘Looks like we may lose the lot, sir.’ Stackpole squeezed water from the cuffs of his trousers, which clung to his sodden boots.
‘No, I don’t think so, Will. It’s passing. See!’ Madden pointed up at the sky, which was clearing fast. The rain, too, was diminishing noticeably, and without warning it stopped. Sunshine broke through the thinning clouds, bathing the woods and the swift-moving stream in soft evening light. The silence around them was filled with the sound of dripping water. The constable fished a handkerchief out of his pocket and mopped his face.
‘You were going to look for those detectives, sir?’
‘Yes. In a moment.’ While they’d been standing there Madden’s mind had returned to the problem he’d been wrestling with earlier. Casting about, his eye had lit on a birch tree which stood outside the ring of bushes, its pale trunk partly screened by the undergrowth. He gestured towards it. ‘I just want to go and have a look at that.’
Mystified, the constable followed his lead and they worked their way round the ring of grass until they reached the birch, where Madden crouched down, parting the branches of a laurel that was growing wild beside the bank.
‘Yes! There ... Look, Will!’
Peering over his shoulder, Stackpole saw that the trunk had been scored by grooves etched into it, strange runic designs carved with a knife or some other sharp instrument.
‘Those were made by tramps. This is one of their camp sites. That’s why Topper left the path. He was coming here ...’ Madden shifted on his haunches. He gestured with his thumb behind him. ‘That ring of stones on the ground over there - that’s where they light their fires. You can’t see it now because the grass has grown over. But look at these marks ... that one’s Topper’s.’
Squinting, the constable made out the shape of a cross carved into the trunk surrounded by a crude circle.
‘It’s a calling card. A sign he was here. Just like those others.’
Stackpole ran his fingers over the faint, spidery furrows. ‘But they’re old, sir, not one of them done this summer, I’d say ...’
‘Except for this one ...!’ Madden indicated a design cut into the trunk somewhat lower down than the rest. It showed a triangle with a line drawn through it.
‘That’s fresh, all right,’ Stackpole acknowledged. He peered at it more closely. ‘The bark’s only just been stripped. The wood’s still white. Why, it could have been done today ...
‘It probably was.’ Madden rose from his crouch. ‘Topper told Helen he was due to meet someone hereabouts, a man called Beezy, another tramp, by the sound of it. That could be his mark.’
‘You mean, he may have been here earlier, this Beezy?’ Stackpole looked from the scarred trunk to where the girl’s body was lying, wrapped in his cape. His face changed as the significance of what he was saying became clear to him.
Madden nodded. ‘He was here, all right, by the look of it. But the question is, where is he now?’
CALLED OUT before dawn the next morning by the midwife on a maternity case, Helen did not get back to the house until after nine. Twenty minutes earlier Will Stackpole had rung with news he’d obtained by telephone from the police in Guildford which Madden recounted to his wife while they ate a late breakfast in the sun-filled dining room.
‘They haven’t had the pathologist’s report yet, but there seems no doubt she was raped and strangled. The police surgeon confirmed what I thought: her neck was broken. That’s how she died.’
The signs of a sleepless night Helen saw in her husband’s face took her back more than a decade. It had been another murder case, the brutal massacre of an entire household in Highfield itself, in the summer of 1921, that had brought them together, and Madden’s frown of worry was a grim reminder of those dreadful days.
‘What the pathologist will make of the damage to her face I don’t know. It looked deliberate to me.’
‘Systematic. I only glanced at it, but it seemed to me he’d set out to destroy her features. To obliterate them.’ Madden set down his cup. ‘Her father was shown the body this morning. He broke down, poor man.’
They’d been late getting back from Brookham the previous night. Darkness had fallen before Madden returned from Capel Wood and Helen had wanted to take him home and get him out of his wet clothes. She’d spent the intervening hours herself in the Henshaws’ kitchen, keeping Topper company, but had twice visited the Bridgers’ cottage, where the missing girl’s mother had fallen into a restless sleep from the sedative she’d been given earlier. Mr Bridger had refused Helen’s offer of similiar relief. She’d discovered him sitting in the darkened parlour with neighbours, a short, stocky man with thinning hair, his pale features racked by unspoken fears. Alice was an only child, she’d learned.
‘I heard there were some policemen come from Guildford and now they’ve gone off somewhere?’ Bridger had accosted her eagerly when she’d looked in. ‘Do you know anything about that, Dr Madden?’ His eyes had pleaded with her for an honest answer, but Helen could only prevaricate.
‘Not really, Mr Bridger, but I’m expecting my husband back soon. He’s with Constable Stackpole. They may have some news for you.’
In the event, Madden had returned in his car alone, leaving Stackpole with the two detectives, whom he’d encountered on the outskirts of the wood and guided to the murder site. At their urgent request, he had telephoned the Surrey police headquarters to arrange for a pathologist and a forensic team to be dispatched to Brookham without delay with an ambulance and more uniformed officers equipped with lamps and torches so that a search of the wood could begin at once.
‘What about the Bridgers?’ he had asked Helen then. They were standing close together in the small hallway of the Henshaws’ cottage, where the telephone was. ‘What have they been told?’
‘Nothing, so far as I know.’ Shocked by the news her husband had brought from Capel Wood, Helen had wanted only to get him home. Sensing his intention then, she had put a staying hand on his arm. ‘Leave it to the police, my darling. It’s not your business any longer.’
But Madden had refused to be shaken from his course. ‘They have to be told,’ he’d insisted. ‘They can’t be left in ignorance. It’s not right. Who knows what time the police will get back?’
So she had taken him to the Bridgers’ cottage, leaving him in the kitchen there to wait while she went in search of the murdered girl’s father, wishing there was some way she could ease the burden he had taken on himself. A few minutes later, standing alone in the back yard, Helen had watched through the lighted window as her husband spoke words she could not hear and had seen the other man clap his hands to his ears as though in agony and lay his head like an offering on the table before him.
Catching Madden’s eye now, she smiled, hoping to dispel his dark mood. ‘What’s happened to Topper?’ she asked. ‘Are the police still holding him?’
‘He spent the night in the cells at Guildford. Only by invitation, mind you - they’d no right to detain him - but it seems to have loosened his tongue. He told them all he knew and they let him go this morning. He’s been ordered to appear at the inquest on Friday.’
‘Will he do that?’ Helen looked sceptical.
‘I doubt it. To quote Will, he’ll more likely be in the next county by then. Unless he drops in to see you, of course.’
‘I’ll be hurt if he doesn’t.’
Her words brought a smile to Madden’s lips, just as she’d hoped they might, and they laughed together.
The old tramp had first come into their lives several years before, knocking on the back door one summer afternoon, another in the legion of homeless: tramps, vagrants, men of no fixed abode in the language of the law courts, whose numbers had swelled vastly with the years of the Depression. The Maddens’ cook, Mrs Beck, had standing orders to offer food and drink to these wanderers whenever they presented themselves. Whether or not she admitted them to her kitchen was up to her, but Helen had returned that afternoon from her rounds to find Topper seated at the table, with his hat beside him and his bundle on the floor at his feet, busily plying knife and fork under Cook’s approving eye. He had risen to his feet when she entered and made her a courtly bow.
‘A proper gentleman, this one, ma’am.’ Mrs Beck had purred her approval.
Ordering her own tea to be served in the kitchen, Helen had sat with the old man, eliciting little more from him than his name and some account of his recent journeyings, but finding herself drawn to the dusty, travel-stained figure with his absurd attire. Although he told her nothing of himself - either then, or later - she’d been moved by the sound of his soft voice and by his gentle manner. His grey eyes, seeking hers across the table in fleeting, timid glances, had spoken of pain and loss; of some past to which he could never return.
His meal done, she had given him directions to their farm, with a note to her husband. Topper had stayed for a week, helping with the harvest and sleeping at night in a corner of the barn. On the morning of his departure Mrs Beck had found an old jam jar on the back steps outside the kitchen filled with pink campion and the yellow buds of St John’s Wort, picked from the hedgerows. Tucked beneath it was a scrap of paper bearing a roughly pencilled message: For the lady.
She had presented them to Helen at the breakfast table with a smile. ‘Looks like you’ve made a conquest, ma’am.’
‘What did Topper tell them?’ Helen asked Madden now.
‘He said he came into the wood from the same side we did - from the fields - and left the path to get to that camp site I told you about. Most of these old tramps have hidden spots tucked away, places where they can lie up for a while. They like to keep them secret, especially if they’re on private land. Capel Wood belongs to the farmer Bridger works for. Topper told the police he’d been using the site for years. When he got there yesterday he spotted the shoe lying on the bank across the stream. Then he saw the girl’s foot.’
‘It’s a wonder he didn’t run off at once.’
‘He easily might have,’ Madden agreed. ‘He must have felt terrified. But instead he collected it and brought it to Brookham. It was a brave thing to do.’ He smiled at his wife again.
‘How have the police reacted? Do they believe him?’
‘Oh, I think so. But they wanted to know more about this man Beezy. According to Topper they met at a dosshouse in London last winter. Beezy’s usual summer base is Kent - he finds hop-picking work there. But this year for some reason he decided to join up with Topper and come down to Surrey instead. They were moving in our direction: Topper told the police you were expecting him. “Mustn’t let Dr Madden down,” he said.’
‘Quite right, too.’ Helen nodded approvingly.
‘However, Beezy fell ill while they were doing some odd jobs on a farm near Dorking. He caught bronchitis and was laid up for a week in the barn there. The farmer’s wife took care of him. Topper moved on - he’d heard of some work going in Coldharbour - but they agreed to meet up again this weekend. Topper gave him directions to Capel Wood and told him how to find the camp site.’
‘But he never got there, did he? Beezy, I mean?’
‘Ah, but he did.’ Frowning, Madden put down his coffee cup. ‘I saw his sign at the camp site.’
‘A lot of these tramps have their individual marks. They carve them on trees at meeting spots.’
‘Oh, I know about those.’ She nodded. ‘Topper’s is a circled cross. Go on.’
‘I noticed several cut into the trunk of a birch tree by the camp site, but only one of them was fresh: a triangle with a line drawn through it. According to Topper, that’s Beezy’s mark.’
Helen absorbed this information in silence while she refilled their cups. ‘So if Beezy was there before Topper found the girl’s shoe, that must mean he’s a suspect,’ she said.
‘He’s bound to be, I’m afraid.’ Madden scowled at the tablecloth in front of him. He lifted a hand to his forehead where a faint, jagged scar, the souvenir of a shell blast from the war, showed white against his sunburned skin. Unaware that he was signalling his concern to his wife, he touched it with his fingertips. ‘Topper’s in the clear himself, you’ll be glad to hear,’ he went on. ‘He got a lift in a lorry from Coldharbour to Shamley Green yesterday afternoon - the police have already spoken to the driver - and couldn’t have reached Capel Wood before three o’clock at the earliest, which was hours after Alice Bridger disappeared.’
‘The very idea!’ Her tone of scornful dismissal brought the smile back to Madden’s lips. Nevertheless she saw there was still some unspoken worry on his mind and would have questioned him further if his glance hadn’t shifted just then to the open window behind her.
‘Look - there’s Rob.’ Madden gestured with his coffee cup. ‘Has he been up in the woods?’
‘He left the house when I did.’ Turning in her chair, Helen followed the direction of her husband’s gaze across the sunlit terrace, down the long lawn to the orchard at the foot of the garden, where their ten-year-old son, clad in shorts, was just then emerging from the trees, swinging a policeman’s lamp in his hand. ‘He told me Ted Stackpole was going to show him a badger’s sett he’d discovered. The boys thought if they got there before dawn they might see the cubs.’
Madden grunted. He watched as the small figure made its plodding way up the lawn. ‘They’ll have to stop doing that for the time being.’ He spoke regretfully. ‘We can’t have them wandering off into the woods alone. Not for the moment.’ He caught Helen’s eye. ‘I’ll tell Rob about the murder when he comes in. And Lucy, too. There’s bound to be talk in the village. Better they hear it first from me.’
ALTHOUGH BROOKHAM was only five miles distant, the drive along narrow country lanes busy with farm traffic was a slow one and it took Madden the best part of twenty-five minutes to reach his destination. An unmarked police car parked on the grassed verge by the line of cottages signalled the presence of detectives in the hamlet. They would likely be there for some time. Unless established procedures had changed much since his day, Madden knew that with a crime of this nature all the inhabitants would have to be questioned. The police would want to know their movements and to discover whether any strangers had been seen in the vicinity.
His own return to Brookham was unplanned; a surprise, even to himself. Although he had talked only briefly with the CID men sent from Guildford the day before, he had promised them a statement, and already that morning, before breakfast, had written out a full account of all he had seen and done from the moment he and Will Stackpole had set foot in Capel Wood. That completed, there was no reason for him to go back. The statement could have been forwarded to Surrey police headquarters.
But enough of the old policeman still dwelt in John Madden to ensure that he wouldn’t rest satisfied. A nagging sense of duty, the feeling of a job half done, had dogged him since leaving Brookham and he’d spent sleepless hours reviewing the facts surrounding the girl’s disappearance and recalling to memory every detail of the murder scene.
Morning had brought no relief and he’d risen saddled with a feeling of guilt which initially he’d put down to his failure to make proper sense of the evidence that had been presented to him at first hand. Some instinct, honed in past years, no doubt, but still lively, told him there was more to be learned from the murder site than he had so far managed to deduce. But troubling though this realization was, it did not measure up fully to the sense of unease he felt, which seemed to spring from deeper roots and was linked to the hideous image he bore of Alice Bridger’s ruined face.
Still, he’d had no plan to involve himself further in what was now a police matter, nor to alter his routine, and had meant to spend the morning at the farm, as he usually did. It was only after Helen had left the house to go to her surgery and he was setting out himself that a sudden impulse had prompted him to change direction and take the road that led across the long wooded ridge called Upton Hanger, beneath which Highfield nestled, and make his way by twisting, hedgerowed lanes to Brookham once again.
Watched by Madden, Galloway fished up a sizeable stone from the stream bed and examined it closely, peering over the top of his horn-rimmed spectacles. Portly, and now red-faced from his exertions, he stood shin-deep in the fast-moving current, wearing fisherman’s waders.
‘I thought myself he might have used a stone,’ Madden remarked from the bank above. ‘But then I wondered ...’
‘Wondered what, John?’ Peter Galloway glanced up quizzically. He was the senior pathologist attached to the hospital in Guildford. Madden knew him socially through Helen.
‘He did such a thorough job on her face I thought he might have used a tool of some kind. A hammer, perhaps?’ It was the first time Madden had put into words the thought that had tormented him during the long night: the barely believable notion that the killer might actually have brought with him the means for demolishing a human face.
‘As it happens, I think you may be right.’ Breathing heavily, Galloway tossed aside the stone he was carrying and then bent down, searching the stream for another. His rumpled tweed suit looked as though it had been slept in. ‘I was up half the night trying to decide that very point, based on the available evidence, the pulped flesh, I mean. I could come to no conclusion. So, having first photographed it, I left an assistant with instructions to remove said flesh while I came out here. When I return I mean to examine the bone structure, or what’s left of it, to see if I can reach a more precise verdict. Such are the joys of a pathologist’s life. Would you mind?’ Wearied of his search, he reached out a hand and, with Madden’s help, hauled his heavy bulk up on to the bank, where he stood, swaying awkwardly in his hip-high boots, blowing hard. ‘I might add, it’s the worst case of its kind I’ve ever come across,’ he continued, having caught his breath. ‘There was nothing left of her features. Thank God, those injuries were post-mortem.’
‘I was told she was strangled. That’s so, is it?’ Madden needed to be reassured, and the other man nodded.
‘The cause of death was asphyxiation. Mind you, he broke her neck as well. At the same time, perhaps. Hard to be sure. Rigor was quite well advanced when the body reached me. I would estimate she died between twelve and two, but not later.’ Galloway controlled a yawn. ‘Since I was coming out here anyway, I thought I’d inspect a few rocks at the site. There appears to be a shape to some of the blows. But my instinct tells me that’s a blind alley. A hammer’s more likely.’
Madden looked about him. He had come back to Capel Wood to find Topper’s secluded camp site a scene of antlike activity with no fewer than four plain-clothes men scouring the small rectangle of sodden grass which he and Stackpole had attempted to cover the evening before and examining the far bank where the body had been concealed. Their labours, directed by Galloway, were overseen by a fifth detective, the senior CID man in charge of the case, who had hailed his arrival.
‘Mr Madden, sir! I was hoping you’d come by. Wright’s the name. Detective Inspector.’
The two shook hands. They hadn’t met before, but Madden’s name and face were well known to members of the Surrey force; the other men, too, had paused in their work to greet him, doffing their hats in respectful recognition. They included the two young detectives he’d encountered the previous evening and guided to the murder site.
‘There are some details I need to go over with you, sir.’ Wright had a confident, bustling air. He was in his early forties, a thin, wiry man with a receding hairline. ‘How the body was lying when you found it, for example. Before you and the constable had to shift it. Stuff I’ll need for my report and for the inquest. I expect you know what I mean.’
By way of reply Madden had handed him the written statement, which he’d brought with him. ‘It’s all in there, Inspector. I put down everything I saw before the storm hit us. It’ll save time if you read it first. Then, if you have any more questions, I’m at your disposal.’
‘Thank you, sir. I’ll do that now, if I may.’
What People are Saying About This
"Unnerving... from [a] richly textured background, Airth draws a vivid cast of full-bodied characters and a plot that satisfies." —The New York Times Book Review
"Airth's first mystery, River of Darkness, was impressive enough to earn him several award nominations and much critical applause. [The Blood-Dimmed Tide] deserves the same treatment." —Chicago Tribune
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Here is the greatest imaginable evil to plop into the author's pastoral paradise: what kind of monster would rape and murder prepubescent girls then smash their faces to a pulp? (This will be hard to top for for sheer depravity if Airth continues his Inspector Madden adventures.) The first half this volume consists largely of reintroducing all the sugery nice good guys and gals of the first book with a sparse sprinkling of new characters -- kids, tramps and a German policeman. The children are all adorable (and presumably above average) and the vagrants all moral paragons who are down on their luck. Near this story's midpoint, however, things pick up. We learn not only who the murderer is and why he will be tough to catch but also who his endearing next victim might be. The remaining pages are a gripping race to see whether the coppers can find him before he strikes again, which makes for a more exciting book that the acclaimed River of Darkness. Airth's villains continue to be more interesting than his protagonists because the former have some psychological depth whereas the latter are little more than cardboard cutouts of domestic saints.
The memory of the first John Madden book has also dimmed, so I can¿t compare this to that. One thing that gets on my nerves is his wife; she just wants him to be a placid little stay-at-home, farmer type and he is not cut out for that. When a man has to sneak around behind his wife¿s back to solve a crime and feel like he¿s using his talents to their fullest ¿ Houston, we have a problem. Why should she get to dictate how he lives his life in such a basic area? It¿s obvious that he¿s in his element when battling wits with a killer, why prevent that? Sure, it¿s dangerous, but it¿s also dangerous to let this fester until it becomes a marriage-breaker.With that aside, I liked the police procedural quality of this book. There were some areas that I found suspect ¿ like when someone brought in a forensics team. Were there forensics teams operating in rural England in the 1930s? Doubtful. But the rest of the reasoning and clue-finding rang true. Like the bit about the car and tracing its owner. The obvious suspect turned out not to be the killer, but that person pointed the way to the killer. The fact that the British government covered up years worth of crimes reminded me of the Vatican covering up theirs. The portrayal of men out of work and the different paths their lives took was also interesting. On the one hand we had the typical vagabond type guy ¿ mostly harmless and willing to put in a little work so he could buy his booze or whatever. At first a couple of these men were suspects, but there wasn¿t a huge dragnet type effort made and the cops and citizens both seemed to respect these men¿s ways of life. Then there was the more upright individual portrayed by Eddie ¿ he lost his job after returning from the war and would do anything, even very hard labor, to support his family. He was earnest and forthright and I knew he was doomed ¿ he¿d either be framed as the killer or murdered by the killer. It was very sad when it turned out to be the latter ¿ it was so final, no room for redemption.No answers were given for the killer¿s motives other than general psychosis or a twisted psyche. His torture of small animals as a child was mentioned and again I wondered if anyone would think of drawing a parallel. As far as I know, this general tendency of young psychopaths wasn¿t borne out until the latter half of the 20th century. I¿ll have to delve into some of my forensic texts to see if I can pinpoint this or the general accepted use of a CSI team.Later; I did some cursory checking for this in some of my forensic casework books and found that while some scientific approach was taking place at the time (and even earlier), it was isolated in both technique and locale. Only larger, more publicized cases seem to warrant scientific investigation. Even then, only one or two techniques were used to pinpoint one or two aspects of the crime; identification of the victim seems to be the most prevalent. This leads me to believe that there could have been scientific analysis of this fictional crime at this place and time, but a team of scientists dedicated to solving crims (a CSI team) would have been highly unlikely. But, this is fiction after all so the liberty is not too extreme.
Like the first novel in the series, "River of Darkness", this is an excellent period police procedural. This one takes place a decade after "River", as war clouds gather over Europe in the early 1930's. As in the earlier book, the period atmosphere is brilliantly conveyed, and the characters are convincing. It's a tad less exciting, however, and Mr. Madden's perfection a tad more emphasized.
The sequel to River of Darkness succeeds just as well as the debut novel as the perfect place to spend some hours on a plane or a beach--pre-War England with a serial killer on the loose.
A worthy follow-up to "River of Darkness". Rennie Airth's mysteries remind me of Charles Todd's, with both featuring Scotland yard detectives marked by World War I. Airth's are not quite as dark; his Madden has a spirited wife and (by the second book) a family. But in this book, World War II is already looming on the horizon . . .
Eleven years have passed since the setting of the first John Madden book. Although John Madden quit Scotland Yard to get married and become a farmer, he's inadvertently drawn in to a new matter. It's quite clever how the author keeps weaving John Madden into the story - very much against the wishes of his wife. It's really interesting to see how the clues come together, with some real luck and clever deducing. I really enjoyed this second book in the John Madden mysteries. You can bet I'll be getting the third.