The Death of Kings

by Rennie Airth
Viking, January 2017, $27

The Death of Kings is Rennie Airth’s fifth novel featuring former Scotland Yard detective and current gentleman farmer John Madden. The beautiful actress Portia Blake is murdered after a dinner party at the Kent estate of Sir Jack Jessup in the summer of 1938. Within hours, violent ex-convict Owen Norris is arrested and confesses to the crime. At his trial, Norris recants his confession, but he is convicted and hanged.

Eleven years later, Owen Norris’ guilt comes into question when a jade necklace surfaces, accompanied by a note claiming it to be the necklace Portia Blake wore on the day of her murder. The senior officer of the original investigation, Angus Sinclair, now retired, asks Madden to speak with the Metropolitan Police on his behalf to reopen the case. Sinclair ardently opposes the death penalty, and his concern is that an innocent man went to the gallows. The police are receptive to Madden looking at the murder on his own, but unwilling to officially disturb a long-closed case without additional evidence, especially a murder investigation involving the powerful and wealthy attending that long-ago dinner party.

The Death of Kings is a traditional British whodunit with an exquisite puzzle and satisfying solution flawed only by a sluggish pace, a symptom of narrative repetition as John Madden discusses, with witness after witness, and detective after detective events revealed earlier in the story. The conversations add nuance to Madden’s understanding of the crime, but dampen the story’s momentum. Once the initial ground work is laid—crime examined, Norris’ innocence determined, suspects identified—and Madden begins the chase after the culprit, the narrative sparks to its surprising, but inevitable conclusion.

Ben Boulden
Teri Duerr
January 2017