Tuesday, January 03, 2017
Fellow authors Laura Wilson and Rennie Airth attend CrimeFest 2010 in Bristol, England. (Photo © Ali Karim)
“All good things must come to an end,” said 14th-century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and that turns out to be true of my nearly six-year career as the crime-fiction blogger for Kirkus Reviews. Today’s column—found here—is the last of more than 170 posts I’ve put together for Kirkus since I began my stint with that publication in March 2011. This separation wasn’t my idea. In late November, my editor called to tell me there were changes in the works for the Kirkus Web site, and one of the columns being cycled out was mine. I couldn’t help but be disappointed, as I’ve mostly enjoyed my association with Kirkus over the years, and I was already in the midst of planning author interviews and special-events coverage for the next three months. Some of what won’t now appear in Kirkus can be rolled into The Rap Sheet, and maybe I can convince editors of other print periodicals and Webzines to accept my humble contributions as well. We shall see.
In any case, I wanted my Kirkus experience to end on a high note. So I arranged to interview Rennie Airth, the now 81-year-old South Africa-born author of the John Madden historical mystery series. The fifth and latest novel in that line, The Death of Kings (Viking), has its official U.S. release this week, so I was grateful that Airth—who currently lives in Italy, and whose work I’ve admired ever since the publication of his first Madden yarn, the post-World War I-set River of Darkness (1999)—took the time to answer a lengthy collection of questions I e-mailed his way. Inevitably, though, I wanted to know more about his background (including his time as a foreign correspondent) and his fiction-writing efforts than could find a home in Kirkus. As a result, I wound up splitting the results of our exchange in two. Part I—which you should definitely read first, since it lays out the general plot of The Death of Kings and explains that book’s relationship to its predecessors—can be enjoyed in my final Kirkus column. Part II is embedded below.
J. Kingston Pierce: Who were your parents, and what did they do? What sort of people were they? Do you have siblings?
Rennie Airth: My father, Eric Airth, was born and grew up in England. He was a mining engineer who came to South Africa in pursuit of his profession and met and married my mother, Emily Dwyer, whose father was Irish. Harry Dwyer was his name and he had emigrated to South Africa, where he met and married my grandmother, who came of English stock. I have a sister.
JKP: Where in South Africa were you born, and what was life in South Africa like back in those days?
RA: I was born in Johannesburg, but we moved quite a lot as my father was transferred regularly from one mine to another. With the election of the Nationalist Government soon after [World War II], the policy of apartheid was introduced and I grew up in a racially divided country which remained that way until I left for London at the age of 20, and did not change until the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990.
JKP: Did you come from a family that valued books?
RA: No, none of my family apart from me were great readers. I started at an early age and the book that first caught my fancy was [Rudyard] Kipling’s Jungle Book. I read it again recently and found it had lost none of its magic.
JKP: Did you grow up wanting to be a writer?
RA: I did think about being a writer from quite an early age and never really considered any other career possibilities, other than journalism.
JKP: In the mid-1950s, you moved to England to work for the Reuters news agency. What sorts of duties/beats did you have with Reuters? And for how many years did you work with that media company?
RA: I worked for Reuters for about a dozen years, starting in London on the desk as a rewrite man and then later as a correspondent abroad. I was based in Europe initially, and was stationed in Geneva first and later in Brussels. But I also worked in various other European capitals during that time, most memorably Rome, where I was one of the Reuters team covering the [Summer] Olympic Games that took place there in 1960. Later postings included Washington during the Kennedy Administration, Havana, and Saigon.
JKP: When did you decide you wanted to pen fiction for a living?
RA: It was when I was working in Vietnam. At that point I felt I had to decide what to do next. On the one hand I could stay with Reuters, on the other I could move to a different branch of journalism and look for a job on a newspaper. But the urge to try my hand at fiction was growing and in the end I opted for that, and like others before me settled down on a Greek island—it seemed to me the sort of thing aspirant writers did—and wrote my first novel. It never found a publisher—quite rightly—but I think you learn more from a book that fails than one that succeeds, and I certainly drew some useful lessons from the experience. It wasn’t a thriller; it was a novel that showed all too clearly the author’s attachment to the works of Graham Greene, a writer I admired then (and still do). But one of the lessons it taught me was that you have to break with your literary heroes and find your own voice. At all events I left Crete—the island I’d chosen—and moved to Rome, where I wrote a book called Snatch, which couldn’t have been more different from my first attempt.
JKP: Yes, in fact you saw two of your novels published before the Madden series: Snatch in 1969 and Once a Spy in 1981. For people who have not read those books—including me—could you say a little about their stories and what your intentions were in writing them?
RA: Snatch was a story set in Rome about a gang of hapless kidnappers who carry out their scheme by switching babies. It was later made into a not-very-successful movie [1976’s The Big Operator] starring Yves Montand. Written in a style that seemed to fit the time, it’s outdated now and I’ve made no attempt to get it republished. My second book was entitled Once a Spy and featured a hero who had given up being an agent but been drawn back into the game to try to figure out why a number of his old colleagues were being murdered. What I was aiming to do was write publishable books. It was as simple as that.
JKP: My recollection is that you’d intended to write only a trilogy of books about 20th-century sleuth John Madden. What convinced (or enabled) you to keep going with that series?
RA: Yes, I did initially mean to write only a trilogy, but I found I had more to say about the Maddens and the people around them. They had come to fascinate me and I wanted to know how they would continue with their lives. It’s curious how one’s characters take on a life of their own, but they do.
JKP: Madden’s life and career have certainly changed over the years. He retired from his detective inspector’s post with Scotland Yard to become a gentleman farmer in Surrey; he remarried, and with his second wife, Helen, bore two children. But how have your impressions of Madden the man altered as this series has grown? Is he the same person now that you knew he could be when you composed River of Darkness? Or has he surprised you in some ways?
RA: Yes, he certainly changes from the man he was in River of Darkness. I pictured him then as silent, for the most part, and a man who seldom smiled. Thanks to Helen he changed, if slowly, and by the time I wrote The Dead of Winter  he had become much more open and accessible. I might put a word in here for both [former Chief Inspector] Angus Sinclair and [Detective Inspector] Billy Styles, old colleagues from his days as a detective at Scotland Yard, whose friendship has always been important to Madden. Sinclair in particular has played a crucial role in several of the books. Being an articulate man—as opposed to the often laconic Madden—he is frequently called upon to explain things to the reader and push the story along.
JKP: In River of Darkness, you described Madden as a former soldier who was left very much alone after the deaths (from influenza) of both his first wife and their baby daughter. He’d returned to Scotland Yard “a different man,” someone “more like a monk than a policeman.” While we have learned much about his present family situation, his previous family remains largely a mystery. For instance, did you ever supply the names of Madden’s first wife and daughter? I searched through River of Darkness, but couldn’t come up with them.
RA: No, it’s true I never gave them names and the reason is that I wanted to underline how changed Madden was by the war he was trapped in. Nowadays we all know about post-traumatic syndrome, but it hadn’t been recognized then, and what the men who served in the trenches suffered through—repeated shelling and near-suicidal attacks across no-man’s-land—may well have been worse than anything experienced by soldiers today. Madden was one man before the war and another after it, and without Helen’s love and understanding of his condition he might never have recovered properly. He hasn’t forgotten his first marriage, but it must seem to him like something that happened in another world. But he hasn’t ceased to mourn his lost baby daughter, nor has he blocked out the memory of her tragic death from influenza, which he was a witness to.
JKP: One of the things I found interesting about The Death of Kings, your new Madden tale, is how large a role you awarded to Madden’s “stunner” of a daughter, Lucy, while his wife, physician Helen, is at best a secondary presence. What intrigues you about Lucy, and are you setting her up to have a larger impact on the series going forward?
RA: Yes, Helen is rather trapped in her role as the village doctor, while I would characterize her lovely daughter as definitely a loose cannon. I enjoyed showing Madden having to cope with his adored but unpredictable offspring. I don’t know that I’m setting Lucy up for a larger impact. You won’t find her solving crimes. But I like her presence in the story and can only hope my readers share that feeling.
JKP: Do you also have something more in mind for her elder brother, Rob, the naval officer now “serving on a cruiser in the Indian Ocean”?
RA: I’ve thought about bringing Rob in, and decided against it. There are quite a lot of characters in the series now if you include the police, and I don’t want to overload the books. I might give him the sort of walk-on part he gets in The Death of Kings, but not much more, I think. Except you never know …
JKP: So there are more Madden novels still to come?
RA: Yes, I am working on a new Madden novel now, but I haven’t settled on a title yet and I’d rather not go into the plot. I never discuss a book while I’m writing it. I feel you lose something by talking about it. The last thing I want at this stage is a reaction to whatever ideas are going round in my head. It doesn’t matter whether the response is favorable or not. Neither really helps.
JKP: Are there things about fiction writing or your own abilities in this field that you’ve learned over the decades, but that you dearly wish you had known from the outset?
RA: I certainly hope so. It would be awful to think one never learned anything from experience. But I can’t necessarily put my finger on what I’ve learned except to try to keep things simple and avoid anything that smacks of fine writing. As others have found, it’s often the passages you’ve taken particular pains over that call for a blue pencil. And yes, generally speaking I wish I’d known what I know now about writing when I started.
READ MORE: “Once Upon a Time in Havana,” by Rennie Airth (Mystery Fanfare); “Down to Airth,” by J. Kingston Pierce (Killer Covers).