It's 1944, and London is weary from four years of German air raids. Its streetlights are mostly turned off at night, even though the worst of the bombing is over and the end of World War II seems in sight.
On one of those bitter winter nights, a young woman is found murdered on a pitch-dark sidewalk. The victim is identified as a Polish émigré who escaped the Nazis to work in England.
Her killing looks like a professional hit job. Yet who would wish her dead -- and are the city's overworked police up to the job of finding out?
In "The Dead of Winter," the answer is yes, but only with the help of John Madden, one of the most endearing of British crime-solvers.
This is writer Rennie Airth's third historical detective novel featuring Madden, a hero of World War I who returned to Scotland Yard to become its finest homicide detective in the early 1920s ... and then quit.
Now, as another war drags on two decades later, Madden is happily married and living in the English countryside. When he gets news that the murder victim had worked on his farm, the former detective is drawn into the investigation with no sign that he has lost his skill.
In some ways, Madden is a classic British detective -- a crime fighter who isn't with the police, but who assists them, and who sometimes goes off on his own at great peril. The mystery is peeled back, one clue at a time, with clever, sometimes lucky legwork that eventually turns dangerous.
What makes "The Dead of Winter" especially engaging is that this deftly plotted detective story also gives a revealing portrait of wartime London. It evokes a nation worn down by years of bomb-blasted buildings and death. It has the power of a war novel, the intrigue of a thriller and characters you care about.
For readers new to Airth, this book stands on its own. Yet as with any series, it may be more fun to read the earlier books first -- "River of Darkness" and "The Blood-Dimmed Tide." They, too, are crisp mystery thrillers with deep veins of history.
David Shaffer is an investigative reporter for the Star Tribune.