In 1938, a beautiful actress visiting an English country house is murdered in the woods. A man is quickly arrested, makes a confession to police, then recants it. But he’s convicted anyway, and sent to the gallows.

The nearly forgotten case becomes a mystery 11 years later when a necklace the victim had been wearing is anonymously mailed to the police with a suggestion to reopen the investigation. The clue offers tantalizing evidence someone else committed the crime.

Popular crime novels don’t usually delve into weighty subjects such as capital punishment. It is at the center of “The Death of Kings,” the latest historical thriller by Rennie Airth. The backdrop of injustice, innocence and privilege creates an unusually compelling detective story.

The novel features retired Scotland Yard detective John Madden, a character in Airth’s earlier novels. Madden, once one of the Yard’s finest detectives, is now a farmer who sometimes helps his former colleagues on cases.

He is asked to conduct a quiet, private inquiry into whether the police mucked up the initial investigation. Later joined by police detectives, the inquiry raises the prospect an innocent man was executed and the real killer remains free.

This novel is far above the usual British police procedurals. It’s a vivid exploration of the unjust consequences of imperfect police work in a society that condones capital punishment. The death penalty eventually ended in Great Britain, which executed its last two criminals in 1964.


David Shaffer is a former Star Tribune reporter and editor.

The Death of Kings
By: Rennie Airth.
Publisher: Viking, 356 pages, $27.