The Dead of Winter: A John Madden Mystery Set in World War II England

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9780230714847: The Dead of Winter: A John Madden Mystery Set in World War II England

"[Rennie Airth's] meticulously detailed procedural mysteries are beautifully written . . . well worth reading, and rereading."—Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

Rennie Airth's The Death of Kings is now available from Viking.


On a freezing London night in 1944, Rosa Novak is brutally murdered during a blackout. Scotland Yard suspects the young Polish refugee was the victim of a random act of violence and might have dropped the case if former police investigator John Madden hadn't been her employer. Madden feels he owes it to Rosa to find her killer and pushes the investigation, uncovering her connection to a murdered Parisian furrier, a member of the Resistance, and a stolen cache of diamonds.

Delivering the atmospheric writing and compelling characters that have already established Rennie Airth as a master of suspense as well as style, this long-awaited third installment in the John Madden series is historical crime writing at its best.

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About the Author:

Rennie Airth was born in South Africa and worked as a foreign correspondent for Reuters before becoming a novelist. He is the author of two other John Madden mysteries, River of Darkness, a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Novel and a Macavity Award for Best Mystery, and a New York Times Notable Book, and The Blood-Dimmed Tide. He lives in Cortona, Italy.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

 

PROLOGUE

Paris, May 1940

 

DUSK WAS FALLING by the time Maurice Sobel reached Neuilly, and he walked the short distance from the Metro to his house in the cold, not quite earthly light of the blue-painted street lamps which were the city’s sole concession to the war that was about to engulf it. His pace was brisk, and twice he glanced over his shoulder to assure himself that the street behind him was empty. The creak of the garden gate when he opened it was a welcome sound.

Only then did he relax his grip on the handle of the attachécase he was carrying. Since leaving Eyskens’s office he’d been holding it tightly, and he felt the prickle of pins and needles in his fingers now as he shifted the case to his left hand and fumbled in his pocket for his house key.

Normally he would have been brought home by car, but that morning he’d paid off the last of the household staff, including his chauffeur, a blunt Breton by the name of Dugarry. Maurice had found the farewells upsetting and the sight of the darkened house as he walked up the gravel path to the front door was a reminder of the loss suffered by all parties. Florence, their cook, and a family retainer for the better part of a quarter of a century, had clung to his hand when they’d said goodbye. There’d been tears in her eyes.

‘Tell Madame . . .’ She had begun to speak three or four times, but been unable to continue. ‘Ah, but you’ll be back . . .’ It was all she could say.

Maurice had pressed her hand in return. ‘Of course, of course . . .’ Not knowing if it was true. Not knowing if they would ever meet again.

With a sigh he unlocked the door and switched on the lights in the hall. The emptiness around him seemed unnatural - he was used to the house being filled with people, loud with the voices of family and friends - and he regretted, not for the first time, his decision to postpone his departure, when he could have taken passage on the same ship that had carried his wife and their two sons across the Atlantic to New York a month earlier. Unwisely, deceived by the slow march of events in Europe following the occupation of Poland, he’d chosen to remain in Paris for a little while longer, taking time to dispose of his business and to attend to the many other details, such as the leasing of his house, which had required his attention. The delay had proved costly. He had not yet wound up his affairs when the long-threatened German invasion had been launched a week earlier, and with their armoured units advancing now with giant strides across the Low Countries and - according to as yet unconfirmed reports - about to encircle the French army entrenched on the Somme, he had been forced to take emergency measures, selling off the last of his stock at rock-bottom prices and, even worse, engaging in the kind of transaction he would normally have shunned in an attempt to salvage at least a portion of these assets.

On that last day - the last for him, at any rate - the city had worn an air of exhaustion. The soft breeze with its promise of spring had expired, like the hopes of so many, and it was the stifling heat of summer that hung in the air now and seemed poised to descend on streets already starting to empty as cars made their slow exit bumper to bumper from the capital in anticipation of the threat that daily drew closer. Although government spokesmen had said that every inch of French soil would be defended, Maurice knew from other sources - from the rumours that sped from mouth to mouth - that the German panzers were already moving south from the coast. He had glimpsed military lorries drawn up in lines outside ministries, prepared to cart away files and other vital equipment. And although no refugees had yet appeared in Paris, travellers arriving from the north-east spoke of roads clogged by those trying to escape the fighting; of whole families on the move pushing handcarts loaded with their possessions. More ominously still, there were even reports that French soldiers without their arms had joined the fleeing columns.

Although his appointment with Eyskens was not until the afternoon, Maurice had gone into the city earlier and after calling at his bank had paid a final visit to what had been until recently the store that bore his family’s name: Sobel Fre‘res. Furriers of distinction, the shop was located off the rue St Honoré, and although Maurice had relinquished the lease on the property he still had a key to the street door. Wandering about the deserted rooms, he had felt a deep sadness. It had taken his family years to build up the business - the company had been founded by his grandfather - and its loss felt like an amputation. He could think of no sight more desolate that day than the rows of empty hangers where only a few weeks before the finest furs had been on display, no sign more indicative of abandonment and flight than the thin patina of dust already starting to gather on the glass-topped counters.

Seeking an antidote to his depression, he’d chosen to lunch for the last time at a favourite restaurant in the rue Cambon, one he had patronized regularly over the years, where his face and name were known not only to the patron and waiters but also to some of the other clients, successful businessmen like himself, with whom he was accustomed to exchanging nods. No doubt some of them had heard of his decision to leave: he thought he detected sympathy in the glances cast his way. But for the most part they seemed preoccupied with their own affairs. (How could they not be?) They were taking stock of the new reality. And while there was little they could do to alter it, Maurice had nevertheless been distressed to observe the all too familiar hint of a shrug in their manner; that lift of the shoulders so peculiar to the French, signifying acceptance of a situation, however disagreeable.

Catching sight of his own image in a gold-framed mirror on the other side of the restaurant - wryly noting the elegance of his appearance, his silvered hair barbered to a millimetre, the distinction of his dark suit, one of several he’d had tailored in London, its sombre hue set off by a splash of red silk spilling from his breast pocket - he’d reflected on how little he differed from these pillars of the bourgeoisie, at least on the surface. How even now, he might have been pondering his country’s future in the light of the fate that was about to overtake it: assessing what impact occupation by a foreign power would have on himself and his family, how best to protect his interests. In all probability the course of his life had not differed much from theirs. As a youth he had run up debts and made a fool of himself over women - to the despair of his father - but later redeemed himself by volunteering to serve in the war which only a generation earlier had bled his country white, and being twice decorated for gallantry. He had married well and raised a family.

But none of that mattered any longer, he knew, none of it counted. The future lay with the jackbooted conquerors whose armoured units even now were beating a path to the city’s gates, and they would not be deceived.

A Jew was a Jew.

 

 

Willem Eyskens’s office, or rather his place of business, since buying and selling were very much part of his day-to-day operations, was located off the rue de Rivoli. The brass plate beside the locked door bore his name, but gave no further information. Indeed, if you were not expected there in all likelihood you were not welcome, and beyond the door, which was only opened after the caller had adequately identified himself, access was further barred by a guard, presumably armed, who sat at a table in the small entrance hall with an alarm button close at hand. Maurice had been given Eyskens’s name by a business associate, a dealer in costume jewellery and other fashion accessories with whom he did business from time to time.

‘He’s a diamond broker with connections in Amsterdam. Dutch originally, but he’s been settled here a long time. He only deals in good-quality stones, I’ve been told, and he’s discreet. He can certainly provide what you need - at a price, of course.’

The price, as it turned out, had been high. Eyskens had outlined the cruel economics of it at their first meeting. ‘It’s always the same in dangerous times. People try to save what they have. You can’t take a factory with you, a business. So you turn it into something you know has value. Gold, if you can carry enough of it; otherwise stones. Diamonds. There’s no need to explain what effect this demand has on the market.’

A thin-faced man with red cheeks and fair hair brushed back from his forehead, Eyskens had kept his gaze on the surface of his rosewood desk while he spoke. It was as though he was embarrassed to meet Maurice’s gaze.

‘Sufficient to say you are not the first to come to me with a request of this kind, Monsieur Sobel. These are, as I say, terrible times. Let us be businesslike. Your need is urgent, I see that. The short notice makes for difficulties, but I can provide what you want. However, I would prefer if this were a cash transaction.’

‘You don’t want a cheque?’ Maurice hadn’t been altogether surprised.

‘It’s not a matter of trust, I assure you. Your reputation is beyond question.’ Eyskens had shown small signs of discomfort. ‘But I will be forced to cut corners, if I can put it like that. And later on questions may be asked - I don’t mean by the French authorities. Paris may soon be under new rulers, men who might wish to enquire into favours done for . . . for . . .’

‘Jews?’ Maurice had furnished the word he was trying not to utter.

‘I am sorry . . .’ Eyskens had spread his hands on the desk.

Their first meeting had taken place the previous week, and that afternoon, having earlier withdrawn the cash from his bank - Maurice had given Eyskens a round figure to work with - he had proceeded to their final appointment. Once again he’d been shown upstairs to the diamond broker’s office, a small, windowless room, bare of decoration, where Eyskens was waiting. Before him on the desk was a black velvet bag tied with a drawstring. It lay on a piece of felt which had been spread across the desk. Beside the bag was a jeweller’s loupe.

‘I will leave you now.’ Eyskens rose. ‘You will want to examine the stones. Please take your time. I have made a list’ - he took a piece of paper from his jacket pocket and handed it to Maurice. ‘The stones are marked by weight, but you will be able to tell by the size and the shape which is which. Taken together they match the sum we agreed on. Of course, if any of them doesn’t meet with your approval, it can be discarded and we will make the necessary adjustment to the total.’ He bowed and left the room.

Maurice had wasted no time. Uncomfortable though the transaction made him feel, he had taken a decision and meant to stick to it. With the start of the war, the movement of funds by more orthodox means had become increasingly difficult and the German invasion had brought even those to a halt. True, in the past few months he had managed to shift a good portion of his assets abroad, but he was reluctant to leave anything he possessed to the new masters of Europe, these brutal despoilers of his people.

Emptying the velvet bag on to the felt, he had examined the glittering contents. Though no expert, his experience as a furrier had made him familiar with all aspects of the fashion trade, including its most luxurious and costly items, and a few minutes’ study with the loupe were enough to reassure him of the quality of the goods he was purchasing. The bag contained a score of diamonds - cut stones, as he’d requested - the biggest the size of his thumbnail, all of the finest water.

By the time the broker returned ten minutes later, Maurice had emptied the attaché case, which had been resting on the floor at his feet, and laid out the stacks of banknotes he had brought in a neat pile alongside the diamonds.

‘You are satisfied, then?’ Eyskens resumed his position across the desk.

‘Perfectly.’

Maurice was relieved that their business was over. For some reason - its hole-in-the-wall nature, perhaps - he’d found it distasteful. Nor had he warmed to the man who sat facing him. The Dutchman’s pale blue eyes were unreadable.

‘Would you like to count the money, Monsieur Eyskens?’

‘Given who I am dealing with, that will not be necessary.’ The broker had accompanied these words with a polite bow. They both rose.

‘Goodbye, Monsieur Sobel. I wish you good fortune.’

 

 

There was nothing more he could do. Everything was set now for his departure the following morning, and as he wandered about the house switching on lights, Maurice went over the plans he’d made, plans which had grown in complication as the situation around him became more unstable. With sailings from Le Havre suspended, he’d been obliged to look further afield and had managed to book passage on a liner leaving Lisbon for New York in a week’s time. This had still left him with the problem of getting to the Portuguese capital, and having considered - and discarded - the idea of trying to find a seat on the by now overcrowded trains heading south from the city daily, he had decided instead to make the long journey by motor car.

Dugarry’s last job before departing to join his wife and children in Rennes had been to service the Sobels’ Citroën cabriolet and to ensure that the tyres were in good condition and reserve supplies of fuel stowed aboard. Even so, Maurice might have felt daunted by the thought of the drive ahead - apart from the odd Sunday outing it was some years since he had driven a car - had it not been for a stroke of good fortune that had come his way a few days earlier. An acquaintance of his, a Polish art dealer called Kinski, long settled in France, had rung him out of the blue to ask, if it was not prying, if it was not an indelicate question, whether what he had heard was true - that Sobel was intending to quit Paris and would be travelling to Spain in his car? Before Maurice had time to get over his surprise - he had discussed his plans with only one or two people - Kinski had revealed the reason for his enquiry.

‘I’ve been asked if I can help a young man whom the Nazis would like to get their hands on. A Polish officer. Jan Belka’s his name. He joined the resistance soon after the Germans occupied Warsaw, but unfortunately his group was betrayed and he had to get out in a hurry. He’s been in Paris for some time, without papers, of course, and now he’s in danger again. He’d like to get to London, but Spain would be a start. I was wondering . . . would it be possible . . . ?’

While Kinski was speaking, Maurice had had time to reflect on the fact that it was not so surprising after all that his help should have been sought in the matter. The Sobels were Polish by extraction. They made no secret of it.

‘You want me to take this man with me?’

‘If possible. And his companion, a young woman, also Polish.’ Kinski had hesitated. He said delicately, ‘I understand she is Jewish.’

Ignoring the momentary prick of anger he felt just then - as if the fact that the girl was Jewish might sway him, as if he might be less in...

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