An unusually grisly murder of a family at Melling Lodge brings Scotland Yard Inspector John Madden and his assistant Billy Styles to the English countryside circa 1921, marking the beginning of a tense and suspense-filled reading experience in this neglected suspense thriller.
Madden and Billy arrive at a traumatized village where five have been slaughtered. The only survivor, a little girl who hid under the bed, is unable to speak as a result of the trauma. All she can do to communicate is draw what look like balloons, a clue to the killer’s identity. While it is initially thought that the murders are the work of a gang of thieves, Madden begins to suspect that they are looking for a lone, deranged killer. Soon a connection to the war develops, when it becomes clear that the killings were done with a rifle bayonet.
The First World War ended in 1918 and many of the major characters in the novel are haunted by the deaths of loved ones on the front. Madden himself is haunted by his war experiences and struggles with making sense of life as a result. Even his appearance is suffused with psychic wounds: his face seems haunted and his eyes distant, a look that troubles his colleagues and subordinates. Like most in England, Madden has yet to deal psychologically with the trauma of war. Fortunately, he will have help, which comes in the shape of the village doctor.The investigation puts him close to Dr. Helen Blackwell and the two develop a romantic relationship. It is also thanks to Blackwell that Madden eventually manages to break the case: her mention of psychology and its insights into the mind suggests a particularly fruitful avenue of inquiry.
Madden attends a lecture at the British Psychoanalytical Society and there meets the Viennese Dr. Weiss. The psychiatrist points out that the killer has likely killed before and has done so much earlier. Madden decides to look for strange deaths in Europe during the war, and he discovers the same pattern that has played itself out with ghastly consequences at Melling Lode. Following the thread of a Military investigation into the murders of a continental family, Madden uncovers the identity of the killer. But the killer is quite clever and catching him proves to be tricky.
One of the challenges of serial killer fiction is making the killer believable. The need to justify extreme splatter from standpoint of psychological realism makes many writers construct tortuously convoluted psyches that end up making the killer characters cartoonish — they have no recognizable human aspect, their entire being becoming an obsession for murder and mayhem. The character of Hannibal Lecter comes to mind as perhaps an example of a more believable serial killer. The killer in River of Darkness is not at all like Lecter; he is emotionless and connects with few, acting more like a savant, whose sexual compulsions compel him into unwittingly marching to the orders of blood lust and mayhem. As a result, the character seems to lack depth, being more like a force of nature than a man. The attempt to recover the reasons for the killer’s acts coming at the end of the plot seems flat.
Despite the flatness of the killer, River of Darkness is compelling reading, filled with tension and suspense as a monster prowls the quiet English country.