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By Its Cover: The Death of Kings

Imagine a classic film in black-and-white flickering on a screen in a darkened room. For an instance the frame freezes. A woman stands holding a glass of champagne in a room, reminiscent of an English manor, with a gentleman seated before her and two faceless men behind her.

This cover seems to reflect such a moment with one exception: the dash of color highlighting the women’s necklace. It’s a key piece of evidence in a murder case.

In 1938, a beautiful actress is murdered at a grand estate and an ex-convict is arrested and convicted for the crime. The reappearance of a jade necklace connected to the case more than ten years later suggests the wrong man was executed.

Though retired from Scotland Yard, detective John Madden is drawn into the investigation, re-examining the case. From the English countryside to postwar London, Madden follows the clues that lead him “into the criminal underworld of the Chinese Triads.”

It’s the fifth (and most recent) book in Airth’s John Madden Mystery series. All the covers to date share the same style, but something about this particular image attracts the eye. Perhaps it is the neo-gothic architecture of the room that makes up the backdrop like a stage set. Or perhaps the beautiful woman herself as she poses, holding the champagne flute, as if acting a part.

The story opens with a prologue.

“When she heard the stair creak beneath her foot, Portia stopped and stood frozen. Her heartbeat quickened with excitement. She didn’t want to be seen. She planned to slip out and then return to her room in time to appear for tea as though nothing has happened…”

What pray is she up to? Portia recalls an altercation the night before in which a man accuses her of always being an actress. Later, heading out to the nearby woods, “she couldn’t help but picture herself as a character in a play, or perhaps a film.”

The prologue ends with Portia stepping forward and very likely heading to her death.

And it all makes for an intriguing start to a story with a seemingly incongruous title. If a woman is at the center of the mystery, then what could “The Death of Kings” be reference to? Cover, prologue, and title together make one curious to find out.

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