1919. The war is over, but its effects live on in the mind of Scotland Yard’s Ian Rutledge. He was a gifted inspector who spent four years in the trenches on the Western front. Now recovering from shell shock, can he can still do his job?
Rutledge’s boss wants him gone. (What’s behind the animosity may become clearer as the series goes on.) He sends Rutledge to find the murderer of war hero, Charles Harris. It’s a no-win assignment: the prime suspect, Mark Wilton, is also a decorated war hero and a favourite of the royal family.
Inspector Rutledge endures a test of wills on two levels. First, the residents of Upper Streetham are not telling all they know. Harris is a nice man with no enemies. Well, except that someone murdered him. Second, Rutledge is haunted by the constant voice of Hamish MacLeod, a soldier he sent to the firing squad for refusing to obey orders.
The story works on both levels. It is a sound murder mystery. The characters and their interactions are believable. The lack of understanding of shell shock in post-war English country society is fairly depicted. The particulars leading to the killer were laid out in a fashion, but were well hidden. Everything came together quickly – for detective and reader – in the last five pages.
More importantly for a detective series, Rutledge is drawn as a complex, sympathetic character suffering the aftermath of war. “He was tired and hungry, and Hamish had been mumbling under his breath for the last half hour, a certain sign of tumult in his own mind.” (p 68) Hamish’s cynical perceptions question the margins between the police officer’s role in solving a murder and the soldier’s role in sending others to die.
He’d had a knack for understanding the minds of some of the killers he had hunted, and he had found the excitement of the hunt itself addictive. … Now it was his own uncertainties that left him with no peace, his illusions as shattered as his mind. (p 103)
Rutledge fights to maintain control and dreads that Hamish will take over. “Someday, would other people like Hamish better than Ian Rutledge? It was a frightening thought.” (p 304)
I am interested to see how Rutledge evolves in later books.
A Test of Wills is the first in a series by Charles Todd, actually the mother-and-son team of Caroline and Charles Todd. With a couple of quibbles, they do a credible job as Americans writing about the UK.
Quibble 1 – beverages. Far too many people drink coffee. Tea is more likely the English beverage of choice.
Quibble 2 – the details of law. Wilton speculates that, if charged, his trial “will end with ‘not proved’ rather than an acquittal.” (p 265) Not possible. The not-proven verdict is unique to Scottish criminal law and not available in an English court. A detective novel should get the law right.
This is the first of the WW1 mystery novels I’ve delved into. A bit of a risk – with several books in each series, they could take over my reading. I hope to enjoy them, but not too much.
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