Title: A Test of Wills
Author: Charles Todd
Publisher: St. Martin’s, 1996
Series: Inspector Rutledge, Book 1
THE BOOK: In this series of historical mysteries set in post-WWI England, the protagonist is a Scotland Yard detective who solves crimes despite being nearly crippled with shell shock. Charles Todd’s Inspector Ian Rutledge is one of the great characters of British crime fiction. He fought in the trenches of WWI France, and came back a shattered man, carrying the guilt of what he had seen in the war. The twist is that his guilt takes form as a very convincing delusion. Rutledge hears the voice of a man who died under his command. This voice, a Scottish officer called Hamish MacLeod, serves as Rutledge’s conscience. It is also the voice of his intuition, which he fears he lost in the war. But the hook for mystery fans is that Rutledge is trying to pick up his work as an Inspector with Scotland Yard. This first book shows Rutledge’s first case since returning to the Yard and it’s a political hot potato. A village in the Midlands asks for the help of Scotland Yard when Colonel Harris, a veteran from an old, established county family, is brutally murdered and found in a field. The local authorities called in Scotland Yard because the most obvious suspect is Captain Wilton, fiance of Harris’ ward. He’s the political hot potato, being both a war hero and friend of the royal family. But Rutledge finds more than one person with a motive and means to kill the colonel.
MY TAKE: The wounds of war are everywhere in this story. Author Todd (a mother-son writing team) gives us lots of details about what British life was like in those traumatic post-war years and has researched the period well. The hints that we get of the huge psychological toll that war took on its participants makes Rutledge more fully realized and flawed, a character readers will happily return to again and again. But in addition to exploring the post-war scenery in each volume, Todd presents a carefully plotted, morally challenging crime story. The pacing is slow and descriptive heavy, focusing on the psychology of the crime. In a way it is a very old-fashioned mystery. If that is your mystery catnip, the Inspector Rutledge series is a great choice.
THE GENRES: Historical Fiction: I love the setting of between-the-wars England. So much devastation and loss, but people had to try to move on. Having the lead character in this series be a shell-shocked veteran keeps the war always in the reader’s periphery, never letting you forget what he (and the country) went through. If you do forget, Hamish will remind you. There are so many other little details that make this enjoyable simply as historical fiction. The England of the years between the wars is one that is hugely class-conscious, still struggling with the shift from an agricultural to industrial economy. Mystery: The mystery is extremely satisfying, with not only Todd but the characters trying to lead the reader towards some suspects and away from others. Rutledge’s boss at Scotland Yard is actively rooting for him to fail — either finish having his mental breakdown or make a big enough political misstep that he will be forced to resign. I like historically set mysteries, as it seems to up the difficulty setting for the detective: no internet, no cell phones, just walking around talking to people and seeing if they lie.
- Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
- The Great Stink by Clare Clark
- The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller
- A Taste for Death by P.D. James
Where did I get this book: Checked out from the library
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