The horrors of modern warfare are spread across the pages of our newspapers and the screens of our televisions in daily doses that in sheer volume tend to numb us to the futility of the battlefield.
But that’s not a luxury afforded to the ones actually doing the fighting, some returning home permanently scarred by the experience; and it’s no comfort to know that we now have fancier names and more sophisticated treatments for what was once called shell shock, embedded in guilt and self-recrimination every bit as painful as the physical wounds of battle.
Such is the bleak condition of Scotland Yard’s battle-scarred Inspector Ian Rutledge, who returns in this 16th novel by Charles Todd, the pen name of the American mother-and-son writing team that first introduced Rutledge in 1993’s A Test Of Wills.
Set in Britain during and just after World War One, the series takes its outward form from the genre’s golden age of the early to mid-20th century, and especially the village police procedurals of Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. The books are meticulously researched, atmospherically rich, and classically British. Many cups of tea are consumed, village pubs are smoky and suspicious of strangers, and everyone speaks Masterpiece Theater British while skulking about country estates or down moonlit lanes.
But a further, and unexpected, influence can be located in the more recent literary past, especially Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy drawn from the traumatic Great War experiences of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, for Todd’s Rutledge struggles with what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as he sets about solving his cases.
Particularly creative is Todd’s invention of the disembodied Corporal Hamish McLeod, whose thick Scottish brogue gives voice to Rutledge’s guilt at ordering the actual McLeod’s execution by firing squad for refusing orders during the Battle of the Somme.
McLeod, as Todd fans know well by now, refused to lead his men into what he knew was certain death at the hands of a German gun emplacement, and so himself died at the orders of his superior officer, Rutledge. Rutledge, later invalided out of the war and sent home, seeks professional help to rid him of McLeod’s hectoring voice. But, Todd writes, “Explanations did nothing to ease the strain of knowing the voice was there, that it would speak or not as it chose, and there was nothing on God’s earth to prevent it or keep others from hearing it, even when Rutledge knew they could not.” The strain is so great that at one point in A Lonely Death, we find Rutledge standing on a former battleground in France with a service revolver in his hand, contemplating suicide.
A Lonely Death, which takes place two years after the Armistice that ended the war, sends Rutledge to a remote Sussex village where someone is picking off young men who fought together in France. Red herrings planted by the murderer send Rutledge off on wild goose chases north to Yorkshire and west to Shropshire, and for a brief time into a jail cell on suspicion of being the murderer himself, before the killer’s motive and identity are revealed.
There is an awkwardly inserted subplot about an unsolved killing from 15 years earlier, a contrivance that distracts from the main business at hand and whose solution feels rather hurriedly concluded in the last chapter, with only a tenuous tie to the main storyline.
Despite the classic murder puzzle form, the subject here, and in all the Rutledge books, is really the death of the spirit. Rutledge moves through a shadowed world as bleak as a North Country moor in winter, haunted by his memories, his finger metaphorically twitching at the trigger of that revolver, hoping to silence the voice that torments him. Much of his sleuthing is carried out at night and alone, cut off from the warmth and light of human compassion, restoring the moral order while helpless to settle his own demons.