A Test of Wills, Charles Todd

I can’t remember how I discovered Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge novels, but they’re  one of those happy finds where you pick something up, think “hmm, this looks good” and get hooked.  I’ve read every single one of these books, and I never get tired of them.  They tick a number of boxes for me in general:

  • Strong plotting
  • Fascinating main character who continues to grow throughout the series
  • Set between the wars in England
  • Correct period detailing
  • Strong dialogue
  • Continuing conflict for the main character
A Test of Wills

A Test of Wills

In this case, the main character is Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge, who makes his first appearance in 1996’s A Test of Wills.  When we first meet Rutledge, it is June of 1919 and he has just returned to his job at Scotland Yard.  Naturally, he’s been at the Front during The Great War, and his harrowing experiences there have left him recovering from what was then called shell shock (today we call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).  Rutledge is hoping that easing back into his routine will help him continue to recover, but his immediate supervisor barely lets him get his desk chair warmed before he sends him out on a sticky case in Warwickshire.  A local military man has been murdered, and the most obvious suspect is Captain Mark Wilmot, engaged to the Colonel’s ward and a highly decorated war veteran himself.  Wilmot is a Palace darling and a local favorite, so the town’s residents are not feeling especially co-operative and are more inclined to continually point Rutledge toward the local malcontent instead.

The problem is, Mavers (the local rabble-rouser) has any number of witnesses who can prove he was nowhere near the meadow where the Colonel was shot.  As Wilmot begins to look more and more guilty, Rutledge starts feeling the pressure from his superior, Bowles, who is maliciously hoping that the Warwickshire case is the end of Rutledge’s career.  Here we don’t get all that much of a sense of the reason for Bowles’ antipathy for Rutledge, but it doesn’t take Todd much time to make it clear that Bowles knows of Rutledge’s medical history and that he plans to take advantage of his psychological issues to get him kicked out of Scotland Yard in disgrace.  Even with very limited exposure to him, it doesn’t take the reader long to figure out that Bowles is a thoroughly despicable person.  And Rutledge goes off unaware that his superior has it in for him and is deliberately sending him off to confront a man seen by the entire nation as a war hero,  where one of the only witnesses is another shell-shocked soldier, and where there’s virtually nothing but circumstantial evidence–Bowles is hoping he either fails completely, has a nervous breakdown in the middle of the case, or tries to put a man decorated for bravery in the dock, which will cause the Palace to demand his resignation.  Such a supportive boss, that Bowles…

It’s a pretty little problem for any detective, and the end is explosive (and completely set up in the text, but so cleverly done you never see it coming) but what elevates this particular story for me is the character of Rutledge himself.  As the novel moves forward, we learn more about Rutledge’s war experiences and Hamish, the ghostly voice that taunts Rutledge constantly in his mind.  As an officer, Rutledge was forced to order Hamish’s execution for refusing to obey an order during battle.  Despite being offered several outs by Rutledge, Hamish, who has been completely broken by the war, declares he’d rather die by firing squad than go back out.  Directly after Hamish’s death, Rutledge is buried alive in an avalanche of mud and rotting corpses.  It goes without saying that those two specific experiences, the fact that he had to constantly order men to their deaths while he escaped alive, and the general awfulness that was WWI, have left Rutledge emotionally devastated and insecure in his own abilities—not just in terms of being able to handle what is, after all, a fairly gruesome job, but in being able to handle day to day life without going completely around the twist.

What you’re left with, as a reader, is a portrait of a man who is constantly on edge, who sees reminders of the war everywhere, and who has to continue to deal with its aftermath even six months after it’s ended.  One of the most poignant things that happens in this particular book is that Rutledge encounters among his potential witnesses a former soldier so far gone that he has no real idea where he’s at:

“People like Hickam—well, they’re not normal, are they? But the Vicar wouldn’t hear of an asylum, he said Hickam was an accursed soul, in need of prayer.”

“God Almighty,” Hamish said softly. “That’s you in five years—only it won’t be traffic, will it, that you remember? It’ll be the trenches and the men, and the blood and the stink, and the shells falling hour after hour, until the brain splits apart with the din.”

How’d you like to have that going on in your head all the time?  It certainly explains why Rutledge, in what may pass for cruelty but in reality is kindness, later gives Hickam enough money to buy the gin he needs to drink himself to death.  Because Rutledge understands the torment going on in his head.  He’s living it himself.  He regrets his action later, but the impulse is telling.

One of the most clever things about this book is that the reader isn’t really sure if Rutledge is up to the job he’s been handed.  He questions this himself, of course, and Hamish certainly is chattering in his head that he’s finished, but Todd (a mother and son writing team, but I will refer to them as Charles Todd for convenience sake) doesn’t ever reassure either his lead or his reader on this point.  Even up until the last few pages, Rutledge is still questioning his judgment, wondering if he’s lost his intuition and his ability to reason.

All of the Rutledge books are very good—they range from very good to unbelievably fabulous—and while the Hamish conceit gets a bit old, Todd also develops Rutledge’s relationship with the ghost in his head so that Hamish is never a gimmick, and, as the series carries on, he becomes less intrusive.  But here he’s absolutely essential to the development of the Rutledge character—he says things that Rutledge cannot say to himself without losing his mind.  It’s quite a unique device to employ, and for the most part it works tremendously well.  And while Hamish will sometimes nudge Rutledge in the right direction by telling him what he’s feeling is wrong or, even more cruelly, deserved, he’s not ever directly responsible for Rutledge solving a case by whispering the answer in his ear.  Todd’s choice in that matter gives these books, and especially this debut in the series, an integrity that I appreciate.  Had he chosen to go with Ghost in Shell Shocked Scotland Yard Inspector’s Head Solves Mysteries For Him, I’d have never picked up the rest of the books—that would have cheapened the series, and the character, and the experience of every man who died in a senseless nightmare in France.  Not to mention those who came home haunted by everything that they’d seen.

Proof of Guilt

Proof of Guilt

All of Todd’s Rutledge mysteries are still in print and easy to find.  The forthcoming Proof of Guilt is due for release in late January, 2013.  It’s not really necessary to read the series in order—the books stand on their own, although there are references to earlier cases in some of the later books—but if you’re new to them, you might want to read them in order to see how Rutledge’s character develops.

Comments

  1. says

    I’ve read them all, too, and you hit all the important points in your review. I like the nurse character, too (has her own series, same author).
    Shorter than the Rutledge books, Josephine Tey’s *The Singing Sands* also has a detective with some similar issues, very good.

  2. donna says

    Do you mean his Bess Crawfod series? I loved the first two of those, but thought the most recent one was not up to his usual standards. Hopefully he’ll get back on track with the next one, because I really like the concept. And I adore Josephine Tey. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Peter Wimsey also has lingering issues well after the WWI, and one of her books, The Upleasantness at the Bellona Club, deals directly with the many different ways returning soldiers suffered.

  3. says

    Because you recommended the Todd books to me last year, I’ve read some of the Rutledge series which are fine indeed, but I could never finish the first Bess Crawford book. It just didn’t appeal in the same way, and I still can’t put my finger on exactly why. I don’t think it’s anything major that annoyed me just a combination of small things that threw me off. I’ll have to find it and try again at some point. But I have the new Julia Child bio and the book Julia’s Cats to read, so it won’t be soon :-)

  4. donna says

    I think the issue I have with the Bess Crawford books in general is that they do not dig into her character the way the Rutledge books get into his–she’s very 2 dimensional. Plus they’re this sort of odd hybrid of village cosy and war story. My big problem with the third book was that it was essentially a string of coincidences. In the second book, he very cleverly took the idea that coincidences do sometimes happen, turned that on its head, and wrote a very good story. But that kind of thing is only going to work once, and no mystery should rely on its main character solving things through happenstance like that.