Sunday, July 13, 2008

Charles Todd, A PALE HORSE

A PALE HORSE, the tenth mystery featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge, focuses on a cluster of "leper cottages" where a handful of privacy seekers reside in the English countryside, holding their secrets within the cottage walls. Haunted by his own potent secret -- the cynical and sometimes terrified voice of his dead friend and wartime comrade Hamish -- Rutledge attempts to peel back the reasons surrounding a gruesome death, where the body is discovered wearing a postmortem gas mask and cloak. A manipulative government agency, a painful shame in his sister's life, and the confusion that erupts from insistent sleep deprivation make Ian's pursuit of justice harder than ever.

This is a deceptively quiet book, framed by the white horse inscribed on a rock face, dating back to England's speechless early inhabitants. Rutledge endures less of the fierce confusion and threats that dogged him in earlier volumes in the series -- while at the same time, he loses the camouflage that protected him then. In the Yorkshire countryside, one person after another seems capable of looking in his face and naming the anguish there: the residue of a far more gruesome battle against death, in the trenches in France. Moreover, Meredith Channing, the perceptive psychic from Ian's sister's world, appears repeatedly within this search. What will it mean for the way Hamish sits in his mind?

He cranked the motorcar and got in, sitting there shaking. It had nothing to do with the rain.

Hamish said roughly, "Aye, that was the heart of it. You wanted to die. I wanted to live. And we neither of us got our wish."

"And so we're damned, both of us, because God got it wrong. I wish you had lived and I had died. I would have come to haunt you, and when you married your Fiona, I would have been the skeleton at the feast."

"No," Hamish said, his voice cold. "I would ha' forgotten you, and left you rotting in France."

Some of the deepest questions of the series arise here; some are answered -- some will ride with the death-haunted inspector into the next volume from Charles Todd, the American Anglophile mother-son writing duo.

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