Thursday, January 05, 2012

Charles Todd, THE CONFESSION: 14th Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery

The newest Charles Todd mystery has arrived, THE CONFESSION, and it's the 14th in the Inspector Ian Rutledge series (the other Todd series features Bess Crawford). This one gives a quick glimpse of action in 1915, then takes us, with Inspector Rutledge, to the London summer of 1920, when a man arrives at Rutledge's Scotland Yard office to make a near-deathbed confession: He is Wyatt Russell, he says, and he killed a man -- not in the recently ended Great War, but in 1915 nonetheless, and the victim was his foster brother Justin Fowler. Rutledge can obtain almost no further details from this frail confessing killer, except that he's now dying of an inoperable tumor himself, is being treated with morphine for pain, and will assert that his own confession is merely the morphine speaking, if Rutledge attempts to detain him.

What's to be done with this odd confession? Long-time readers of the series will feel no surprise that Rutledge, moved by both compassion for this frail person and determination to get to the bottom of a possible crime, accompanies the presumed murderer to lunch at a posh hotel not far away. Little in the way of explanations comes from the time spent dining together, but the case picks up urgency when the confessing man's body is found a few days later, in the Thames, not a suicide but clearly the victim himself of a gunshot to the back of the head.

As a result, Inspector Rutledge begins a sequence of journeys to a house in the Essex marshes, River's Edge, where Wyatt Russell had resided, and to the oddly frightened and angry villagers who live nearby in the village of Furnham. The case that unfurls involves an extended family, deaths in and around the war, and a much older history that carries threats and the presence of evil, creeping into Rutledge's investigation in multiple ways.

It's a neatly plotted mystery, tight, careful, intriguing, and redolent of "place" -- the isolated areas of England's seacoast where secrets may be carried through the generations. And in that way it resembles Rutledge #10, A Pale Horse. First-time readers of the Todd books will enjoy the careful turns of the narrative and the quiet strength that Rutledge brings to the investigation.

On the other hand, as a fan from book 1 all the way through, I was sorry that three elements of some of the earlier Rutledge books were absent from this one: (1) the eerie power of the voice of a dead man that haunts Rutledge due to mingled shell shock and guilt (Hamish's voice in THE CONFESSION is never really more than a set of subconscious awarenesses of the case and its possible issues; there is no threat conveyed from Hamish to Rutledge); (2) the grating and recognizable friction and persecution that Rutledge has endured as Scotland Yard, due in part to being well educated and in part to the shame of having had treatment for shell shock; and (3) the presence of serious fear and loss that Rutledge must overcome (yes, he gets hurt a bit, but almost as a side effect, without fuss). Moreover, the longings that Charles Todd (a son-and-mother writing team of Anglophiles living in the United States) has portrayed in Rutledge in earlier books -- longings for friendship, romance, trust -- again have little presence or force in this book, and the curious past figure of Meredith Channing, significant in Rutledge's post-war life, is here merely a shadow mentioned every so often without explanation.

So this is one of those odd books that will, I believe, be enjoyed more by the reader who's new to Charles Todd and the wonderful post-World War I investigations created by the author team -- and less by those who have appreciated the unease and quirkiness underlying the earlier volumes, a disturbing portrait of national regret and loss that feels at times close to the powerful "Regeneration" novels by Pat Barker, set in the same period.

That said, I don't regret a minute of the time spent reading this well-written and strong investigation. I only hope the next Rutledge title will have a bit more of the aspects that have best differentiated the series in the past.

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