Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Charles Todd, HUNTING SHADOWS: Newest Insp. Ian Rutledge Mystery

This week's news from England included lowland flooding that's wiping out a small town -- with the promise of more of the same, thanks to global climate change. It's a sobering prediction. And it takes me back into HUNTING SHADOWS, which I read with pleasure a couple of weeks ago. This time the Todds -- son and mother writing team, under a single nom de plume -- take Inspector Ian Rutledge to England's Fen country, a lowland that's similar in some ways to Holland, and to the New Jersey Meadows: Human-made channels crisscross the landscape to drain the land and make it crop-worthy. Adding another "Dutch" touch is the presence of windmills, though they may no longer be needed or functioning; they pumped water, it seems. And they are the speechless giants of the terrain, the remnants of another time that pull Rutledge into the uneasy time warp of World War I that continues to affect his thinking and his everyday functioning.

For Rutledge is a "shell-shocked" survivor of the Battle of the Somme in World War I, and as series fans know, his particular mental disorder takes the form of an active and often cruel voice in the back of his mind, that of his close friend Hamish, whom Rutledge had ordered shot during the critical moment before the bombs fell. Hamish is protective of Rutledge -- he's likely to snap "Ware!" (Beware!) at him when danger approaches. In the Fen country, Hamish seems as overwhelmed at Rutledge himself by the fraught silences of the landscape and its people.

Rutledge is here because two murders have taken place, clearly by the same assassin, perhaps a sharpshooter torn loose of inner moorings by the war and its aftermath. And the victims are part of the upper middle class, even the upper class, so the pressure on Rutledge's Acting Chief Superintendent at Scotland Yard goes directly onto the inspector: Solve the crimes, and for heaven's sake, find the shooter before another killing takes place.

Yet in a rural community where nobody seems quite willing to tell him all he needs to know, Rutledge is doubly handicapped. Moreover, what a witness seems to have seen -- a monstrous face just before the rifle fired -- ties into whispers of a legendary assassin that the inspector recalls from his own wartime service. And the fear and anxiety linked with that tie are enough to rouse his inner guardian, Hamish, to an edgy anger that punishes Rutledge once again, even as he struggles to solve the crimes, mostly solo.

Although this mystery has less tangles with that angry Scottish voice in Rutledge's mind, and less to do with the expiation that it demands of him, HUNTING SHADOWS takes Rutledge to the edge of new possibilities in his life: Could it be that his own losses and mourning have lost their sharp edge, so that he can perhaps admit some affection for others in his life? Series readers will enjoy the slow metamorphosis of this compelling figure of Scotland Yard detection; those new to the Todd series will find enough guideposts to make the book read well, but are also likely to come away from this title with a determination to read all of the series from the beginning, in A Test of Wills. It's a great fit with the Jacqueline Winspear books, or with Pat Barker's Regeneration series, as well as an intriguing way to dig into World War I history and the English aftermath -- especially appropriate in 2014, as we mark 100 years since the start of the "War to End All Wars."

The Charles Todd books alternate between Rutledge and another series, the Bess Crawford mysteries. I like both -- but it's the Rutledge ones that take root in my mind, much as Hamish continues to accompany this Scotland Yard inspector. For more of our Charles Todd reviews, click here; and to search our holdings, click here instead.

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