A Test of Wills by Charles Todd: A review
"...One fine June morning, as the early mists rose lazily in the warm sunlight like wraiths in no hurry to be gone, Colonel Harris was killed in cold blood in a meadow fringed with buttercups and cowslips, and his last coherent thought was anger."That sentence, occurring near the beginning of Charles Todd's first entry in the Inspector Ian Rutledge series, gave promise of an interesting and well-written mystery. That promise did not hold up all the way through the book. At points, it became tedious, and the ending was surprising but also somewhat disappointing, seeming a bit contrived. However, overall, the book was a rewarding read which kept my interest throughout even though I got a bit impatient with the writer at times.
In Ian Rutledge, the mother and son writing team who comprise "Charles Todd," have created a sympathetic and intriguing character. Rutledge was a rising star at Scotland Yard before World War I took him away. He served his time in the trenches and came home with a medal of honor and a serious case of what was then called "shell shock," a malady which we know today as post traumatic stress disorder. Those who suffered from shell shock in World War I were seen somehow as cowards or "lacking in moral fiber." It was a shameful thing and so it is not surprising that Inspector Rutledge is determined to hide his condition from Scotland Yard when he returns to work there.
Rutledge, in addition to being a victim of shell shock, is also a victim of an envious supervisor at Scotland Yard. When word comes of Colonel Harris's murder and the fact that the prime suspect seems to be a decorated captain who is a personal favorite of the monarch, his supervisor sends Rutledge, alone, to investigate in hopes that he will be disgraced, either by arresting the royals' favorite or by being unable to solve the mystery.
On arriving in Warwickshire, where the murder had taken place, Rutledge finds that everyone in the village has nothing but praise for Colonel Harris. He was apparently a paragon of virtue and no one, except for one angry and somewhat deranged person in the village who has an air-tight alibi for the time of the murder, would have wanted to kill him.
The inspector goes about his investigation in a plodding way, with the aid of a local sergeant, interviewing one person after another, trying to find witnesses who may shed light on the seemingly incomprehensible killing.
In his inquiries, he finds that one important witness is a local man, home from the war, who also suffers from shell shock. The man is very much on the edge of insanity and he is scorned by his fellow villagers for what they perceive as cowardly conduct in the war, and his statements are discounted and ignored by them. Rutledge, though, sees through to the man's pain and believes that his observations may be key to the solving of the murder.
Another of his important witnesses is a small girl who was playing in the area where the murder took place and may have seen it or the murderer. She is now in deep shock, unable to speak, eat, or sleep and the local doctor fears for her life. Rutledge must find a way to reach her and find out what she knows.
All signs, all the evidence, seem to point to the decorated captain who had quarreled with the colonel the night before and then again on the morning of his murder. But Rutledge is not satisfied. His intuition tells him there is more here than what appears on the surface and he keeps digging. Meanwhile, his supervisor in London is hoping that he is digging a hole from which he can't extricate himself.
The key to this tale is the way people deal with traumatic events in their lives - whether it is a small child or veteran of war. The writer has dealt with this psychological drama in a compassionate and empathetic manner and has created a character in Ian Rutledge who seems to have plenty of room for growth and development. There are several more books in this series and I am definitely putting them on my "to be read" list.