Monday, January 20, 2014

The Early Technologies of Violence

Charles Todd, Hunting Shadows: An Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery

One humid September day in 1920, a gunman climbs the cathedral steeple in secluded Ely, England, armed with an Enfield rifle and a newfangled German telescopic sight. This rudimentary sniper technology lets him assassinate a corrupt Army captain amid a huge crowd and escape unseen. When he shoots a local barrister two weeks later, local police contact Inspector Ian Rutledge, Scotland Yard, to solve a case beyond their rudimentary skills.

American author Charles Todd, actually a mother-and-son team, has made a career writing intense, atmospheric British mysteries with a muscular American style. This, Todd’s sixteenth Inspector Ian Rutledge novel, continues their blend of meticulous anglophilia and bold procedural mythmaking. They create a breathtaking landscape of British grandeur and stiff-upper-lip secrecy. Sadly, they don’t create character nearly as well here as they have previously.

Rutledge must investigate two murders in Britain’s Fen Country, several miles apart in a region where neighboring towns literally don’t talk to each other. The victims share no visible connection, except their mode of death. In a milieu lacking CSI technology, much forensic precedent, or even reliable telephone communication, Rutledge can only trust his wits. This becomes even more true when neighbors hate the first victim enough to protect his killer.

Charles Todd’s novels attract comparisons to Agatha Christie, specious comparisons that only make sense because, um, Britain. But this isn’t a cerebral puzzle, where the hero must unpack clues, Encyclopedia Brown-style. Todd’s storytelling more resembles Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett than Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle. Inspector Rutledge doesn’t play intellectual games; he hunts murderers, who have the means to kill and the will to live.

But Todd’s novels also turn on Inspector Rutledge’s lingering struggles with postwar trauma. A Western Front veteran, Rutledge returned to a Britain where “shell shock” was regarded as a form of cowardice. He must resume his responsibilities while squelching his lingering wartime flashbacks. That would be easier if Hamish MacLeod, Rutledge’s sergeant whom he shot for mutiny, didn’t follow him everywhere as a disembodied Jiminy Cricket.

This is my third Inspector Rutledge novel, and I’ve long enjoyed this struggle. Rutledge must uncover truths about others while concealing truths about himself that could scuttle his career. That makes it more disappointing when, of the Rutledge novels I’ve read, this one invests the least in Rutledge’s ongoing backstory. Todd reduces his personal history to the occasional intrusive paragraph, while Hamish simply pipes up to periodically scold Inspector Rutledge.

Not that Todd doesn’t pitch a remarkable novel. His/their attention to detail recreates a Britain that only existed very briefly. The Victorian English resolve murdered during World War I leaves a country obsessed with appearances, maintaining postures of prewar dignity while untreated wounds fester under the surface. This is the England of Ford Madox Ford and Downton Abbey, and it would die screaming mere years later during the Blitz.

And Todd’s procedural mystery packs an aggressive punch that only velvet-gloved gentility could produce. Rutledge must ask questions that good, mannerly British people shouldn’t ask, much less answer. The Fen Country’s near-feudal culture doesn’t appreciate some London dandy prodding community secrets. While the outside world allowed the War to change it, the Fens endured. Rutledge represents the objective, scientific Twentieth Century intruding on venerable Jacobite stateliness.

No, Todd certainly creates a good, freestanding mystery novel. But many authors do that. I anticipate new Charles Todd novels because he/they usually incorporate multiple layers. The War depleted Scotland Yard’s aristocratic leadership, permitting territory feuds as acrimonious as Highland clan wars. Rutledge’s prewar friends intrude on his postwar recovery. Rutledge must balance his fraught personal life against his lawkeeping career, often at great personal cost.

This novel just lacks that. It exists on one level, allowing occasional, teasing interruptions from Rutledge’s backstory, but never insistent or durable enough to influence the larger novel. Instead, Rutledge and his trusty motorcar crisscross the Fens, interviewing sources and reconstructing the events precipitating the murders. Todd creates a cast of thousands; keep notes on the endpaper. This results in a long, talky novel, varying little in tone or pace.

Established Charles Todd fans may enjoy this novel within the Rutledge canon. But I can’t recommend this for casual readers or Rutledge newbs. Todd creates a pleasant but ordinary period mystery, just one among many the publishing houses mass-produce anymore. Audiences with catholic tastes will find this book sadly one-note and common. Considering his/their long, prestigious track record, this unremarkable novel just isn’t up to Charles Todd’s usual standards.

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