Friday, January 21, 2011

Charles Todd's A Lonely Death--Mystery Steeped in History

Charles Todd* has been writing mysteries for over a decade now, the majority of which have starred Ian Rutledge, a Scotland Yard detective and, maybe even more significantly, a veteran of the first World War. The years following WWI were tough on England, and all its people, veterans or not, suffered scars both physical and mental. Literally haunted by what he saw and did during the war, Rutledge struggles to hold himself together, clinging to the mysteries he’s assigned by the Yard as one of the only means he has to avoid drowning in the terrors of war he carries around with him every day.

I love the Ian Rutledge books. I’ve loved them since the first one, but lost touch after the first several because I moved to a small Texas town without a bookstore. Now, with the latest, A Lonely Death, I’ve rediscovered the moody, vivid world Rutledge inhabits, and one of the great detectives of modern mystery.

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the mysteries of Agatha Christie. Oddly enough, the transition from my fourth grade fascination with Egypt and Houdini to a fifth grade desire to read every Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, and other assorted detective mysteries by Christie seemed natural. Of course, my parents thought my reading habits were a bit morbid and violent, but, if you think about it, Agatha Christie is a pretty tame read for an avid, budding mystery reader.

Christie wrote during what’s called the Golden Age of Mystery, and, in many ways, defined it. British writers like herself and Dorothy L. Sayers, and American ex-pats like John Dixon Carr, created or refined and perfected longstanding mystery types like the locked-room mystery, the cozy, the amateur detective, among other. And, despite all the dead bodies, with rare exception** they were fairly safe and confined, with little threat to the detective solving the case, no matter how many bodies may stack up around them.

Part of the reason I like Todd’s Ian Rutledge books is because they are set in much the same setting as those mysteries of the Golden Age—Great Britain between the World Wars. However, it is not the safe world, the cozy world, the contained world of Agatha Christie. Instead, here, the shock, the horrible experiences from the war loom and infect the whole of the British Isles, from the high life of London to the sleepy little towns of rural Wales.

Mysteries set in historical times use the past in two ways: either as a means of creating an interesting atmosphere, or using the period to reflect on contemporary issues. A Lonely Death does both. First, the details of post-war Britain are rich and evocative. Second, and more interesting, is how Todd uses the context of war and what it did to an entire country to explore the nature of evil—how the evil people do can feed into war, how war can mask and even provoke evil in us, and, yes, how the evils of war last long after peace is declared.

A Lonely Death is the thirteenth Ian Rutledge mystery, and, although you don’t have to have read all previous books to understand what’s going on, this one is deep enough into the series that some of the nuances of Rutledge as a character are glossed over. Today we understand the shock of war affects soldiers as post-traumatic stress syndrome, but back then they had no such term, no such understanding. Rutledge is haunted by what he saw in the war, what he did, and what he did not do. In fact, he’s literally haunted by the voice in his head of Hamish, a fellow soldier from the war whose bravery led to his death, a death Rutledge feels responsible for. The early books are driven by Rutledge’s struggles to keep Hamish at bay; here we find a Rutledge maybe more at ease, maybe resigned to the voice in his head.

I will say, some of the subplots wrapped up a little too neatly to make this the best of Charles Todd’s Rutledge mysteries, but A Lonely Death is a fine addition to the series, whether this is your first exposure to them or your thirteenth.

*Charles Todd is actually the nom de plum of a mother-son writing duo.

**Obviously, titles like Ten Little Indians or And Then There Were None, where **SPOILER ALERT** everyone ends up dead, prove the exception to the rule.

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