Three descendents of the illustrious Trevelyan clan lay dead—new additions to a family crypt in the churchyard of a tight-knit, tucked-away fishing village called Borcombe. Vague doubts about their apparently non-homicidal deaths swirl like wisps of sea mist along the nearby coast of Cornwall. Scotland Yard, asked to investigate the matter, sends down Inspector Ian Rutledge. It’s just a year or so after the 1918 Armistice, and Rutledge is embarking on his second big case since he returned to police service after a not-quite-complete recovery from shell shock. As he applies his tender mind to the case, the grim family secrets that haunt Trevelyan Hall prove hard to separate from his own gruesome memories of the Western Front.
Each of the recently deceased figures had a connection to the Great War, either through combat or—in case of Olivia Marlowe, a poet who published pseudonymously as O.A. Manning—through an uncanny ability to evoke the horror of battle. Rutledge, an avid reader of Manning, wonders how a woman and an invalid like Olivia could have understood so keenly the evils that he witnessed on the fields of France. Todd’s plot revolves around solving that conundrum. Skillfully using lines of verse from a collection by Manning titled “Lucifer,” the author sets Rutledge on a hunt for literary clues that culminates in his discovery of a devil in the flesh, right there in bucolic Borcombe.
Todd (the pen name of an American mother-and-son team) excels at taking the milieu of Golden Age British detective fiction and investing it with dark psychological shadings and clear-eyed social realism—qualities rarely found in actual mystery stories of the 1920s. This entry in the Rutledge series falters, though, in offering a resolution that is irresolute. A half-dozen mysterious deaths hang from the Trevelyan family tree, but Todd doesn’t fully clarify which of them were murders. A muddled final exposition also fails to illuminate several key details, swathing them instead in a haze of poetic allusion and Cornish superstition.