Inspector Rudd (Inspector Finch in the original British version of this series) belongs to a cadre of fictional policemen whose investigations constitute a second Golden Age for the English detective story. Begun in the 1960s, led chiefly by women such as P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, and featuring official rather than amateur sleuths, this school takes the “cozy” settings of the prewar Golden Age and suffuses them with acute psychological realism.
Here, the setting is an out-of-the-way village in the Essex countryside, one whose social structure appears to have changed hardly at all since the 19th century. Christopher Lawrence, a university dropout in flight from unspecified mental demons, finds refuge in the home of Maggie Hearn, a spinsterish woman in her fifties. His incursion into her drab life brings out in her a longing, mostly maternal but partly sexual, that causes trouble for them both. The murder of Jess Lambert, a local young woman in whom Chris had taken a sudden interest, turns that trouble into a crisis. Rudd, who lacks charisma but displays an almost priestly level of human understanding, divines the motive forces behind the desperate figures who populate Thomson’s landscape. With the gruff Sergeant Boyce at his side, he also sorts through their comings and goings, their lies and alibis; he even calls in a pack of hounds to track Chris’s scent.
This compact gem of a novel has one flaw: So frequently and so thoroughly does Thomson probe the interior life of characters like Chris and Maggie that it becomes impossible to view them as potential killers. Early on, the reader guesses that the least known suspect, not the least likely one, must be the culprit.