CHARLES TODD. A Test of Wills (1996).

06 Mar

The overt trappings of setting, character, and social observation in this tale are cut from the snug, well-worn cloth of the cozy-mystery tradition. With a sure hand, Todd knits together a world peopled by a pompous vicar, a crotchety doctor, a shiftless town radical, and other types who could easily have wandered over from a work of light rustic comedy. The authorial pair, however (“Todd” is a mother-and-son team), introduce a troubled protagonist and a level of complex plotting that take the book into decidedly uncozy territory. The result is a début novel that delivers the slow, seductive pleasures of a classic British procedural, and then adds to them an unusually dark resonance.

The year is 1919, and Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard has emerged from the Great War not only with a bad case of shell shock, but also with an imaginary companion who goes by the name of Hamish. But Hamish, an acerbic Scotsman, isn’t very companionable; he taunts the man whose mind he inhabits with guilt-inducing commentary about the many horrors that Rutledge witnessed on the Western Front. TestWills.jpg Here, on his first big murder case since returning to the police force, Rutledge must ward off Hamish’s jibes and keep his mental turmoil well hidden, all while matching wits with the gentle folk of Upper Streetham, an idyllic-seeming village out in Warwickshire. He’s gone there to investigate the fatal shooting of Colonel Richard Harris. Swirling about the village’s pretty drawing rooms and ambling country lanes are secrets of love and war that connect the main characters in myriad ways, and any of those connections might have led to murder. The chief suspect in the Harris murder is Captain Mark Wilton, a flying ace who was overheard arguing with the victim on the eve of the crime. Did that argument have anything to do with Wilton’s engagement to Lettice Wood, a bewitching young woman who was Harris’s ward? And what of Miss Wood herself? Could she have raised a shotgun to her shoulders and blown away her guardian’s head on a fine June morning? Others in the cast include Laurence Royston, the colonel’s estate agent, whose upright demeanor hides a shameful deed in his past; Catherine Tarrant, a painter celebrated in London but shunned in her own community; and Mrs. Davenant, a cousin of Wilton’s and an elusively beautiful widow who may have loved Harris unrequitedly.

Keeping track of the motives and movements of those suspects is a heady task for Rutledge. (Nor is it an easy task for the reader, especially when it comes to tracking which character was in which place at which time. The book should come with a map of the area near the crime scene.) The villagers harbor their own suspicions of “the man from London,” as they call Rutledge—suspicions that run stronger than their wish to find out who killed Harris. The gravest challenge that Rutledge faces, meanwhile, is the one posed by the faceless Hamish. Under assault from the latter’s constant baiting, Rutledge worries that his youthful mastery of the sleuthing arts might have been a casualty of war. Yet, in the end, it’s precisely his willingness to wrestle with Hamish and other inner demons that enables him to understand and identify a culprit.

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Posted by on March 6, 2011 in British, Historical, Novel, Procedural, Puzzle


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