For a long time I assumed that I did not like historical crime fiction. So it’s taken me a quite a while to get around to reading this novel, the first in a series set in post World War I England featuring a war veteran, Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard.
Charles Todd (an American mother and son writing team) clearly read Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels before embarking on this series. Rutledge, like Wimsey, suffers from shell-shock: the term coined in World War I to describe what is now called combat stress reaction and which is also encompassed by the condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. As is the case for Wimsey, Rutledge’s condition is in part attributable to being buried alive during combat.
However, Sayers described Wimsey’s shell-shock from her knowledge of returned soldiers with the condition who had fought in the battlefields of France. They had been her fellow students and the brothers of fellow students at Oxford University. This first hand experience brought an immediacy and a poignancy to the descriptions of Wimsey’s suffering and the plight of World War I soldiers. (See, for example,The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club)
It may be that the combined Todds know soldiers who suffer from PTSD and I have no doubt that they did their World War I research well. But for me, there was something a bit clinical, a bit manufactured, about the character of Rutledge. I really wanted to like him and to empathise with him, but he didn’t ring entirely true. Other characters remark how ill and thin he looks and rhetorically ask themselves what he has endured, but I didn’t get a true sense of his suffering. To my mind, Todd tends to tell and not show the reader what Rutledge is really like.
And then there’s Hamish. When under stress (which is often) Rutledge hears the voice of Hamish, a Scottish corporal he executed for insubordination in the moments before he was buried alive. I am aware that auditory hallucinations can be a symptom of PTSD. However, I’m not sure that they manifest themselves in quite the way depicted in this novel. Hamish is partly the voice of Rutledge's conscience, partly a manifestation of his sub-conscious, partly a symptom of his psychosis, partly … well, I’m not exactly sure what. In any event, I’m not convinced that the voice of Hamish is an entirely satisfactory device.
As for the mystery, it was competent enough, although with a bit too much dithering around chatting to suspects and not a lot of actual detecting. Plus, the resolution seemed to come out of left field. I’ll have to go back over the book to see if the clues to it were really there for a reader more discerning than I proved to be on this occasion.
Overall, I was interested enough in both the central character and the plot to finish the book – and to do so pretty quickly. I’ll put down its weaknesses to the authors' attempt to find an authentic voice for their central character. I’ll read the next book in the series before deciding whether they were successful in doing so.