(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Ian Rutledge is a university-trained police officer who volunteered for service at the beginning of World War I, referred to as the Great War in Britain. Somewhat miraculously, he survives the horrors of the western front although he loses both his idealism and his will to live. During the Somme offensive in 1916 he is given a routine assignment to destroy a machine gun emplacement, and his corporal, Scot Hamish MacLeod, refuses to lead his men over the top to attack the Germans. A good and loyal soldier until then, MacLeod explains that he can no longer willingly order his men to certain death. Because he refused an order in combat, MacLeod is sentenced to immediate execution by Rutledge, and at dawn the next day a firing squad carries out the order. Rutledge dispatches the coup de grâce. Seconds later he and his men are hit by an artillery shell, burying him alive. When he is dug out, he is suffering from shell shock and is sent home. His sister, Frances, removes him from a military hospital to a private clinic, where through the understanding care of a clinic doctor, Rutledge begins his long road to recovery.

After Rutledge’s discharge, he returns to Scotland Yard, the only occupation at which he thinks he is good. There, under the ever-watchful eye of Chief Superintendent Bowles, who both hates him and fears him because of his university education and war service, Rutledge is given a series of risky, potentially career-stalling assignments aiding various murder investigations outside London to induce him to crack under the strain or to embarrass him into resigning because of his incompetence. Bowles’s machinations play on Rutledge’s insecurities about regaining the prewar detective skills he fears he may have lost because of his precarious mental condition. His recurring memories of the war and its horrors are often triggered by inconsequential daily events or smells or sounds, and more frighteningly by the sound of Hamish MacLeod’s voice, which can echo in his mind at any time, frequently at very awkward moments. The voice of MacLeod sometimes serves as a moral guide or as a cautionary reminder and also acts as a foil for Rutledge’s intuition.

The mother-and-son team known as Charles Todd set each of the first ten Rutledge novels in a different part of Great Britain, always outside London, usually in a village or small town or some rather remote rural location. Although Todd moves the settings of the novels around in this way, the locales do tend to be rather the same. Hamlets with close-knit inhabitants, often related by blood or marriage; ancient feuds that bring past slights or injuries into the present; and locals who distrust the outsider, the “man from London,” who has been sent to interfere in their lives. The distrust of outsiders is usually personified by the local chief constable, who feels Rutledge’s presence to be an intrusion into his turf. Also in each of the novels, no matter where it is set, the presence of the war is pervasive in the wounded servicemen, the suffering and loss of those whose loved ones did not return, and in the lingering memories of wartime privations and the scourge of the plaguelike influenza pandemic that followed the war.

The novels in this series are paradigmatic English (and Scottish) village mysteries, all held together by the troubled and likable Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge, who in spite of his war-induced injuries, struggles to bring order amid murder and to discover the truth of not only the crimes he undertakes to solve but also of the human condition.

A Test of Wills

The Rutledge novels are set a month apart, beginning in June, 1919, when Rutledge returns to Scotland Yard in A Test of Wills. Still recovering from months of hospitalization and rejection by his fiancé, Jean, who could not cope with his shattered mind, Rutledge is sent to Upper Streetham in Warwickshire to investigate the shooting death of Colonial Harris, veteran of the Boer and the Great War, who apparently had no enemies in the world. His struggle to keep his madness and claustrophobia under control contend with his gradually strengthening sense of professional competence.

Wings of Fire

In Wings of Fire (1998), Rutledge has not only survived his initial test but also managed to solve a tricky mystery, so in July, Bowles sends Rutledge off to Cornwall to examine the death of three members of a distinguished local family, one of whom was a major English poet and wrote understandingly about the war under the pseudonym of O. A. Manning. Quoting her poems becomes a recurring motif in the later novels. By the second book in the series, Todd had established the format of the novels to come. Rutledge arrives as a stranger in a tight-knit community, makes himself unpopular by interrogating everyone, tacking from...

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