Set in the fine summer of 1914, Todd’s novel offers a prequel of sorts, the quaint villages of rural England giving an historical backdrop to an unusual mystery that begins with the inexplicable hanging of a successful furniture maker. Inspector Ian Rutledge casts his net wide and far into shadows, knocking on inconspicuous doors while begging for a chance from officious Senior Detective Gibson of Scotland Yard to find the link to a series of murders.
Ian, meanwhile, has an invitation to attend Melinda Crawford’s party in Kent and to dine with his fiancé, Jean, who seizes every chance she can to spend more time in her beau’s company. At twenty-four, Ian is strong-minded and courageous--much to the chagrin of his father, who would rather his son join the family firm of solicitors. Intelligent, with a quick wit and a biting sense of humor, Ian is undoubtedly love with Jean and has asked her to marry him on the same “fine summer’s day” that the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife are murdered. As the affairs in Europe look increasingly ominous, Ian himself is torn between Jean’s insistence that he sign up for military duty rather than catch a killer.
He's "not a soldier. I don’t kill people. I arrest those who do.”
Meanwhile, in the quaint town of Moresby on the northeast coast of Yorkshire, fifty-six-year-old Ben Clayton
(“an unremarkable man”) is found hanging from the banister inside his family home. Moresby’s local officer, Inspector Faraday, believes that Clayton committed suicide over the recent death of his wife. There’s no struggle, the house is not in disarray, and there
are no marks on Clayton’s body. Perhaps his death was simply caused by a friend who had harbored a hatred that finally spilled over into bloodshed.
What starts out as a mundane and trivial venture for this Inspector may soon open the investigation to murders in other villages. Traveling though a number of insular communities, Rutledge cannot accept that the murderer could be a local. There’s no clear-cut solution to the crime and no single piece of evidence that can lead to an arrest. This leads Ian to follow a strange trail that includes the victims, all men who have seemingly lived exemplary lives. Their homes show no signs of a break-in, and there’s no struggle.
Nothing has been left at the scene except a glass of milk laced with laudanum. Ian is truly perplexed at how the three murders in Moresby, Stoke Yarlington, and the bucolic village of Aylesbridge could be connected.
Once again, Todd’s lovely English landscapes are the highlight of this series.
What sets this book apart from the others is how the author delves deep into the heart of his hero’s personal conflicts. Ian is so deeply etched that we live and breathe his personal frustrations, especially his dealings with Chief Bowles, who at every turn sets up roadblocks to the investigation, threatening to sabotage Ian’s insatiable desire to find the killer.
In melancholy tones, we see Rutledge torn between a man’s desire to do what he feels he’s been born to do while also trying to resist the pressure from selfish Jean to honor the Army’s “circle of obligation.” Ian stubbornly resists any suggestion of change. While Jean’s friends see the darkening clouds of Europe as a chance to cover themselves in glory, Ian is far more realistic, well aware of how war’s bloodlust can “spread on the wind”
like a plague, infecting everyone it touches. From a killer intent on revenge preying on the desperate to Scotland Yard, where Bowles’ animosity towards Ian is perhaps a mix of both the personal and professional, Todd’s serpentine tale crosses social classes and the realpolitik involved in a country preparing for a terrible, bloody battle that will last far beyond the Christmas of 1914.
From a boy and his mother, both consumed from a guilt by association that
wears away at them “like drops of water until it scours the soul,” Rutledge finally has all the parts of the puzzle within his grasp. Todd’s trusted, embattled hero is once again buoyed along by excitement of outsmarting even the most careful and methodical of killers.