Inspector Ian Rutledge is an excellent detective even when he's plagued by the ghosts of the Great War and the spirit of Corporal Hamish MacLeod, who seems to always be sitting in the backseat of Ian's motorcar, his voice constantly hammering in Ian's ear. Despite Ian's happiness at seeing his beloved sister, Frances, to the altar, he can't shake the loneliness he's felt since her engagement. He wanted her to marry and move on. Still, she has been the only anchor in his life, a way to ease the screams of the wounded and dying that fill his mind.
While traversing a lonely country road in the dark of night, Ian comes across a woman shaking with the aftermath of shock. Elizabeth MacRae's friend, Stephen Westworth, has just been shot at point-blank range. As Ian sees the black patch across the front of the dead man's shirt opening to the night, he thinks that it could easily have been a lover's quarrel that ended in murder. Elizabeth tells Ian that a man with a gun had suddenly appeared out of the darkness; they had been attending a dinner party in the quaint village of Wolfpit.
As first on the scene, Ian tells Wolfpit's local police constable that he's the best choice to take over the inquiry. Wentworth is a man of some importance, and the circumstances of his death are unusual. Ian is intrigued by Miss MacRae's account of a man waiting by the road. He can't quite believe she had intended to throw the police off the scent by claiming a botched attempt to rob them, highwayman-style. The investigation takes on an ever-darkening mood when Stowmarket's Inspector Reed arrives in Wolfpit, telling Rutledge that he will take over the case.
Todd crafts his 20th Ian Rutledge tale with skill in a plot filled with jealousy, infatuation, passion, grief, and guilt, plus a family inheritance tied to the inescapable hand of fate. Clues are drip-fed to reveal twists, tricks, and red herrings that keep the reader (and Rutledge) guessing. It soon becomes apparent that the townspeople of Wolfpit are harboring quite a few secrets, some as icy and cold as the winter they're freezing through. With Inspector Reed revealing his own animosity towards Wentworth, Ian must be careful not to assume the weight of blame. The case proves to be complex and frustrating, especially when the focus turns to the troubled women in Stephen's life: Miss MacRae's niece, Audrey Blackburn, devastated by news that Stephen Wentworth is dead, shot last night while bringing Miss MacRae home from the dinner party; Stephen's mother, Mrs. Wentworth, whose only real concern is fostering her own bitterness; Inspector Reed's wife, who held a flame for Stephen; Miss Hardy, whom Stephen was originally supposed to drive home; and Mrs. Delany, who tells Ian how terribly fond she was of Stephen, how she felt that her deceased husband's bookshop was "in good hands."
Ian's status as prized sleuth garners much respect and loyalty. Using his connections to gain the ear of the head of Scotland Yard, Ian quickly discovers that he is on the trail of a diabolical killer. There's a secret tied to fabric of Wolfpit, some sort of keeper of the gate that will unlock Stephen's death. Would heartbreak have sent Stephen haring off to Peru just after he'd bought the bookshop he so badly wanted to own? Mrs. Wentworth, with the expressive face of a woman who refuses to relinquish the past, tells the detective that her son had done nothing to redeem himself in her eyes.
Moving from house to house and suspect to suspect, Rutledge makes some troubling findings. Inspector Reed is a jealous man who wishes the killer well for removing a thorn in the side of his own marriage. Aside from how Stephen's mother feels, everywhere else Rutledge turns, people speak well of him. Perhaps he had a secret life that no one knew about: "a wolf in sheep's clothing." After the death of another villager, everything Ian learns about Wentworth's death is turned on its ear. Walking the streets of Wolfpit, a village that has seen two murders in a matter of days, Ian can't believe that no one in the community saw the killer's face. In December 1920, even in Wolfpit, Ian still senses the loss that permeates so much of life: the sad widows, the wounded begging on the street corners, and more young women in the shops than men of military age. From one quaint English village to another, Ian is on the road and constantly on edge, sometimes thinking he has only the voice of Hamish for company.
Ongoing mystery series like this are sometimes hard to keep fresh, but Todd so fleshes out Ian's post-traumatic stress--from his time in the war to his friendship with Melinda Crawford, to his responsible acceptance of life as a lonely, solitary detective--that we find ourselves falling in love with him again and again. In deliberate, genteel tones, Todd writes a distinctly British story: the trials of a once-young detective, wrapped up in happiness in that almost-forgotten summer of 1914, right before the war changed his life forever.