Todd lays out a deceptively simple plot that builds upon Inspector Ian Rutledge’s previous outings as he attempts to piece together the events of the past decade, offering glimpses of events to come. In Hunting Shadows, Todd shatters forever the notion of war’s nobility, where good and evil are absolute polar opposites and characters must unfailingly embrace either one. Amidst the desolate, water-clogged Fens of Cambridgeshire, Rutledge is called upon to solve a double murder in a genteel world where decency and good mostly prevail and where the characters' motivations are not immediately transparent.
The Fens are certainly dangerous for the unwary. Narrow flat fields that stretch for miles:
"a boot in the rich black soil would leave its mark for the hunter to find"; one false step can mean instant drowning. The first thing Rutledge notices is that there’s nothing to offer cover “unless one has learned beforehand to find it.” In a manner that is somehow both predictable and breathtaking, the Inspector is forced to tip his hand.
His road leads to a wedding at the picaresque cathedral town of Ely Cambridge, where on a lovely, humid morning, a small crowd have gathered to watch the arrival of the bride and groom.
Suddenly there’s pandemonium. One of the guests, the well-to-do Captain Hutchinson, is shot, but in the proceeding chaos no one knows quite where the shot came from. Rutledge can hardly stop for a breath before there is another murder: local politician Mr. Herbert Swift is brutally shot through the head just as he’s starting to address his constituents. Helped by Ely’s Inspector Warren, Rutledge begins his investigation and is surprised to learn that many of the townsfolk exclaim they saw something that looked like “a monster.”
Rutledge, meanwhile, can’t seem to get beyond the deep, dense fog that seems to surround Ely and the Fens at every opportunity, a fog
symbolizing the haze that encompasses the case at every possible turn. Forced to seek shelter at Priscilla Bartram’s Dutchman Inn and in the cottage of lonely Miss Trowbridge, for the first time Rutledge feels a distinct sense of unease at this flat landscape and the massive Ely Cathedral that rises above the quaint town “like a great mirage floating on a flat green sea.”
The low-key narrative stretches but its center holds, thanks to Rutledge’s engaging credibility and his gentlemanly manner with the local inhabitants of Ely and Wriston and his innate ability to see through the carefully cultivated façade that was the public Captain Hutchinson. Although the ghost of Hamish is played down in this episode, Rutledge is still plagued by his voice and by the wartime nightmares which overwhelm him. Nights are spent clawing his way through the
heavy ground-hugging fog of gas while the days involve probing through the querulous demands for answers, the results often unsettling reminders of his time in France.
Delving into the pasts of the respective victims, Todd’s embattled hero eventually unfurls a smorgasbord of latent animosities while a shadowy killer
appears and disappears like “a magician’s hat.” What did Hutchinson’s murder have to do with Herbert Smith‘s? Was there a particular order to the two deaths? Was it opportunity, or was there a pattern behind the order? There was no personal connection between the two men,
and the case keeps the police guessing, the witnesses just too frightened to know precisely what it was they saw.
Todd spends much capital on recounting the Fens' genteel old way of life, where water can often isolate one village to the next, making everyone a sort of foreigner. Death seems to lurk everywhere: behind buildings, among the trees, the shadows by the Cathedral, and later in London, where “love scorned” can lead to murder as quickly as “love satisfied.” Todd steps back in time, describing life through the prism of Rutledge’s vivid point-of-view
(including a latent attraction to Miss Trowbridge that the modest older man is ill-prepared to express). Looking back at the fragile web of years, Todd writes a fine mystery with a twist, the story a bracing homage to the many natures of the Fens and the inevitable progress of evil.