Todd’s historical mysteries are particularly rewarding for the way they frame a turbulent era still trying to recover from the horrors of the Great War. In 1920 in bucolic Padstow, Cornwall, the strict world of class and propriety clashes with murder. Initially reluctant to adopt the orders of his superior, Chief Superintendent Markham, Inspector Ian Rutledge travels to Padstow after complaints to the Home Office: Four women of good family have been accused of attempted murder. The victim, Harry Saunders, was known to them. There was also a witness, Bradford Trevose, who himself tried to rescue Saunders. Trevose
says that the women--Kate Gordon, Elaine St. Ives, Victoria Grenville, and Sarah Langley--used an oar to try to kill Saunders.
Rutledge is tasked with finding out whether the girls could have done such a thing and if there’s any evidence to the contrary. With Harry still in a coma, it’s beginning to look bad for the four women. Inspector Barrington, the first detective to lead the case, died of a heart attack the day after he arrived, which only adds fuel to Ian’s reluctance to get involved in an investigation
with Olivia Marlowe and her war poetry is still so vivid on his mind. Ian’s fondest memories of Olivia are cold comfort as he puts the valise in the boot of his motorcar and sets off for the West Country. Ian is
still haunted by the voice of Hamish, the young Scot he was forced to execute in the summer of 1916 for directly refusing an order.
Upon arriving in Cornwall, Rutledge learns from Constable Pendennis that the girls are being held at the Grenville family home of Padstow Place. Everyone is talking about how Trevose
saw the four women trying to shove Saunders’ head beneath the water. The families of the girls are outraged at the accusations, adamant that the girls be kept in their Padstow Place rooms rather than in a filthy gaol cell.
As disbelief, anger, and a sense of helplessness echo throughout, Rutledge discovers that there was indeed bad blood between the Grenvilles and Trevoses. Even Harry Saunders’ father believes in the guilt of the four women accused of the attack on his son.
Though Rutledge often gets sidetracked, he’s a talented detective who always gets to the bottom of the case. From the local vicar, Mr. Toup, who tells Ian that he’s known Miss Grenville and Miss St. Ives since when they were christened, to the mysteriously missing statements of Inspector Barrington, Ian finds it hard to believe that beautiful Kate Gordon could ever be a party to attempted murder. Harry could well have drowned simply because they were not strong enough to lift a fully clothed wet man into the boat.
Pretty, dark-haired Kate doesn’t remember anything about the oar--only that Victoria tried to put it out for Harry to cling to.
Moving between the bucolic village of Heyl, the sea-side village of Padstow,
and the dark heart of the River Camel, Todd again imitates the structure and style of the great Edwardian mystery novels. With Harry Saunders still unconscious, the girls are absolutely flummoxed at why Mr. Trevose
has accused them of trying to drown him. Only Mrs. Grenville has the courage to speak up, telling Rutledge that Trevose had every reason to wish her family ill. From a tangled dream featuring Olivia Marlowe and Kate Gordon
and his long-held feelings for Kate’s cousin, Jean, Rutledge continues to chase shadows. Soon he’s in danger of reading too much into all the bits of evidence in a case that sometimes proves to be wishful thinking.
Even after one character is almost bludgeoned to death and another brutally murdered, Rutledge’s serpentine actions
are mired in propriety and genteel manners. The demands of a detective’s life
stand in sharp contrast to the delicate accused women and to a mystery girl who is perhaps the vicar’s cousin, someone who cared for Harry Saunders, or even someone far more sinister. From Vicar Toup, whom Ian is convinced is protecting this girl, to her connection to a damaged dinghy, to the death of a young footman on St. Michael’s Mount, to Elaine’s disfigured brother, George St. Ives, who wanders the village at night
(a “hero son who had returned covered not in glory, but in swaths of bandaging"), Ian becomes convinced that the sullen, elusive farmer Bradford Trevose knows more about the attempted murder of Harry Saunders than he’s letting on.
As the story winds down, we discover a love born out of murder and adversity. Todd gives us an astute insight into the rhythms of a country still trying to account for a generation of men lost in battle. Ian Rutledge is not immune, a man well regarded for his refinement and his sensitivity. In the end, the girls’ guilt or innocence seems less important than the small community at the heart of this scandal. It’s impossible not walk away from this novel without mourning the good folks of Padstow, both old and new, who along with Rutledge remain emotionally scarred and battered.