Inspector Ian Rutledge’s latest mystery begins as the Germans strafe the harbor of Funchal, Madeira, in 1916. Wine merchant Matt Traynor sees the devastation, and he recalls with fear the bleeding of war-torn France. Connecting to a body washed up on the Sussex Coast in the summer of 1920, Traynor's efforts to escape the enemy's bombardment also connect to London in the summer of 1920, when Ian Rutledge is called to Chelsea in an inquiry he far from relishes.
A man has been killed, inexplicably run down by a motor car, the accident occurring in the predawn hours. There’s no identification apart from a
heavy, well-made gold gentleman’s watch in the victim’s vest pocket. According to Mr. Bedford (who lives nearby and who rapidly becomes Ian’s voice of reason), there’s no sign of blood to show where the man died. Rutledge begins to suspect
that the man was not killed by the motorcar but brought to the area and left for someone to find. Thanks to Ian's gifts as an investigator, he uncovers a strange series of links and just as subtly surfaces a series of connections between the underlying characters and the forbidden secrets of their pasts.
While the watch remains the only vital clue, Rutledge debates whether this is murder or an accident that someone tried to cover up. Battling his claustrophobia, a relic of the trenches (and also the ghost of Hamish), Ian fights back his panic attacks as he thinks about the journey ahead. The trail will eventually lead him to Dedham, a quiet village in Essex, and to the ancestral home of
a wealthy French family.
For Ian, every single day is an existential crisis, a crisis that grows even more pronounced when wealthy wine merchant Lewis French vanishes, his sudden absence a cause for concern for sister Agnes French and pretty fiancé Mary Ellen Townsend. Lewis was heavily involved in the final preparations for his cousin’s arrival from Portugal, and there was something that he wanted to discuss with Mr. Traynor.
As the wistful confessions of ex-girlfriend Valerie Whitman unravel her bucolic existence, a former tutor to the French sons tells Ian about a man who barged into the French estate one night and threatened the entire family. A Portuguese farmer’s troubled son, the man was hidden away in an isolated private clinic.
From a helpful curate who becomes Ian’s partner in crime to Mary Ellen, who Ian is convinced knows the whereabouts of Lewis, to Acting Chief Superintendent Markham, who weighs the facts and decides there’s no alternative but to charge both Miss Whitman and her grandfather on suspicion of murder, Rutledge is flummoxed at a case that circles around a body without a name and two missing men who are neither alive nor dead.
There's also poor, put-upon Agnes, a woman convinced that life has given her less than she deserves because she’s lived for so long in the shadow of her brother and her cousin.
Utilizing his keen eye for period detail, Todd tells all with admirable simplicity, clarity of prose and sharp, pitch-perfect dialogue--all of which keeps the story moving and the pages turning. Much of the investigation is shrouded in ambivalence, and readers shouldn’t expect any easy answers. In the end, none of the story’s threads tie that well together, except for one pivotal scene in which Ian is forced to fight for his life on the edge of an isolated waterway.
Ever the stalwart investigator, Ian goes in a skeptic but is caught up in a subtle web of long-held animosities, the murderer within reach but able to outwit Rutledge at every opportunity.
Suspicion and the search for proof never subside. The overall tone of the book is infused with emptiness and melancholy.
There’s an ironic twist that solves part of the mystery, although by story's end, Todd ends up posing more questions than answers.