This novel is particularly attractive for its unrelenting strength in the face of adversity, the police determined to find the culprit when five people are murdered in the rural village of Highfield, England. The First World War has just ended, and in 1921 the country is recovering from the terrible loss of lives in that endeavor.
Inspector John Madden is sent from CID in Scotland Yard to oversee the investigation. Madden has lost his wife and child, hoping for some peace now that the war has ended, but he is soon caught up in the senseless scene, the slaughter of a family, their maid and nanny. The weapon is a cause for concern: all the victims were precisely stabbed with a bayonet.
There is one person the killer fails to notice - little Sophy Fletcher, who was hiding under her bed, wedged against the wall with her eyes shut tight. The village physician, Helen Blackwell, discovers the girl and takes her to recuperate in her home. Inspector Madden quietly speaks with the child; she is comforted by his calm mien and gentle manner.
It is Doctor Blackwell who introduces a different approach to the case, psychology used as a tool for solving criminal cases of this nature. Psychiatry is in its infancy, but Inspector Madden is inspired by a friend of Dr. Blackwell's, a Freudian who suggests a different protocol, working towards the killer's identity through his actions: "The soul of man is a far country, impossible to explore."
The inquiry reaches a critical impasse, where CID is divided between standard procedures and Madden's belief that this unique killer is driven by a ritualistic compulsion, reenacting the crime over and over, embellishing the scene as he progresses.
The aftermath of war lies heavy on all the characters, especially Madden, scarred by physical and psychological injuries, and Dr. Blackwell, who has lost a husband and two brothers, and all the men returned from the service, changed by their experiences. The country is still reeling from economic deprivation and tragic personal losses. The murders are a grim reminder of the nature of violence, the quiet country villages decimated by the loss of soldiers.
Into this nightmare the ritualistic killer is born, a man whose soul was lost long ago, brutal fantasies his only preoccupation, as he plans the demise of his next victims. Even as Madden focuses on the suspect, the murderer is planning another slaying, the innocents gathered unsuspecting in the family home.
Set in the early twentieth century, these lawmen do not enjoy the refinements of current forensic science, yet Madden uses his battle-tempered wits to confound a predator as dangerous as any in the field. In quiet prose that transports the reader into the heart of the English countryside where murder lurks, a twisted mind evades the Inspector, a raptor with eyes fixed on his prey.