Readers unfamiliar with Charles Todd’s superlative Ian Rutledge mystery series, set in Britain in the aftermath of World War I, will soon learn that the Scotland Yard detective carries scars from his own service in the Great War. He’s haunted by the voice of Corporal Hamish MacLeod, whose refusal to follow a direct military order to lead his battle-weary men into yet another deadly skirmish ended in his execution by military firing squad—on Rutledge’s orders. Rutledge, himself a victim of shell shock, or what we’d now surely call post-traumatic stress disorder, finds the voice of Hamish echoing in his mind, throughout his waking hours and in his nightmares.
In A Lonely Death, Rutledge is faced with the deaths of four young men from the town of Eastfield in Sussex, all of whom served in the war, and who are murdered in separate incidents, each garroted and with the military identity disc of another, unknown, soldier in their mouths. With little to go on, Rutledge, alternately helped and hampered by Hamish’s warning voice, sets out to find the killer, someone who must be closely connected with the town and with the backgrounds of these returning soldiers.
In Eastfield, Rutledge deals with a slew of red herrings as he meets the townspeople, including a stiff-necked brewery owner; a teacher at the Misses Tate Latin School who has ties to the victims as schoolboys; a housewife caring for her war-injured husband; and police constables, inspectors, and sergeants galore. The plot leads the reader up many garden paths before yielding up clues that shed light on the tragic events. Rutledge searches for the elusive Daniel Pierce, brother of one of the victims, and seeks to uncover the identity of another shadowy figure: a long-forgotten fellow student from the boys’ childhood days and a victim of their schoolboy pranks.
As much an ongoing character study of a haunted man and war survivor as it is a mystery story, this complex and dark entry in a fine series will yield treasures to the patient reader, with its many threads of romance cut off by war’s tragedy and separation, including Rutledge’s encounter with the woman he loves, herself searching for a husband missing in action. These are among the harrowing legacies, sympathetically told, of a war that still rages within many of its survivors, and whose scars will take many a year to heal.