15 March 2010

Back to post-war Britain

I finished a professional project and gave myself leave to escape with a mystery by Charles Todd (actually a mother-son writing team), an author(s?) recommended by Dan Conrad.

The story is set in post-World War I Britain (like Jacqueline Winspear's "Maisie Dobbs" stories and most of Laurie R. King's "Mary Russell" stories).

A local patrician is killed while out riding one morning. No witnesses. Exact scene unknown. The body was found in a pasture some time after the murder. A local investigation seems to indicate that a famous, well-connected local war hero is the murderer. So, the locals send for help from Scotland Yard. Enter Inspector Ian Rutledge.

In the book, A Test of Wills, Ian Rutledge, like Maisie Dobbs, suffers from shell shock (PTSS). His condition is worse than Maisie Dobbs' but not as bad as Maisie's one-time fiance, who is confined to a hospital and unable to speak or care for himself. (The story is also set about a decade earlier than the Maisie Dobbs stories.) Rutledge is haunted by a soldier who mutineed at the front and whom Rutledge killed for his betrayal. The voice of the dead man is part of Rutledge's everyday life. Dark depression waits on the edges of his consciousness to take over.

The post-war period in Western Europe was traumatic for nearly everyone. For Rutledge it meant trying to return to a career that he was quite good at before 1914. A Test of Wills tells the story of his first investigation after the war and after treatment (therapy?) for his shell shock. The scene is rural Warwickshire (northwest of Buckingham -- Stratford upon Avon is in the south of the county). [Coincidence noted below.]

Rutledge's investigation seems to reach the same conclusions as the local one did, but he can't tie up all the loose ends. The voice in his head taunts him. People tell him only what they think is relevant. He keeps probing to find out what they are keeping from him. Of course, he's relentless. The voice in his head and the dark cloud at the edge of his being won't allow anything less. Eventually, he sorts out the details, finds the murderer, and returns to London with his pre-war reputation intact.

The book suffers a bit by comparison to Laurie R. King and Jacqueline Winspear. The story is not as crisply told as King's stories are. But, A Test of Wills is "Charles Todd's" first book. Dan Conrad read a later one and really liked it. I'll read another, but it's more opaque than King's stories. [Remember that teacher in high school or at the university who made it seem that there were secrets and priorities that he/she knew but that she/he wasn't going to explain? I remember several like that. I never could figure out what was most important and what would be on the exam. So I tried to learn everything. Well, this story is told like that. There are scores of details. And the crucial ones aren't revealed until the very end (the exam?). I was disappointed in the resolution as I often was with my grades on those less-than-transparent exams.]

Also, I got less of that feeling of verisimilitude that pervades the Maisie Dobbs stories. I think it has to do with a level of detail in Winspear's books. Ian Rutledge has a car that he uses to get around Upper Streetham, but unlike Maisie's little red MG, I never found out what kind of car it was, how he started it, or how he called the local blacksmith to tow it into town to fix a slashed tire.

I was disappointed in the resolution, but the story telling was satisfying and involving. It was a good book to read while relaxing after the completion of a big deal project. This is the first of an 11-book series, I learned from Wikipedia. From another source I learned that the authors, named as Caroline and Charles Todd, might be using pseudonyms and do not actually live in Delaware, where the publisher says they come from. Another source suggested that the son in this writing team might hold a sensitive position which would suffer from being identified as a mystery writer. Who knows?

Do you know? Have you read A Test of Wills or another of "Charles Todd's" books? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

Oh, and coincidence. A couple days before reading this book, I was researching Warwickshire census records. My dad had searched diligently for ancestors named Wedding in England and never found any. There are many circumstantial clues from colonial Maryland, but no evidence of an English origin for the most senior John Wedding we know of, who died in 1772. Many records are now online in the UK, and I found several families named Wedding living in Warwickshire in the mid-19th century. Older records are not online. Maybe it's time for my research trip to England.

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