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Mystery in the Marshes of Essex
on 13 January 2012
The Confession" is the 13th entry in the Inspector Ian Rutledge crime series by "Charles Todd," confusingly enough, both an actual person and a mother/son team working together under the son's name. Both are American, or at least resident in America; mother in Delaware, son, North Carolina. Nevertheless, their two series, the Rutledge, and the Bess Crawford, are set in the United Kingdom, during World War I and its aftermath.
Rutledge has returned to Scotland Yard after his war years, with a whopping case of post-traumatic stress syndrome, known as shell shock at the time and but poorly understood. His problem largely manifests itself by the fact that he frequently hears the voice of his former Scottish Corporal Hamish MacLeod, a good, brave man who had fought beside him through the war, whom Rutledge was forced to execute on the battlefield, as MacLeod would take their troops no further. Now Mac Leod keeps up a private running conversation with him, all in archaic Scottish usage, such as, "You didna' believe him... Ye ken, if ye had..." Rutledge must keep this business secret, as shell shock was disapproved of at the time.
One day, an obviously dying man walks into Scotland Yard to confess that he killed his cousin years ago during the war. When Rutledge presses for details, the man dodges the questions, revealing only that he hails from East of London in Essex. With little information and no body to open an official inquiry, Rutledge begins to look into the case on his own. But less than two weeks later, the supposed killer's body is found floating in the Thames, a bullet hole in the back of his head. As he searches for answers, Rutledge discovers that the dead man was not who he claimed to be. So what was his real name - and who put a bullet in his head? Were the confession and his own death related? Or was there something else in the victim's past that had led to his murder? The inspector's only clue is a gold locket - found around the dead man's neck-that leads back to Essex, to an insular village.
Todd is pretty good in his introduction of the county of Essex. "North of the Thames, north of Kent on the other side of that river, it was threaded with marshes, the coastline a fringe of inlets and a maze of tidal rivers that isolated the inhabitants in a world little changed with the passage of time. Until the war [World War I], the people of that part of Essex had known little about the rest of their county, much less their country, content with their own ways, in no need of modern conveniences or interference in a life that contented them. As Essex moved inland, it was a different story entirely, with towns, villages, and a plethora of roads. Basildon, Chelmsford, Colchester might as well the antipodes as far as the marsh dwellers were concerned...." Well, somehow Todd has set this book in the area of the U.K. where I lived for several years, and yes, of course, we know the western edge of Essex is as described, home of a major Ford plant in Dagenham, connected to London by underground. And the eastern fringe, where I lived, is as described, as well, and was, in fact, because of the marshes, isolated by the lack of roads until World War II; it looked only to the water, to make its living; to send and receive goods.
Todd's action in the book is largely set along the fictional river Hawking, but he frequently mentions the actual rivers of that area, the Blackwater and Crouch, between which I lived. There was a town called Burnham on Crouch; he calls his fictional village Furnham. But his fictional village of Furnham most likely is based on Bradwell, the village where I resided, rather than Burnham, a somewhat inland town. Bradwell is on the North Sea, at the estuary of the Blackwater; isolated and inbred for centuries, indeed, as is "Furnham." An air force base was sited there during World War II--much of it remains to this day. Todd says Furnham was the site of an air force base during World War I.
At the center of THE CONFESSION is the finding, by three men fishing, of a body floating in the river. And here's where it really gets interesting, because I was often told that once three men fishing in the marsh found a man's torso. His killer had foolishly left arms and hands on the torso, so the police were able to identify the dead man as a London gangster, and able to identify his murderer, another London gangster, without much trouble. They never had the complete corpse, it was one of those famous trials without a "corpus delicti," but they were able to get their man convicted, on lesser charges. At the end of his prison term, confident in the knowledge that he could not be tried again, as it would constitute double jeopardy, he'd sold his story to a Sunday tabloid. Seems he'd been planning his murder for some time, and had been taking flying lessons out of Southend, a coastal resort city near Bradwell. After the murder, he took the body, in bits and pieces, up and out in a plane, and dropped the body pieces into the North Sea. But the perpetrator was not a local, and did not realize how tidal the sea was. And so the torso ended up in the marshes. True story. You could Google it. Corpse was Stanley Setty; murderer, Brian Donald Hume.
Well, I was getting increasingly excited as I read this book, recognizing so much, finding it interesting and powerful, quite well-done, though I got tired of MacLeod's archaic Scottish usages three books ago. And then I discovered a problem with the plot, which I dare not disclose for fear of being called a spoiler. I have seen young Charles Todd several times at local mystery weekends sponsored here by the Wilmington, North Carolina library; he seems a charming, intelligent, witty, soft-spoken man without affectation. Perhaps an editor at Morrow can catch the mistake; otherwise, better luck next time, Mr. Todd.