Top critical review
Inspector Rutledge rides again
on 7 June 2013
Charles Todd is the pen name of an American mother-and-son writing team that has written fifteen volumes in the series of Inspector Rutledge mysteries. This is the first of them I have read.
The action is set in 1920. Rutledge has returned from convalescing after the war to a post as a detective at Scotland Yard, but he is still suffering from his wartime experiences, particular an incident when he was forced to execute a soldier called Hamish for disobeying orders. He has also recently lost his girlfriend and now has only his sister as a close friend and lives mainly for his work. Hamish remains a haunting voice in Rutledge's head throughout the novel as he struggles to unravel a complex case involving a murder and several other deaths.
It starts with the discovery of a dead body that appears to be the victim of a hit-and-run accident, but it soon becomes apparent that he has been murdered elsewhere and left in the road where he was found. An expensive gold watch on the body is traced to Lewis French, a member of the family firm of French, French and Traynor, producers and importers of superior Madeira wine. Rutledge goes to the family house in Essex, where he has been told that French is waiting for the arrival from Portugal of his partner, Matthew Traynor. But French is not there and when Traynor's boat arrives in England he is not on board, although he definitely started the journey.
From French's sister, bitter because she has been `frozen out' of the family firm, Rutledge learns of family rivalries, and is told a strange story of an incident many years earlier when an apparently deranged Portuguese man arrived at the home and attacked members of the family. He was confined in an asylum for many years, but Rutledge discovers he is now working in the home of a Mrs. Bennett, whose household staff is composed of prisoners and mental patients who have been consigned to her care. As the story progresses, several other significant characters enter the scene, including French's fiancé, his jilted former girlfriend, and the chief clerk at the family firm, some of who come under suspicion. Rutledge's determined efforts to unravel an increasingly tangled web of clues is not helped by his superior officer, who pressurises him to concentrate on one young woman in particular as the main suspect, although Rutledge believes she is innocent of the crime. Eventually all the various loose ends are brought together, and the mystery solved, in a dramatic finale, but it is a rather hurried and not very satisfactory finish.
This is a fairly easy-read detective story, and reasonably enjoyable, but lacks credibility in many respects. Scotland Yard is portrayed as a very amateurish organization, which by 1920 it was not, and would a senior detective conduct a murder investigation in the field almost entirely alone, often putting himself in great danger, while lower ranking officers are assigned to routine tasks `back at base'. There are also other quibbles: the authors often show a lack of understanding of English idiom; Hamish's diction is a laughable mixture of accents; America words are sometimes used instead of their English equivalent (`marketing' instead of `shopping' etc.); and they sometimes get their facts wrong. Examples are: a boat from Portugal would not pass the Dungeness Lighthouse; Rutledge always starts his car by cranking the engine, whereas by 1920 all major manufacturers had introduced starter motors; and lost cats are not taken in by Scotland Yard! With better research, and more attention to the ending, this could have been a better book.