Books A Test of WillsA Test of Wills, (1996) by Charles Todd is the first of what has become a series of some seventeen novels featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard.  It proceeds as we’ve come to expect from a certain type of cozy English mystery novels, with many suspects, multiple gentlemanly interviews and a long loops of suspects eliminated, added back, red herrings appearing before leading to a last page solution.  No fist fights, no car chases, no beatings.  Just puzzles, inviting the reader to match wits with the author.

What makes the series unusual is that it takes place in the years just after WW I and Inspector Rutledge is a war-damaged former British officer.  Woven into his police work are constant threads of what Rutledge had been before the war — a famed detective– and what he is now, struggling with shell-shock and doubtful of his skills, burdened with war memories and guilt.  After being buried alive and shooting one of his own soldiers for cowardice, he carries a loud, insistent conscience around with him.  Hamish alternately mocks him, doubts his judgments, reminds him of his war-guilt. We get used to, and expect,  his interruptions, suggestions and corrections.

When the authors, Charles Todd, and his mother Caroline, who co-writes many of the books with him, are interviewed, it turns out that they deliberately chose to look at war, not simply as an interesting background to tell detective tales against, but as the source of much human behavior. It is also surprising that the Todds are Americans, not Brits; setting the mysteries in England was a deliberate choice as well, rather than say, in Baltimore. The British, they rightly point out, were much more affected by the war; many more men were killed and injured, the economy was left in dire straits.

A Test of Wills takes place in June, 1919, seven months after the armistice.  Rutledge has gone back to Scotland Yard which he left to fight in the war.  However, Bowles, his boss, is not sure that he hasn’t lost a step or two.  When a Victoria Cross awarded army Captain is a chief suspect in the shotgun murder of former Colonel it seems a perfect place to send Rutledge. If the killer is actually the Capt, his VC, and the interest shown him by the British Royals will help scuttle Rutledge career; if it is not the Capt,  failing to track a real killer will also prove Bowles’ suspicions.  It’s a hard nut and he may well choke on it.

Notwithstanding that Upper Streetham is a small British village there are plenty of suspects to introduce to the reader.  Several of them are also war-wounded veterans, one of whom has a walloping drinking problem.  Women are not excluded as suspects either. One had been engaged to the Captain, and was a ward of the murdered man; another had fallen in love, during the war, with a German POW sent to work through on her property during the days. Despite her pleas for intervention from the well placed Colonel, he was sent away, and died of influenza. One of the women is thought to have been capable of the very un-female and bloody murder — a shotgun blast, destroying the face– because she had been nurse in the war, and was used to seeing blood and terrible wounds

A nice character actor is included in the mix of people in the town, ranting about the corruptions of capitalism and the coming revolution,  likely an accurate addition for these years soon after the Russian Revolution had inspired so many (and terrified so many others.)

The use of psychology and war, the power of resentment and anger, that in some grow into a pleasure in killing, seem right for the time and place. Rutledge’s struggle with his own war guilt and recollections as he tries to evaluate character and motive in the village adds some thorns of realism to the basic story formula.  Hamish, springs to life in Rutledge’s mind to ask what differentiates the killing he is investigating from that which he did in the war.  Another observes that hatred often gives life a purpose.

The obvious theme in a crime novel, set so soon after a war, is not touched on at all: the crime of the war itself; why the death of one man matters, while that of millions gets no investigation at all.

The classic detective genre is much favored by many readers. Like crossword puzzle addicts, the challenge is to understand the clues and discard the false leads; for the mystery addict, solving the crime before the author is ready to reveal it is an additional challenge.  Not being a puzzle fan in general, the genre holds less appeal to me than to others, not gritty enough perhaps, too dependent on conventions. It is repeated often in this book, for example, that there must be a motive to explain the murder.  Each time Rutledge thought it, I thought ‘How quaint.’  This far along in the 21st century we know that motiveless murders are all too common.  Often the stitching shows.  We know when a particular answer to a question is meant to be taken as a clue; we suspect that because X is prominently suspected he is unlikely to be the perpetrator. Additionally, what might have been an interesting turn, in which the murderer’s personality replicates that of the Inspector’s, seems a bit to contrived, too obvious.

A serious effort at character studies of those injured by war, this is not.  As an entertainment, touching on aspects of human behavior and character after a war, it will please many.

Using post-war years for fiction would seem a fertile field to plow in.  Lives are shaped by actions during the war, under fire and at home, by the remnants of memory, belief and hidden injury.  It’s a wide, mostly unused canvas, to create stories on.  So, though A Test of Wills didn’t quite grip me the way it might have — see The Great Swindle by Pierre Lemaitre for one that did– I’ll give the Todds another spin, jumping ahead, say to number thirteen, A Lonely Death, much recommended by other readers.  Perhaps, with Rutledge more familiar to them, and immersed deeper in the injuries of war the story telling, will have sharpened up, the stitching of the story will be more hidden…

The reader for the Audible version of the book is Samuel Giles.  He has a clear, understandable voice but does what not a few professional readers do, vocally underlines and emphasizes words or phrases in a way suitable for young readers.  To my ear, too much vocal color even if appropriate, say on the stage, in a one-to-one reading, disrupts, gets in the way of the listener’s own understanding.

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For an interview with Charles Todd, see here and another here.

For the Todd website, see here. 

Update:  I did read A Lonely Death, soon after A Test of Wills.  The relation of the war to Inspector Rutledge’s mood and manner, as well as to several other characters in the novel, is made more plentiful, and deepened from the first novel in the series. It is still not a book of moral or behavioral stock-taking about the war.  It continues along the theme of many post-war books, that it was a terrible experience but one about which little was to be done except to suffer through it as best as possible. There are not, to my eye, any particularly new insights into human behavior during, or after, the war. It is more than simply background.  Rutledge’s shell-shocked victim-conscience, Hamish, plays a major role, sometimes as a second sense — of danger, of detail– sometimes as a needle about war memories, but never crippling as PTSD is sometimes for many.

The style is similar to the first in the classic detective or even ‘cozy British’ genre, in that even though the murders are relatively gruesome  — garroting– none are described in detail, nor take on the undertones of semi-pornographic delight of description found in more recent crime fiction. It is a novel of deduction and puzzle; one might read it with a lap quilt with a nice spot of tea.