Hunting Shadows by Charles Todd
Hunting Shadows by Charles Todd (the mother-and-son team) (William Morrow, 2014) is the sixteenth to feature the shell-shocked Inspector Ian Rutledge. This time, we’ve reached September 1920, and see our hero sent off into the Fen Country, a rather bleak but then quite beautiful part of the English countryside (it’s subsequently been rather spoiled by drainage to make the vast area of flatlands one of the most agriculturally productive parts of Britain). There have been two shootings. In the first, Captain Gordon Hutchinson was shot as he was about to attend a wedding in Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire. In the second, a local solicitor, Herbert Swift, had been persuaded to stand for a vacant parliamentary seat. As he was about to give a speech in one of the Fen villages, he too was shot. In both cases, this is a shot from a distance but there’s no evidence showing exactly where the shot was taken, nor is there any evidence of how the killer came and went. Whoever is responsible is meticulous in planning and expert when it comes to shooting. As a slight aside, history tells us there was a strong prejudice in the British army against the use of people we would call snipers. It was not considered gentlemanly to shoot one of the enemy from a concealed position and at a distance. This is not to say none of the men who went out to fight for the British were poor shots. Inevitably there were some who were expert marksmen but, if they were used as snipers, it was kept secret.
The local police are completely baffled. Although they have interviewed more than one-hundred people who were either outside the Cathedral or gathered in the square to hear the speech, there’s no information of any apparent value. Worse, there’s nothing to suggest the two men had ever met so there’s a real problem of motive. It’s at times like this that Chief Constables pick up the telephone and call Scotland Yard. This brings the lone figure of Rutledge into play, although he’s still haunted by the spirit of Hamish McLeod, the Scottish sergeant who was executed on the battlefield when he refused an order given by Rutledge. This gives our hero a heavy burden of guilt and the temptation of suicide is with him constantly.
The way in which the plot unwinds gives us a snapshot of the tragedy that hit the countryside after the end of the war. So many young men who left in such high spirits to fight the Hun either never returned or were so damaged, they were never good company. This left the farms desperately short of labour and the women coping on their own. It was a race against time as the older men kept things going until there were enough young men to take up the responsibility. All would have been well except for the arrival of the Second World War. Then the new recruits went off the war.
However, in 1920, the world was still running on the pre-war model of privilege and a servant class. Even the lower middle class often had at least one person to do the cooking and cleaning. Against this background, we have an insular village structure in which there’s little or no mobility between the communities although everyone still contrives to know everyone else’s business. Many of the families can trace their histories back several hundred years and, for better or worse, there have been many marriages to consolidate the ownership of properties and hold positions of authority. This is not to say all the births were legitimate. Sometimes people in loveless marriages or having recently lost a spouse, would drift into other relationships. Some of these children endured the badge of shame and lived their lives in the local communities. Others were spirited away or left when they were old enough.
Although it seems the killer is an expert marksman, the problem of motive requires Rutledge to explore the relationships of the people who have lived for generations in this fairly desolate area. Only when the connection between the two victims is uncovered can he begin to track who had the motive and opportunity. The result in this case is wonderfully ambiguous. Our tortured detective unearths two possible connections. This would give him one fairly obvious suspect, but right up to the end, he’s not certain. Indeed, it’s only when he comes closer to the solution that he realises he’s made a serious misjudgment. Fortunately, he’s been running the investigation without any active supervision, so he can carefully edit the facts presented to the local Chief Constable and the senior officer at Scotland Yard. In this instance, Hamish McLeod as his conscience would approve the decision to leave many of the sleeping dogs undisturbed.
In the immediate period after the Second World War, I knew men like Rutledge. Today we give this condition the slightly more grandiose label of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But no matter what the label, their psychological wounds were profound and disabling. It’s still relatively unusual to have a series character carrying such serious injuries. In this case, it’s not just the claustrophobia, but many different stimuli can send him into a distracted state (which is not a good idea if he’s driving at the time). Of course, his awareness of another person would mark him out as less than sane in modern terms. That he continues to function at a high level is a testament to his stubborn courage. Many weaker men would undoubtedly have committed suicide. What makes this case more challenging is the need to talk with many in the Fens who had been in the trenches. Meeting so many other wounded soldiers adds to the psychological pressure. Yet, for all his problems, he not only elicits new information from the communities, but is also able to draw inferences that had escaped the local police. It’s as a fine a piece of “follow the breadcrumbs” investigating as you could hope to find. Indeed, not only as a historical mystery but also as a puzzle to solve, Hunting Shadows is a particularly impressive book.
For the review of another book by Charles Todd see A Bitter Truth.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.