A Lonely Death takes place in July of 1920. Three men from the quiet village of Eastfield in Sussex are found dead, garroted, three days apart. It’s an unusual way to die, and all of them were killed while alone at night, not far from home. Even stranger is that military ID discs belonging to different men had been left in their mouths.
The three were childhood acquaintances who made it through the war alive, so their violent deaths are an especially cruel blow to their families. Mr. Pierce, a powerful businessman and father of the last victim, calls in Scotland Yard. They assign Inspector Ian Rutledge to the case.
Rutledge, a Great War veteran himself, keeps his suffering private. The voice of a soldier whose death he ordered still torments him constantly, but sometimes it also gives him helpful advice. At first Rutledge is as baffled by the murders as the local constable. The dead men didn’t share the same social background and didn’t serve together at the Somme, either.
Suspense builds as the mystery grows more intricate, and Rutledge unwinds it piece by piece. As he proceeds in methodical fashion, interviewing everyone from relatives and friends to the village schoolmistress, he contends with the unwilling cooperation of the police in nearby Hastings and internal politics at the Yard back in London. Rutledge senses the answer lies amidst a tangle of secrets in Eastfield’s past, but time is running short. If the pattern holds true, he’ll have three days before the next body turns up.
Todd (a mother-son writing team) excels at evoking atmosphere. The setting has a crisp sort of solemnity, the freshness of the coastal sea air contrasting with the grim reality of life after years of war. The authors create a dramatic panorama of the countryside and its residents. Some struggle to start their lives over again, while others are deciding if they even wish to. The strong plotting is full of psychological complexity, and the characters are memorable and subtly delineated. I got the impression that they had a past and future that existed outside of the novel’s confines. The combination makes for a superb historical mystery and a very satisfying novel.
Thirteenth in the Ian Rutledge series, A Lonely Death doesn’t require prior knowledge of the others; it gets new readers up to speed quickly. I hope Rutledge succeeds in keeping his demons at bay, as I intend to spend more time in his company. Fortunately for me, there are twelve previous books to look forward to.
A Lonely Death is published this month by William Morrow/HarperCollins at $24.99 (hb, 352pp).