Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Book review: A Lonely Death, by Charles Todd

A confession, to start off this review of a new historical mystery: This is my first time reading a Charles Todd novel, but it won’t be the last.

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).


  1. I started to read another review of this book, I think in the NYT, but drifted away from it. It must have been the reviewer's writing because it sounds like a really interesting book here. Now I want to know what the soldiers were killed.
    Thanks for the great review.

  2. Thanks, Alex. I remember the NYT review for a different reason - because it gave away too much of the story (including hinting at who the killer was). I was really surprised.

  3. Thanks for this review. The comments have also got me more interested than ever!

  4. Have never read Charles Todd before, but just picked up A Duty to the Dead and An Impartial Witness, the first and second in their Bess Crawford series - she's a nurse during WWI. So far, so good. Will check out this other series, as well. Thanks for the post!

  5. I'm so glad to see you loved this one! I've only read two Charles Todd mysteries: A Duty to the Dead and An Impartial Witness (Bess Crawford series) and loved them both. I'm looking forward to starting the Ian Rutledge series, but I'm starting from the beginning. I'm glad to know these are a hit too. (And isn't the idea of a mother-son writing team fun?)

  6. I haven't read the Bess Crawford series yet, though both books are on the pile. And since I wrote this review, I finished book 1 of Rutledge, A Test of Wills. It didn't capture me as much as this one did - it was written years ago, and the style's improved over time - but it's still a cut above most. The earlier book dipped into other characters' viewpoints, which I found jumpy at times, but A Lonely Death stays fully with Rutledge.

  7. I lurved the first one or two in the series, and then less so, and then quit.

    I'm not sure why though. I'm usually very good at pinpointing when a series runs itself out for my own sensibilities and historical comprehension. Here that understanding didn't come into play. So it must be I got bored?

  8. That's happened to me with Anne Perry's Monk series, though that wasn't a problem with the books themselves - I had read seven of them back to back and needed a break. I never did get back to them, and that was a while ago.

  9. Andrew Simon10:21 PM

    Thanks for the review, I find it intrigues me in the post WW1 small town England without overexposing the characters, suspense and mystery within the novel.