- The Washington Times - Friday, January 29, 2010

ORDINARY THUNDERSTORMS

By William Boyd

Harper, $26.99, 416 pages

THE RED DOOR

By Charles Todd

Morrow, $24.99, 352 pages

There is a Dickensian sweep to this account of how a chance encounter in a restaurant plunges Adam Kindred, a mild-mannered British climatologist into the terrifying world of the urban hunted.

William Boyd demonstrates his considerable writing skills in the depth of characterization and the range of his imagination as he takes Kindred from a stereotypical suburban framework into the jungle of poverty and crime that lurks beneath the sophisticated exterior of London.

He takes a simple premise and expands it into an unlikely kaleidoscope in which Kindred finds himself not only wanted for a murder he didn’t commit, but living on a patch of waste ground above the river and a victim of the thugs who prey on those who don’t understand the threats. Kindred’s plight ironically arises from his attempt to do a good deed, and the results bear out the theory that no act of virtue goes unpunished.

It all begins with his brief chat with Dr. Philip Wang, an immunologist whom he runs into in a restaurant. Wang leaves a file behind, and Kindred makes the effort to take it back to him. At Wang’s home, Kindred finds the man stabbed to death and makes the mistake of pulling out the knife. He flees the killer, who is still in the apartment, and fights off a street attack by hitting his assailant with his briefcase. That is when the nightmare moves into full throttle as Kindred is not only targeted by Wang’s assassin, but finds that he is wanted by the police, and a major pharmaceutical company is offering a substantial reward for his capture.

What gives Mr. Boyd’s plot a cutting edge is that Kindred decides not to give in to the system, but to drop out and make his way in the dangerous environment of the London underworld, while trying to use the dead man’s file to fit together the crazy jigsaw of conspiracy behind the killing. He is beaten up, robbed, reduced to Dumpster diving for food and clothing, befriended by a pathetic prostitute and eventually finds not only help, but possible romance in the form of a London policewoman.

In a recent interview, Mr. Boyd was quoted as saying he had visited all the places in London in which his character finds himself, and the depth of that research sharpens the sensitivity of the book.

Kindred, who has spent a conventionally comfortable life marred only by his divorce, in many ways is born again, and he learns from his strange new world even as he struggles to escape from it.

Mr. Boyd has written a riveting book that is more of a study in social psychology than a mystery. What makes it so fascinating is his description of the unfortunate Kindred’s character and how he finds within himself the strength to withstand and emerge from the desperate circumstances that threaten him.

The haunted Inspector Rutledge and his garrulous ghost, Hamish, are back in Charles Todd’s latest account of the trials of one of fiction’s most harassed detectives. In this story of a spectacularly dysfunctional family and its complicated secrets, most of the reader’s sympathy is likely to go to the investigator.

Not only does he have to cope with a gratuitously insulting superintendent, he is still harried by Hamish, the Highland soldier whom Rutledge shot in one of the tragedies of the bloody trenches of World War I. Hamish has never left him. His voice rants on in Rutledge’s head, offering advice, commenting on cases, complaining, and providing a constant reminder of the guilt with which the inspector lives. Hamish was a interesting ploy in Mr. Todd’s earlier Rutledge books, but he has become little more than a common scold, and he doesn’t contribute much to the plot.

Perhaps the author should permit Hamish to rest in peace so that Inspector Rutledge can live in peace, even if he remains the target of the obnoxious Superintendent Bowles.

Mr. Todd is given to complicated plot structures, but this one occasionally taxes the reader’s patience. There is a man mysteriously missing in a family with much to hide. Sibling rivalry rages among the Tellers as they offer conflicting versions of where brother Walter might have gone.

Meantime, there is an accompanying plot of a woman murdered in a house where she has painted the door red to welcome her husband home from World War I, while increasingly anxious that his failure to return had nothing to do with the conflict.

The red door in a Lancashire village and the missing man in London are of course linked, and it is up to the indefatigable Rutledge to disentangle the mystery of the Teller family. Not only does he accomplish that, but he also develops what appears to be a healthy interest in a young woman who appears to reciprocate. The reader can only hope that next time around, the charming Meredith Channing may replace Hamish in Rutledge’s mind as well as his heart.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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