- - Friday, February 10, 2012

THE CONFESSION
By Charles Todd
William Morrow, $25.99 352 pages

Ian Rutledge, Britain’s most haunted detective, is back in another dark and gripping saga linked to the grief of World War I. Charles Todd’s latest book is launched when a dying man walks into Rutledge’s office at Scotland Yard and confesses to killing his cousin during the war. It is remarkable that Rutledge, still suffering from shell shock from his grim experiences in the trenches and still haunted by the ghostly voice of Hamish, the young Scottish soldier he shot, operates at such a level of professional competence in solving mysteries.

Especially since his personal unhappiness has been sharpened by the fact that the young woman he fell in love with has discovered that her missing husband survived the war, is disabled and must be cared for. Her compassion is especially bitter for Rutledge, whose wartime fiancee rejected him as soon as he returned with psychological problems.

But crime marches on and so does Rutledge, who is harassed unreasonably by Superintendent Bowles at Scotland Yard. It now comes as a relief to him that Bowles has had a heart attack and will have to be replaced. Yet it is difficult for Rutledge to accept that his private problem of coping with the ever-present Hamish in his head would prevent his well-earned promotion. He has been told by a psychiatrist that only he can dismiss Hamish from his mind, and his continuing feelings of guilt prevent him from doing so.

All he can hope for is that Bowles’ successor will be a more reasonable and efficient man, and of course there is always the possibility, especially from the viewpoint of readers wearied of Hamish, that Rutledge will finally free himself of the ghost in his head and return to life. In his usual trying framework, Rutledge begins his latest investigation into a mystery in which an important clue is a gold locket found around the neck of the man who killed himself after contacting Rutledge. The trouble is that the man is not who he says he is. And to further complicate the situation, when his body is found floating in the Thames, it turns out that he didn’t kill himself.

Tracking down the story of the man known as Justin Fowler takes Rutledge in a grim little village of secrets. Furnham is a place where nobody wants to talk, especially to strangers and certainly not to the police. Furnham has a lot to hide, from murder to smuggling. It is the kind of place where Rutledge feels he is being watched although he is entirely alone. Even River’s Edge, a once handsome and substantial house, is deserted and reputedly haunted by whispering trees.

Furnham’s hostility is such that Rutledge’s suspicions are further aroused about the role the villagers played in the killings that have taken place. Rutledge’s reception in the local pub is so violently unfriendly that he has to remind its bartender that he is backed by the strength of Scotland Yard before a conversational level can be established. His only flicker of encouragement comes from the rector of the Church of St. Edward the Confessor who proves to be his first real source of information on the dark history of his parish.

He tells Rutledge of the mysterious disappearance of the mistress of River’s Edge, whose body was never found, yet who was assumed a suicide, And there are the murders of other members of the benighted Russell family that left children alone while their parents were slaughtered in their sleep. Rutledge tracks down Cynthia Farraday, a glamorous and tough-minded young woman who is more involved in the Russell mystery than she wants to admit. Rutledge patiently puts together the pieces of a sinister and sad puzzle and comes up with a remarkably surprising answer.

Having survived another case that almost killed him while Hamish reminded him that even dead, Rutledge would be haunted, the detective plods off to tie up loose ends, while nurturing the hope that the disappearance of the unpleasant and belligerent Bowles might somehow benefit him.

Rutledge is a man of so many troubles that it is hard not to wish him well. At some point, there must be something in his life beyond murder.

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

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