- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2011

By Charles Todd
Morrow, $24.99 352 pages

By Laura Childs
Berkley Crime Mystery, $12.95 335 pages

Three murders in a small Sussex village in England are linked by the fact that the victims were all former soldiers in World War I, all were garroted and in the mouth of each was a small identification disk.

And, in Charles Todd’s “A Lonely Death,” those murders are only the beginning of a quest for revenge that dates back to the childhood of those involved, as Inspector Ian Rutledge discovers in a tense search for a cruel killer. Of course, any case involving Rutledge must include the presence of Hamish, the Highland ghost who haunts the former officer. It is bitter irony that Hamish, who was shot by Rutledge during the war for refusing to obey an order, was a close friend. The irony has been transformed into a strange revenge as the voice of the dead Hamish not only resides in his head, but offers advice and criticism almost constantly.

It is no comfort to Rutledge that a doctor has told him that it is the inspector himself who has refused to let the voice of Hamish die, because he could not accept his death. The doctor warned that Rutledge remained burdened with guilt for his failure to prevent the death of so many young soldiers who died without cause in those gory battles, and Hamish would remain in his head, the doctor predicted, until Rutledge stopped blaming himself for the dead. So far, Hamish has remained an ominous presence, carping and complaining at the back of Rutledge’s mind.

And the unhappy Rutledge never seems to get a break, either personally or professionally. He has an admirable record of solving mysteries and tracking down murderers, yet, in addition to the torment of Hamish, he has to live with rejection by his fiancee, his failure to connect with another woman he has fallen in love with and his awareness of the constant and inexplicable antagonism of Chief Superintendent Bowles who has blocked advancement on all levels and gone so far as to encourage what amounts to persecution of Rutledge.

In this complicated case of a coldblooded strategy involving nine murders, Rutledge even finds himself in the unlikely position of being accused of attempting to kill another police officer, and once again there is no assistance from Scotland Yard - represented by the malicious Bowles - in clearing his name.

As always, Rutledge struggles and scrambles his way out of the morass in which he so often works. Yet he is left with the bleak knowledge that although he is cleared of the charge of attempting to kill a fellow officer, the fact that it was even brought against him “would take a while to fade from the collective memory of Scotland Yard.”

And even his success in tracking down the serial murderer fades in the face of a fresh personal tragedy when Meredith Channing, whom he had hoped to marry, discloses that the husband she had thought dead in the war was alive and disabled and must be cared for. That is one of the moments when Rutledge thinks of ending his misery with the service revolver he brought back from the war.

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Those known as “the ladies who lunch” will love this book by Laura Childs, a mixture of recipes and mayhem. In “Bedeviled Eggs,” the recipes come out ahead of the plot. There is barely a page that does not bear a painfully detailed description of the ingredients and preparation of breakfast, lunch, dinner and anything in between that takes place at the Crackleberry Club, the center of small-town activity. The setting is cosy beyond the bygone dreams of Agatha Christie, but it is rather short on both plot and murder.

It gets off to a promising start with a murder committed with a crossbow, but that’s as far as it gets in terms of originality. Creeping along the old Quilt Trail holds possibilities, but only one corpse. The cast of characters is led by Suzanne Dietz, owner of the Crackleberry Club, an establishment that boasts a Book Nook and a Knitting Nest and is the setting for a reading club aimed at bringing singles together. Suzanne and Toni and Petra not only run the club but are a devoted threesome who console themselves with group hugs and slips of paper with wise sayings, rather reminiscent of fortune cookies.

There is a stereotypical overweight town sheriff who gobbles the goodies at the club and takes Suzanne’s advice about the murders which eventually add up to three. A celebration of Halloween offers opportunities for bizarre costumes and more cooking and even announces the capture of the murderer.

It’s all good clean fun and readers who like to cook should know that all the recipes mentioned in the previous pages are listed at the back of the book. Readers who expect mysteries to focus on murders and who don’t like to cook may be too exasperated by the kaleidoscope of scones and saucepans to care who did it. Or even to read it.

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

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