Book Review: The Confession
by Charles Todd
William Morrow, 2012
When thin and obviously ailing Wyatt Russell walks into Inspector Ian Rutledge’s office at Scotland Yard in the summer of 1920 and confesses to murdering a man in the Essex marshes back in 1915, he expects astonishment and perhaps even anger, but not the immediate fine-grinding of official investigative procedure – which just goes to show that Wyatt Russell has obviously never read a Charles Todd murder mystery, or he’d have known Ian Rutledge is a coursing sleuth-hound, as pure an example of the breed as the current sub-genre of historical murder mystery has to offer. Given the confession of the book’s title, even a confession almost immediately retracted by its suddenly-spooked author, Rutledge is fundamentally incapable of simply saying “Thanks for stopping by.”
Instead, he bolts out of his chair and catches Russell as he’s leaving, asking if he has plans for lunch.
The mother-and-son writing team who comprise “Charles Todd” have been crafting Inspector Rutledge for years now (this is his fourteenth adventure, and one of the cleanest and most memorable of the last few), and they’ve developed a patois for their version of pre-WWII London that’s as distinctly theirs as is the quasi-Sam Spade dialect of David Wishart’s Marcus Corvinus mysteries, or the Vietnam-via-chainmail patter of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicle books. When our authors have Wyatt Russell respond to Rutledge’s invitation by saying “Why should you wish to sit across a table from this gaunt wasteland of a man?” they know perfectly well that not even Lionel Barrymore ever talked that way sober. It’s all part of the low-key stylization, a slightly subtle edge that gives these novels – and very much this latest one – a quiet kind of charm found in almost no other ongoing murder mystery series.
And of course when it comes to the Ian Rutledge novels, by far the most startling style-signature is Rutledge’s friend and former corporal, a man named Hamish. During the war, when orders came from headquarters for Rutledge and his men in the trenches to go ‘over the top’ and storm a German machine gun bank, Hamish refused to waste his life in such a way. There followed a horrific confrontation:
No amount of argument could sway him. Even when, as an example to the other weary and dispirited men, Rutledge had to threaten his corporal with a firing squad, it had not changed his mind. And Rutledge had to carry out that threat, against his better judgment and against the weight of his own guilt. He had had to deliver the coup de grace to the dying man, taking out his pistol and firing it point-blank, and watching the anguished eyes go dull.
In Charles Todd’s hands, Ian Rutledge isn’t just haunted by the memory of what he did to Hamish – he’s also haunted by Hamish himself, whose voice – Scottish burr and all – has lodged in Rutledge’s head and in every novel offers all kinds of running commentary. As The Confession‘s plot thickens – Wyatt Russell is found dead, shot in the back of the head, only two weeks after his lunch with Rutledge, and the inspector follows the clues to a marsh-bound Essex village that has no love of outsiders and a darkly entrepreneurial outlook on overseas commerce between the wars – Hamish is right there inside Rutledge’s mind, often giving voice to his own anxieties, suspicions, and warning instincts:
“Was the killer one of your merry band of smugglers?” [Rutledge asks]
Barber grimaced. “We can get the things we need far easier from France than from London. What’s so wrong with that? We don’t pay the tax on them, but we don’t go about with a barrow selling them in the streets either, do we? A bit of tobacco, a few bottles of spirits,some lace or a length of cloth. Where’s the harm?”
“The men go armed.”
Barber’s face changed. “You’ve seen them?”
“‘Ware!” Hamish said in the back of Rutledge’s mind. “Ye canna’ tell them.”‘
And Rutledge himself saw the danger he stood in. “Don’t they always? Swords, muskets, shotguns. It doesn’t matter. Men in that line of work know the risks.”
The tension in Barber’s face eased. “True enough.”
The neat, no-fuss narrative maneuvering of that passage is typical of the book – and the series – as a whole; readers’ close attention is consistently rewarded. This latest instalment features comparatively little of both Hamish and Rutledge’s sister Frances (and virtually nothing of Meredith Channing, the troublesome woman in Rutledge’s life) – it’s a far more procedural, peripatetic whodunit than most of the earlier novels in this series, although no less involving for that, and the authors’ skill at ratcheting up the tempo and suspense of the final act remains as sharp as ever. These are books to collect and come to know, and this latest chapter is one to curl up with on some moonlit night when you can luxuriate in a well-told tale and thank God you aren’t from Essex. And if on the outside chance you are from Essex (the Open Letters reach is long, after all), well, you can spend the novel seething with indignation and hoping Charles Todd picks on somebody else next time.