A TEST OF WILLS by Charles Todd

When Colonel Harris is murdered in Warwickshire, Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard is dispatched north to investigate his murder. It is 1919 and the country is still reeling from the after-effects of the Great War. Rutledge, himself a veteran of the conflict, has his own demons to contend with, alongside the pressure of having to bring the guilty to justice. He is a broken man, damaged by what he experienced in the war, an imaginary companion constantly dogging him – the voice in his head of a young Scottish soldier called Hamish that Rutledge condemned to the firing squad. Piecing together the clues and puzzles of the mystery takes a great deal of conviction on the Inspector’s part.

Interestingly, Charles Todd – the pseudonym of a mother-and-son writing team from the United States – has written 26 of the Ian Rutledge mysteries so far, starting with this one in 1994. I had never heard of them before, although it does seem like they are far more popular in the US. I picked up this novel on the basis of the interesting premise – the central investigator’s sidekick as the imaginary Hamish as opposed to a faithful sergeant or Doctor Watson character – and the fact that I enjoy a good old murder mystery set during the golden age of crime fiction. Initially I was sceptical of an American being able to make the English characters and settings ‘authentically’ British, but I needn’t have worried. For the most part there is barely anything to betray that this wasn’t written by a Brit. There’s a level of detail to the book that indicates the writers have researched well or are keen history enthusiasts.

The plot itself is fairly straightforward, with the murderer’s reveal a decent enough twist. The story hangs together well, with just enough suspects to keep you guessing. It wasn’t the most intricate plot, but the characters are well fleshed out and there are several scenes that stuck in my mind after closing the book. A big criticism of murder mysteries is that the plot comes at the expense of characterisation; I’d say this is quite the reverse. Not the best, or most exciting mystery I’ve recently read, but an interesting one nonetheless. I think it’s fair to say that it’s clearly a first novel, but one that has enough quality about it to say I’ll definitely be seeking out further books in the series, and seeing how the character of Inspector Rutledge develops. Worth reading if you like this kind of thing.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
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