Review of “A Lonely Death” by Charles Todd

Charles Todd is a pen name used by the American authors Caroline and Charles Todd. As Charles Todd, they have written a number of books set in post-World War I England and featuring Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge.

Rutledge is secretly suffering from shell shock (inter alia) after the Battle of the Somme, and I thought the book provided a perceptive and empathetic look at the agonies of those who participated in that bloodbath. [In the Battle of the Somme, the British suffered 419,654 casualties, with 131,000 dead and an untold number victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (known as shell shock at the time of WWI). At that time, treatment for shell shock was primitive at best.] Inspector Rutledge’s shell shock has an interesting twist, however. He lives with the constant taunting ghostly presence of Hamish MacLeod, a young Scots soldier he was forced to have executed for refusing an order. As his psychiatrist explained to Ian:

“You couldn’t accept that one man’s death. And so you refused to let him die. He’s every young soldier you tried to keep alive and failed. He’s your expression of guilt for that failure, and he will be in your head as long as that guilt lasts. Or until you die and take Hamish MacLeod with you to the grave.”

In A Lonely Death, a captain of artillery whom Rutledge had befriended in the war just killed himself, and it is a struggle for Rutledge not to join him. He often muses that he is glad his pre-war romance never worked out, since he, like so many others who went to the war, came back so damaged, and so unable to communicate what happened to anyone else:

“Broken dreams were easier to walk away from than broken lives.”

Many women stayed with their men in spite of everything:

“[Rutledge] thought how pity, mistaken for love, could ruin lives.”

In this particular “episode” (and the first one which I have read), the Inspector is called to investigate the deaths of three men from the village of Eastfield in Sussex. Each was garroted, three days apart, and they all had military ID disks placed in their mouths. Rutledge quickly ascertains that the three served in the war in the same regiment, and is afraid that the others in the town from their company will also be targeted.

Discussion: This is an unusual detective procedural for several reasons. One is that, rather than the usual detective foibles, such as alcoholism, Rutledge has a unique condition – PTSD – that is manifested by the constant companionship of a ghost as his “partner.” The second is that this is clearly a historical procedural. The Rutledge stories are all set in post-World War I England, and the authors have taken great pains to portray the physical and emotional devastation wrought by that war. The mystery in the book, although not uninteresting, seems very secondary to that goal. In particular, the authors exercise skill and empathy in depicting the psychological effects of the fighting. Rutledge’s mental struggles are rather heartbreaking, and one finds oneself glad he has someone to understand him, even if it’s only a ghost.

Evaluation: This series provides an entertaining way to learn about the devastation wreaked on England and France from World War I and the Great Influenza, which took their toll in unison on the unfortunate populace of Europe. Although this is the thirteenth in the Inspector Rutledge series, I had no trouble picking up who was who and what was going on.

Rating: 4/5

Published by William Morrow, 2011

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19 Responses to Review of “A Lonely Death” by Charles Todd

  1. This sounds really neat. I’ve really loved Maisie Dobbs in the first eight of the series as they’re all about the fall out of WWI. I wonder if this would fit around the edges in my need for more on that….ahem…front.

  2. Ceri says:

    Wow, a character with PTSD is definitely a unique thing to have. I personally love any story that’s set around one of the wars and deals with things like this. I definitely think I’d find this an interesting read. Thanks for the review. 🙂

  3. Julie P. says:

    Love this review. I have this book and was reluctant to read it until now….

  4. Barbara says:

    This sounds fascinating. A person who can function in such a career with PTSD . . . hmmmm!

  5. Kay says:

    I have meant to read this series for years. It’s good to know that one could pick up a later book and not be totally lost. This mother/son writing team has another series too. It features a WWI nurse, like Maisie Dobbs, but different too.

  6. zibilee says:

    I find the fact that he has a ghost partner very interesting, and also think that the mystery aspects of the book sound like something that would keep me enthralled. I am glad that you mention that the book can be read without having to go back to the beginning of the series, but am wondering if you will go back and catch up on all of them, like you did with the Lippman books.

  7. BermudaOnion says:

    I like the fact that this focuses on something like PTSD, especially since it’s set after WWII when it was largely ignored. This sounds like a very interesting book.

  8. Trisha says:

    The ghost partner coupled with PTSD is an interesting set-up; it reminds me of the first few episodes of Rescue Me (as far as I made it into the series before summer distracted me). The lead character in that show survived 9/11 in New York and sees the ghost of his friend who passed during the attack. Anyways, complete side note there… 🙂

  9. Jenny says:

    Oh, interesting! I always want a new series of mysteries to be as awesome for me as the Amelia Peabody ones, and I love interwar Britain and I love mental health stories.

  10. I’ve read The Read Door and enjoyed it so I am looking forward to this one as well. I doubt I’ll read the whole series though.

    Glad u liked this one.

  11. Staci says:

    Another great series that you’ve introduced me to. do I have enough time in my life to read them all??? 😀

  12. Sandy says:

    I love a good crime thriller with a different twist on things, just to set itself apart from the multitudes. I’ve never heard of this series, but I learn about a new one each week. For a series nut, this could drive me mad.

  13. This could be a nice follow up to fill my Maisie Dobb’s void. I’m going to look for the first in the series.

  14. This is a very interesting time period. The early Agatha Christie novels are set during this time period and are very interesting from that perspective. There are references to characters who were shell-shocked in the war but it’s not a part of any of the main characters. The effect on England’s survivors must have been catastrophic.

  15. stacybuckeye says:

    I know next to nothing about this time period. Well, nothing if you take away your review 😉 Looks like a fun way to learn more about it. My type of series.

  16. I read this…and liked it a lot…but can not for the life of me remember if I reviewed it. Must check…

  17. Katy says:

    This really catches my interest. I wrote a research paper on Shell Shock in WWI in a Historical writing class in college. The topic seriously fascinates me, though I haven’t read any fiction about it. I’ll have to look this one up.

  18. MT Author says:

    I also think that overall, this is a good read. But I think the first three books in the series are much better pieces of work. In A Lonely Death, the secondary storyline and many details are not necessary and now that they are introduced, the expectation is that they should have been developed more. Hamish is not fully introduced and might be confusing for the readers who this is their first book in the series. My full review here: http://www.mysterytribune.com/2011/12/23/review-lonely-death-inspector-ian-rutledge-mystery-charles-todd/

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