is the third in author Charles Todd's excellent Inspector Ian Rutledge series, and, in my view, it is the best so far. Several other entries have followed this one and I will be interested to read them later to see just where the series goes.
But not for a while, I think. After reading the first three books in quick succession in a matter of weeks, it's time for me to move on to something else. First, though, let me tell you about this book.
Inspector Rutledge suffered terribly in the trenches in France in World War I and he is still suffering some years later once he has returned home, recovered physically, and returned to his job at Scotland Yard. He carries with him the psyche and the voice of a young Scotsman whom he had to have executed for insubordination in the war. Hamish is his alter ego and conscience. He carries, also, the memories of all that he saw and experienced. He is an introverted and complicated man.
His superior at Scotland Yard is envious of the inspector's skills as a detective and he takes the opportunity to send him out of town on cases whenever he can. This time he sends him to Dorset where a young woman has been battered to death and two young children are allegedly missing.
The local coppers have latched onto an outsider, another tortured veteran of the trenches, as the murderer and have clapped him into a claustrophobic jail cell. Rutledge is sent to find the "missing" children.
Almost immediately upon arriving, the investigation and its findings do not smell right to Rutledge. He is an intuitive detective and his intuition is screaming that they've got it wrong. As he gets to know the locals and meets the man they have arrested, he becomes even more convinced.
The suspect is Bert Mowbray, an out-of-work, out-of-luck veteran who was on a train on his way to look for a job. Looking out the train window at one of the stations they pass through, he sees a woman and two children along with a man. He is convinced that the woman is his wife and the children are his son and daughter.
But this is impossible because all three were killed in the bombing of London. He had been brought back from the front to attend their funeral years before. Nevertheless, he is sure that they are alive and that he's seen them. He creates a disturbance, trying to get the train to stop so he can get off. Eventually, he is put off at the next stop and he heads back to where he saw his "family."
He makes himself a nuisance around the village seeking the woman and children and he is heard uttering threats against his wife. When a young woman matching his wife's description is found battered to death on the edge of the field, the local police look no further. They lock up the outsider.
The question is, if the woman is dead, where are the children? Were they killed also? Are they out there somewhere alone and frightened? Have they been safely hidden? Rutledge must find out.
In pursuing his investigation, Rutledge finds that Bert Mowbray is not the only outsider who is despised and suspected by the villagers.
The son of the most prominent family in the area came home from the war with a beautiful French bride, Aurore. She is hated by the local women who are sure that her sole aim in life is to take their men. In exploring the village's relationship with Aurore, Todd is able to say quite a lot about blind prejudice and its corrosive effects.
This is a complicated tale with many twists and turns and red herrings along the way, but it is deftly plotted, and the clues are there in plain view. The solution to the mystery, or mysteries, is available for the clever reader to find.
These are dark stories which delve deep into the psychological pain of the characters, but the character of Ian Rutledge is one with whom we empathize and whom we hope to see prosper. When he solves another complicated mystery, we share in his triumph, and we look forward to the next adventure.