My rating: 3 of 5 stars
It is 1920 and ex-soldiers who survived the horror of the trenches in World War I are being killed in a particularly gruesome manner in the quiet countryside of England. Three men have been garroted, and in the mouth of each has been found one of the identification discs that World War I soldiers carried into battle. However, the identification disc with which each man was found is not his own, and, in fact, appears to be unrelated to that particular ex-soldier. It seems a classic case of misdirection.
Scotland Yard is called in to help with the investigation and Inspector Ian Rutledge is sent as the agency's representative. But sending in the Yard does not halt the murders. After Rutledge arrives, another man - another ex-soldier - is killed in the same manner. Where will the serial murderer strike next?
The clear implication is that all of these deaths are somehow related to something that occurred during the war, but all of Rutledge's efforts to uncover some link reveal nothing. He comes to believe that this may be another case of misdirection and that the true link between the men might lie in their backgrounds in growing up together. He begins to explore that possibility and finds that his investigation is digging into the well-hidden secrets of some of the locals. Soon a complaint is made against him to his superiors back in London.
Meanwhile, there is a subplot carrying on in the background. A friend of Rutledge's, recently retired from Scotland Yard, has shared with him information about a cold case that he was never able to solve. It involves the murder of a man whose body was found in 1908, laid out like a sacrifice, at Stonehenge. The murderer was never found but it haunted the investigator, Cummins, over the years and he continued to search for the answer to the puzzle. Now he has passed it on to Rutledge.
Soon after Cummins tells him the story, Rutledge comes across a clue that seems like it might be related to the case. And within weeks, the whole mystery of that 12-year-old murder is solved! That solution was just a little too pat and neat and involved too much coincidence. It seemed an obvious way of tying up some loose strings in the story and writing some recurring characters out of the action.
The same serendipitous happenstance applied to the character Meredith Channing, a woman that Ian Rutledge has been romantically drawn to for a while. The author wraps up Channing's story in this book and sends her off to Belgium to oversee the care of her grievously wounded husband who has been found there. She no longer loves him - never did really - but feels morally bound to stay with him. Will we ever see her again?
In fact, I am struck by how often in these books women are trapped in loveless marriages. It is a recurring theme. In addition to Channing, we have the example of Mrs. Winslow in this story, and the whole series seems littered with them. Perhaps it is a social commentary on the powerlessness of women to control their destinies in the early twentieth century.
Back to the main mystery of A Lonely Death, after many miscues, Rutledge finally gets on the right track and runs the killer to ground, but it had been obvious to the reader for quite some time just who the murderer was and what his motive was. Maybe Ian Rutledge needs a refresher course in the art of detection.
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