It is 1920 and the Great War has been over for a couple of years, but it continues to affect people's lives as both civilians and those who served in the military struggle to come back from the ongoing effects of that conflict. That is nowhere more true than in the remote villages of England which lost nearly a whole generation of young men in the terrible trench warfare in France.
Inspector Ian Rutledge still struggles with the repercussions of his experience in those trenches. He suffers from PTSD (shell shock in that day) and is haunted by the spirit of Hamish McLeod, the young Scottish soldier whom he executed for insubordination and refusal to follow an order on the field of battle.
Rutledge does, however, seem to have made some progress in dealing with his psychological problems. Hamish is still there and his voice pops up in the narrative from time to time, but it is not the overwhelming presence that it was in some of the earlier books and that is a relief. Rutledge continues to be constantly on guard to hide his problems from others, even friends and loved ones.
The story here harks back to the eve of the disastrous Battle of the Somme. Seven English officers, fans of motorcar racing, meet up in a makeshift bar in a deserted barn in France and make a pledge that, if they make it through the coming battle and the rest of the war, they will meet in Paris one year after peace breaks out and celebrate their good fortune by racing motorcars - their own or borrowed ones - from Paris to Nice. Five of them survive to fulfill the pledge but something happens as they race down to Nice. One driver is forced off the road and seriously injured. At least two others have close encounters with disaster but are able to avoid it.
Back in England a year later, the rector of a village church on the South Downs is forced off the road one night and killed as he drives the car of one of those five officers. The rector was a much beloved man in the community and seems to have had no enemies, no one who would want him dead. Was it a case of mistaken identity? In the darkness, did the killer think his victim was the English officer who owned the car?
In the midst of this investigation, Rutledge learns that another of those English officers has recently been run off the road and killed. That only confirms the conclusion that he has reached after roaming around the countryside and getting to know this insular community as he interviews people; the thing which the crimes have in common is that last supper before the battle in France. That must be the key to the mystery.
As usual, he finds the people of the village close-mouthed and unwilling to share much information and he has to call on some of his sources in London and in the intelligence world to get the facts that he needs to find the solution to the crimes. But, of course, he gets there in the end.
This particular entry in this long-running series seemed rather static to me. I found it hard to keep engaged in the story. The things that I liked about it were the (as usual) plentiful historical details of the period and the ability of the writing team of Todd to convey the despair and brokenness of society following the war. In short, though this was not one of my favorites in the series, it was still an interesting read.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars