My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A man who is of interest to the British War Office has disappeared. He is a chemist whose work during World War I was so secret that the War Office withholds information about what he did or even his real name. But they want someone to go and try to find what has happened to him. Scotland Yard sends Inspector Ian Rutledge.
It's not the first time his superiors have sent him on what appears to be a "mission impossible" since he returned to his job just over a year ago after having suffered shell shock during the war and being hospitalized after it. In spite of the demons that haunt him and the constant presence in his head of Hamish, the Scottish soldier whom he executed at the front for failure to obey orders, Rutledge is a very good investigator and in spite of the ill will of his supervisor, Superintendent Bowles, he's been able to solve every case that has been assigned to him. This one, though, begins to look like it may be unsolvable.
Rutledge heads out to Berkshire, to a group of cottages standing in the shadow of a great white horse cut into the chalk hillside, where the missing man lived. He discovers a group of inhabitants who are outcasts, all of whom are hiding from something in their past. In that, the man who went by the name of Partridge fit right in.
Rutledge learns that Partridge had a habit of wandering off from time to time and so no one has really missed him or worried about him, but then the inhabitants of these cottages don't really interact with or take an interest in each other, so why would they worry?
At length, Rutledge learns that the body of a man wrapped in a cloak with his face covered by a gas mask has been found in the ruins of Yorkshire's Fountain Abbey, and he goes to investigate. He comes to suspect that the body may be that of the missing man, but how did he wind up in Yorkshire, far afield from his cottage in Berkshire? There is no easy explanation.
The local policeman in charge has convinced himself, for his own selfish reasons of revenge, that the dead man is one who, years before, had accidentally scarred the face of a local woman while he was in a drunken stupor. He wants to believe that the woman's husband, the local schoolmaster who was a conscientious objector during the war, has killed this man. The policeman's motives are based in the fact that he once wanted to marry the woman who was scarred and she turned him down in favor of the schoolmaster. This angle of the plot never was really resolved to my satisfaction. It was just sort of left hanging when Rutledge's investigation veered off into another avenue. It was one of my few complaints about the book.
Rutledge's investigation eventually leads him to an estate called Partridge Fields which had been the home of a family named Parkinson. It seems that Parkinson was the true name of the missing man. His wife was long dead, a suicide, but there were two daughters; however, these daughters are not easy to locate and once located, they are so filled with hatred of their father that they are uncooperative in discovering the truth.
In fact, that's another of my complaints about these books. Everyone in these villages, from the occupants to the local police, is always uncooperative and downright obstructive with Rutledge's investigations. He seems like such a caring and competent man that it is a mystery to me why everyone seems so obstreperous and deceptive in his presence.
Ah, well, nothing can really obstruct him for long. We know that, in the end, Rutledge will solve another case and will again receive no appreciation of that fact from the execrable Superintendent Bowles. What will it ever take to finally have his brilliance recognized?
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