I'm slowly overtaking Charles Todd's series featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge. This is the eighteenth in the series with one more to go, but I believe number 20 will be coming out this year. More reading to do.
After spending all this time with Rutledge through the past few years, I've come to the conclusion that he is a very nice man but maybe not a very good detective. He often seems more intent on not rocking the boat than with getting to the bottom of things, particularly when he is dealing with upper class women, as he often seems to do in these cases.
In this case, it is four young and beautiful upper class women in Cornwall who have been accused on the word of one man of attempted murder. When the victim later dies from his injuries, it becomes murder. I found the whole scenario of the so-called attempted murder and the witness's statement rather implausible. It was just one of my problems with the plot.
These four women decide on a sunny afternoon to take a rowboat out for a pleasure ride on the river. In the course of their trip, they come across a local man who is standing in his dinghy on the water and waving to get their attention. At first they think he is just flirting with them, but then two of the women notice that the boat appears to be sinking and he is trying to get them to help him. They row toward him and soon he is in the water and trying to get aboard their boat while two of the women try to pull him in and the other two balance and steady the boat. They are losing the battle and it looks like the man will drown when a man who saw what was happening from shore swims over and helps to pull the man in. Once the injured man is in the boat, the good Samaritan rounds on the women and demands, "Why were you trying to drown him?"
The local constabulary is called in and, based on the man's statement, the women are taken into custody. The rescued man is unconscious from a head injury and unable to tell what happened.
Because the women are "gently bred," they are not kept in the local jail but are under house arrest at the home of the magistrate, who just happens to be the father of one of the girls. Scotland Yard is called in, but the first inspector who is sent suffers a heart attack and dies before he has gotten very far into the investigation. At which point, Inspector Ian Rutledge is sent to take his place.
Rutledge proceeds as though walking on eggshells in interviewing the women and then in interviewing their accuser. It's obvious to the reader that something isn't right here, but Rutledge only pursues it in a very roundabout way, trying not to upset anyone. When the victim dies, his parents refuse to talk to the police and simply insist that the women be prosecuted, and Rutledge doesn't challenge their decision not to be interviewed. I know this is 1921 England and a whole different political and cultural landscape but...really?
Then, of course, other people start dying violently and the plot thickens.
I have really enjoyed reading these historical mysteries, not so much for the mystery aspect but for the insight they provide to the history of the period. In particular, they reveal - without making a point of it - the classism and sexism that seem to have been endemic to that time. And much of this seems to relate back to the unbelievable devastation caused by World War I in which England, as well as other European countries, lost a substantial percentage of their young male population. Moreover, many of the young men who managed to survive the war, like Ian Rutledge, were permanently damaged by the experience. It has been fascinating to read how Rutledge has dealt with his shell shock. Now, two years after the end of the war, he is stronger but still shackled and haunted by his memories and by his constant companion, the voice in his head of Hamish, the young soldier from his command that he executed in the field.
The far-reaching impact of the consequences of that war were changing the society and slowly eroding the edges of the classism and sexism that seemed an ingrained and impermeable part of the culture of the time. Over a hundred years later, we can look back on the sea change that has taken place in society, even though a hard remnant of those attitudes remain to vex us.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars