on April 29, 2006
"Wings of Fire" is one of the series of Ian Rutledge mysteries by the author Charles Todd--a mother/son American writing team, in fact, the second in the series. Set in post World War I Britain, these mysteries have as their compelling main character Ian Rutledge, a Scotland Yard inspector who is the worse for the war, but slowly mending.
In this book, Rutledge is called upon to research a brother and sister double suicide, followed shortly thereafter by a third death in the family. Rutledge travels to the Cornish coast this time, and as in the other books, he travels in the company of his dead sergeant, Hamish, who speaks his mind to Rutledge as he works through the investigation.
This mystery involves a beautiful house by the sea, and is peopled by both the gentry who have lived in that house and the inhabitants of the local village, including the vicar, the doctor and so forth. The house and its setting may remind some readers of "Rebecca", especially since the memory of the home's now dead mistress seems to permeate the proceedings, even as her portrait presides over the drawing room.
The book does not get off to a fast paced start--indeed, it seems a bit slow in the first 100 pages. And for this reader, there is not enough conversation from Hamish in that portion or in the rest of the book. Unlike others in the series, we do not hear much of Hamish's actual words--more often Todd tells us that Hamish was grumbling or making some remark. But we don't "hear" the remark. A pity, that.
I felt that the writing was a tad uneven. I would be bogged down in a section of the book, say, about half of a chapter, and then all of the sudden the pace picked up, the storyline became more compelling, and I was eager to know more. Then, back to the slower pace and, for me, a challenge to get through it to the next, livelier portion.
Occasionally, Todd takes us to a higher plain of psychological and perhaps even theological conversation--several of the interviews Rutledge has with the vicar provide the setting for some of these. They are among the best passages in the book.
Since the work of a famous poet figures in the story, we are also treated to more than prose from Todd's hand, and the sections of verse are deftly done.
The last several chapters are quite good--both as the mystery is revealed and the creativity shown by the author in settings and dialogue. It made me go back and read the first chapter again, once I had finished the final chapter.
This is the second in remarkable series of classic whodunits. The reader will be hooked. And will wish to read all of the Rutledge mysteries, in order. A Test of Wills, Wings of Fire, Search the Dark, Legacy of the Dead, Watchers of Time, A Fearsome Doubt, A Cold Treachery, A Long Shadow. There is also a stand-alone Todd mystery called A Murder Stone, without Rutledge or Hamish. Read more about them at: [...] At one point, that website indicated that a Rutledge book was going to be adapted for the Mystery series on PBS...
Todd intertwines the supporting characters from book to book, so that Rutledge's and Hamish's friends and family you meet herein will appear in subsequent books, at some times, mentioned, and other times, key to the story.
If you find this review helpful you might want to read some of my other reviews, including those on subjects ranging from biography to architecture, as well as religion and fiction.
"Wings of Fire," the second book in the Inspector Ian Rutledge mystery series, is absolutely outstanding, both as a whodunit and as a developing character study. The protagonist, his unique circumstances, and the period in which the novel is set, are most singular and make this a truly special read. It is 1919 England and the Great War is over. Soldiers have returned to their homes and families. Many are maimed in mind and body. And then there are those who do not return at all.
World War I was devastating for the British people, militarily and psychologically. "In July 1917, at the Battle of Ypres, (better known as the Battle of Passchendaele - Belgium), 70,000 British soldiers died and another 170,000 were wounded." Combined with the disastrous Battle of the Somme, fought in France just a year before, with its 420,000 British casualties (60,000 on the very first day of fighting), the Somme marked "the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered," wrote historian John Keegan in "The First World War." Approximately 720,000 British soldiers, (from the UK alone), were killed in WWI. Then the terrible influenza epidemic of 1918 devastated the country, and all of Europe, killing millions. Although nothing would bring back the relative innocence of life before 1914, people are slowly rebuilding their lives and a society that had been so hideously interrupted as the story opens.
In Scotland Yard, Inspector Ian Rutledge, who was an army officer in France and a survivor of the Somme, has resumed his once promising career, against his doctors' advice. After falling under direct shelling and being buried alive in a frontline trench, he suffered an emotional breakdown - they called it shell shock. Rutledge has not recovered. The doctors told him that hearing voices is not uncommon for a soldier who had undergone such a traumatic incident. It is a way for his mind to accept something of its own creation, in order to conceal what it cannot face otherwise. The particular voice that the Inspector hears is that of Corporal Hamish Macleod, a young Scot who served under him. Macleod had refused to continue fighting and Rutledge was forced to order his execution. Ian knows that if he does not succeed in recovering the skills he had before the war, he may well wind up in a sanitarium for the rest of his life. He is determined to put one foot in front of the other and fight his debilitating illness before it destroys him. Superintendent Bowles, Rutledge's unscrupulous superior, is jealous of his subordinate's pre-war success and has learned of his mental instability. He is determined to see the man fail.
Rudtlege has just returned from Warwickshire, where he solved a gruesome and politically charged murder, ("A Test of Wills"), his first post-war success. He finds that an unknown slasher, who had brutally attacked several women in London's White Chapel area before his trip to Warwickshire, was still on the loose and that the newspapers were resurrecting old Jack the Ripper stories to terrify an already frightened public. When his nemesis, Bowles, asks to see him, Ian expects to be assigned to the slasher case. On the contrary, with all the new publicity, Bowles wants the limelight for himself, and so assigns Rutledge to a seemingly unimportant case in Cornwall. The inspector, exhausted, looks forward to being by the sea.
So he travels south on what is thought to be a fool's errand, to Borcombe on the Cornish coast. A brother and sister from the area's most prominent family had committed double suicide there, in the beautiful country house overlooking the ocean where they had lived together all their relatively short lives. Both were in their 30's at the time of death. Olivia Marlowe had been crippled with poliomyelitis as a child, and although her half brother, Nicholas Cheney, fashioned a brace for her to enable her to get around, sometimes she had a great deal of pain. Another half brother, Stephen FitzHugh died just a few days after the suicides, in the same house, from an accidental fall. Lady Ashford, a politically connected cousin to all three diseased persons, felt there had been a "hasty judgement, and that insufficient consideration had been given to the likelihood of murder" - three suspicious deaths over a period of a few days. She asked Scotland Yard to reopen the case.
From the first, the local constable tells Rutledge that there is absolutely no evidence to support foul play in any of the deaths. Olivia, a reclusive spinster, had been in pain, and although Nicholas was only in his early thirties, he had been gassed at Ypres and suffered terribly at times because of his damaged lungs. Stephen, the third dead family member, had been retrieving some paperwork from the upstairs study and in his rush to leave, he fell down the steps, breaking his neck. He had lost a foot in the war and his balance was off because of it. It is during this discussion that Rutledge learns Olivia Marlowe is, in fact, O. A. Manning, a famous poet whose war poetry had touched him deeply. Her verse had meant so much to him in his darkest hours. Her true identity as the writer had just came to light with her demise. Only Nicholas knew the truth. Rutledge is seriously disturbed by this information, wondering how the woman who wrote such magnificent poems could have killed herself.
Guided by the voice of Hamish, the man he unwillingly had executed on the battlefield, (which is, of course, Rutledge's own unconscious mind), Ian begins to uncover the haunting truths of murder and madness within a family. He realizes how his findings had so effected the entire family for so long, and now will forever change the future of the surviving kin. Here are people who struggled for years against an evil they could not defeat, until one man finally brings them all closure. What haunts Rutledge, and left me so moved, is that he arrived so late to the scene.
Todd's descriptions of post war England, the main characters, the villagers, even the scenery are extraordinary. I also want to mention that bits and pieces of poetry are included in the novel, supposedly Olivia Marlowe's/ O. A. Manning's work. It seems to have been written by Charles Todd. I think it is very good verse - worth taking note of anyway.
Don't be daunted by the number of half brothers, sisters and family history involved in this superbly wrought mystery. There was one mother who married three times. Author Todd does a good job of explaining it all. Oddly, Mr. Todd, who writes like a native of the UK, is an American. I definitely plan to read the third book in the series. Ian Rutledge has become very real to me, as has Hamish. I am rooting for the two to merge and am certainly interested in their further activities. I gave the debut novel 4+ stars. This one is an easy 5. Highly recommended!