Proof of Guilt by the writing team Charles Todd is the 15th book in the Ian Rutledge series, set in England after the First World War (available January 29, 2013).
An unidentified body appears to have been run down by a motorcar and Ian Rutledge is leading the investigation to uncover what happened. While signs point to murder, vital questions remain. Who is the victim? And where, exactly, was he killed?
One small clue leads the Inspector to a firm built by two families, famous for producing and selling the world’s best Madeira wine. Lewis French, the current head of the English enterprise is missing. But is he the dead man? And do either his fiancée or his jilted former lover have anything to do with his disappearance—or possible death? What about his sister? Or the London office clerk? Is Matthew Traynor, French’s cousin and partner who heads the Madeira office, somehow involved?
Ian Rutledge, a former officer in the British army, has an unusual case of shell shock, now named PTSD, in which he sometimes hears the voice of a dead soldier inside his head, making sarcastic commentary on the proceedings. (This has become less significant as the series progresses.) Rutledge returns to working as a police detective to ward off his inner demons and makes his job the center of his life. The series also explores how Rutledge has to maneuver the politics of the police department and his various colleagues.
I enjoy this series for its historical elements. I particularly admired, in this novel, how the authors illuminate the 1920 setting, smoothly integrating it with the police procedural plot. For instance, in this scene we learn something about servants and are shown that automobiles are a relatively new and expensive luxury for most people.
The footman was an older man, to Rutledge’s surprise. As a rule it was a position for younger ones. He drew up in the street next to the two policemen and said, “Here you are, Constable Doyle. Have a look.” He nodded to Rutledge. “Sir.” But they could see straightaway that the meticulously maintained motor had not been involved in any street accident. It could have rolled out of the showroom door only yesterday, it was in such excellent condition. As he was examining it, Rutledge saw the footman take out a handkerchief and briskly rub an edge of the near-side headlamp where Constable Doyle had briefly rested his hand as he bent to look more closely at the frame. The frown on the man’s face as he polished away the offending print indicated that the motorcar was in his charge and his joy.
The official examination of the murder victim takes casual note of what would have become commonplace as an identifying characteristic for many men—scars from shrapnel or bullets.
Internal injuries consistent with being struck by a motorcar. Broken left arm. No war wounds.
Rutledge’s evaluation of a suspect goes into the man’s war record, and from his own experience he is able to make judgments about it.
His military career had been exemplary, and he had risen to the rank of Captain. He had seen action at Mons, Passchendaele, the Somme, and Amiens, was wounded three times, and returned to active duty as soon as he was cleared by his doctors. Rutledge had never encountered Belford in France, but that wasn’t too surprising. What was, was the fact that he’d never heard the man’s name mentioned. When new companies were being transferred in, there was usually information about where they’d come from, what regiment they had served with, and the name of the officer in charge of their sector.
Gibson said, “That’s all there is. The War Office was too quick to answer our questions. Makes you wonder.”
…“As he hasn’t been shot at dawn, he can’t be a German spy living among us,” Rutledge said wryly.
The Rutledge series and another series by the same authors, the Bess Crawford books, do a wonderful job of evoking the postwar period and of emphasizing how the horrors and privations of World War I affected and continued to affect the home front, even years later. Some of the stories in the Rutledge series involve crimes with their origin in either the war itself or as a result of its far-reaching effects. This provides a stimulating extra layer to the mystery plots. If you love historicals, Charles Todd should be on your radar!
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Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Her World War I-set Spice Brief, “Under Her Uniform”, is a tie-in to her novel The Moonlight Mistress. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.
Read all posts by Victoria Janssen for Criminal Element.