Review: The Gate Keeper by Charles Todd

The Gate Keeper by Charles Todd is the 20th book in the Inspector Ian Rutledge series, where a frightened woman standing over a body on a deserted road launches an inquiry that leads Rutledge into the lair of a stealthy killer and the dangerous recesses of his own memories.

Ian Rutledge drove through the night, his mind only partly on the road unwinding before him. He was north of London, and a little to the east of it as well. But he had no particular destination in mind…

As The Gate Keeper opens, Inspector Rutledge is a man adrift. Only hours ago, he walked his sister Frances down the aisle and gave her hand to her new husband. Now, he’s wandering a dark country road, haunted by his memories of the Great War and struggling with his new sense of loneliness.

Fate intervenes—as it so often has in his life—and guides him to a new mystery that’s more pressing than his personal demons.

A motorcar was stopped in the middle of the road, its doors standing wide. He’d hardly taken that in when he realized there was a woman in the road too, bending over the body of someone—a man—lying haphazardly at her feet.

Rutledge was already pulling hard on the brake, bringing the heavy motorcar to a skidding halt not twenty feet from the rear of the other vehicle. It was then he saw one more piece of the tableau in front of him.

There was blood on the woman’s hands.

The woman looked up, staring toward him in dismay, fright filling her eyes as she stood there like stone, all color washed out of her face, and the blood on her hands black in the brightness bridging the gap between them.

According to the woman, someone had been standing in the road. Her friend, Stephen Wentworth, had stopped the car and gotten out to see if they needed help. Then, the faceless figure had lifted a gun and shot Stephen through the heart—no hesitation, at point blank range—before disappearing into the darkness. The witness barely had time to scream before they were gone.

As the first on the scene, Rutledge pushes the Yard to assign him the inquiry and starts digging into the victim’s past. Wentworth owned a bookstore in the tiny village of Wolfpit. He came from a wealthy, well-regarded family. He was known as a charming, respectable, kind-hearted person.

But respectable, kind people are rarely targeted for such a cold execution.

Could Wentworth’s murder have something to do with the War? With his time in the Navy or—further back—with his years at Oxford, a broken engagement, and his mysterious disappearance to Peru?

Is his own family involved? Rutledge finds a deep and unexpected hatred lurking in the Wentworth household and intimations that Stephen was not the upstanding young man he appeared on the surface:

He climbed the stairs to his room, found his key, and even though it was barely four o’clock in the afternoon, he turned up the lamp and was about to carry a chair to the window when he saw an envelope lying on the bed.

Curious, he reached for it. The flap hadn’t been sealed. Pulling out the poorly folded single sheet that had been stuffed inside, he unfolded it.

The scrawl was written in a water-thinned ink by a thin point, and the word spidery came to mind. An attempt to conceal the handwriting?

But there was no mistaking the message.

Stephen Wentworth is a murderer. He got what he deserved.

When a second man in Wolfpit is found shot—straight through the heart, crumpled at the end of his own drive—it becomes clear that someone is killing for a reason.

Is the murderer looking for something? Are they avenging a past wrong? Is this second death meant to cover the true meaning behind the first, or vice versa?

And what hidden thread connects a wealthy bookseller and a gentleman farmer 10 years his senior? The men both lived alone, were both respected and relatively successful, and had both been in the War. But those details fit many men in Wolfpit.

Those details fit Rutledge.

The 20th installment in the Inspector Ian Rutledge series is a tale of poignant melancholy. The deeper Rutledge digs into the victims’ lives, the more tragic everything becomes. This is a mystery steeped in loss and thwarted expectations, where good men suffer unfairly thanks to malicious family, merciless disease, and cruel war. Everything is scarred—from our hero to the very land around him—as Britain continues the slow, arduous climb from the trenches of a conflict only two years past.

Rutledge himself is a man precariously balanced on the edge of self-destruction. His souvenirs from the War are invisible: shell-shock, nightmares, and the invisible but all too real passenger in his head. The voice of Hamish, the young soldier he was forced to shoot with his own gun.

Rutledge was in an angry mood all the way back to Wolfpit, aggravated by Hamish speaking from the rear seat, where he always sat, just at the edge of vision, like a wraith that never quite materialized. But Rutledge knew very well that he was there. After all, the deep Scottish voice had been with him since 1916, four long years. Never comfortable with its presence, never comfortable with the possibility of not hearing it. Of not keeping Corporal Hamish MacLeod alive as long as he could, even though he was dead and buried in France. Madness of a sort, Rutledge thought, because it was irrational. And yet so integral a part of him that he needed to hear that voice even when he dreaded it most.

The mother-and-son writing team of Charles Todd has always done a superb job of making Rutledge a real, breathing person. With his trauma and long struggle toward a sense of normality, he’s relatable and complex—not a superman but a broken man doing the best he can.

He hides his wounds out of shame, as signs of damning weakness, like so many soldiers have over the decades. All because his society insists on turning a blind eye to the very real problems veterans faced in the wake of the Great War. And that supremely British “stiff upper-lip” attitude only drives men to suicide and suffering in secret, condemning them for having had “a bad war” through no fault of their own.

Rutledge’s personal pain allows him to connect with the victims—“I speak for the dead,” he tells a young woman at one point. “Who else can?”—but also promises to thwart any future happiness. We want Rutledge to unravel the mystery and catch the villain, yes, but we also want him to heal. We’re as invested in him as a character as we are in the twists and turns of the mystery, which is a grand achievement for any author in this genre.

Especially when you consider The Gate Keeper is the 20th in a long-running series. This is a fresh, vivid, and extremely well-crafted story—for any story, but particularly for such a late entry in an established series. Most authors blunt their edges and water down their protagonists after a handful of sequels, but not so with Todd.

The Gate Keeper is not an action-packed adventure. It’s more of an elegy. A somber meditation on hatred, greed, loss, family, love, and war. The pace is slow but only out of necessity, dictated by the tone and atmosphere. It never truly drags or frustrates.

It demands your full attention and works best when you sink fully into the chilly gray world of Wolfpit. This is a story to be savored not sprinted through, even when the sharpest edges sting painfully. I recommend picking this up when you have a solid hour or three to just sit—perhaps with some tea at hand and the curtains drawn…


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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.


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