Watchers of Time
by Charles Todd
Published by Bantam Books
336 pages, 2001
Buy it on Amazon
Too Close to Home
Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce
The year is 1919. On his deathbed, Herbert Baker -- a devout Anglican, entirely bereft of blame, so far as his family or neighbors know -- surprises the small English town of Osterley by shooing away his local vicar in order to speak with a Catholic priest, Father James. Only weeks later, that same priest is found murdered in his rectory, struck down by an altar crucifix, supposedly wielded by a thief. However, the late clergyman's bishop fears that a madman rather than a petty plunderer may have been behind this tragedy and requests assistance or at least assurances of safety from Scotland Yard. Is there a connection of some sort between the deaths of Father James and Herbert Baker?
That's only one of a myriad of questions facing Inspector Ian Rutledge, who tackles his fifth novel-length inquiry in Charles Todd's absorbing Watchers of Time.
Having returned from the World War I battlefront with the loquacious ghost of an executed Scottish corporal, Hamish MacLeod, trapped inside his shell-shocked psyche, Rutledge is trying to adapt again to life in London. But he's been having a rough go of it. His former fiancée, Jean, who abandoned Rutledge shortly after he sailed back to Britain "a silent, empty man in the grip of nightmares she couldn't understand," is preparing to marry a diplomat and relocate to Canada. His odious boss, Chief Superintendent Bowles, had hoped that a bullet wound the inspector suffered during his last case (see Legacy of the Dead, one of my favorite books of 2000) would kill him, but it didn't. Now that Rutledge has rejoined the Yard, Bowles is determined to make his life as uncomfortable as possible. That effort includes sending him out to Osterley to mollify a bishop and make it look as if Scotland Yard cares what happened to Father James, when it really doesn't.
But Rutledge is more conscientious than that. And less trusting. He's not convinced that a suspect jailed in connection with the priest's slaying at the St. Anne's Church rectory -- an itinerant "strong man" entertainer named Matthew Walsh -- actually committed the crime. Walsh's ostensible motive -- to steal a small amount of cash gleaned from the church's autumn bazaar -- seems too simple. Which is exactly why the town's chief constable likes it. "No seduced wives in St. Anne's congregation, no abused choirboys, no dark secrets that would destroy the man and the office simultaneously," Rutledge muses. The inspector, on the other hand, thinks the killer might be a member of the tight-knit (and tighter-lipped) Osterley community, rather than a convenient outsider. Proving that, though, will be a tricky and arduous task. It will pit Rutledge against a nouveau riche family protective of its status, find him allied with a surreptitious woman researcher, explain Father James' puzzling last bequest of a strangely missing photograph, and ultimately expose a domestic trauma that links recent events to one of the most horrific sea disasters of the 20th century: the sinking of the "unsinkable" RMS Titanic.
Todd, a resident of America's East Coast, is a polished writer with a demonstrable talent for re-creating postwar rural Britain, a place still reeling from the clash between perceptions of armed conflict as ennobling and the all-too-swift deaths of so many of its native sons. His plots are densely layered with prevarications and misleading leads and messy human emotions. Todd takes extraordinary care in fleshing out the characters at all levels of his stories. One brief scene about halfway through Watchers of Time, for instance, does a fine job not only of giving dimension to a supporting figure in this drama, but emphasizes the psychological distance between those people who fought in the so-called Great War and those who remained at home. In an Osterley pub called The Pelican, Rutledge encounters a young man whose reclusiveness suggests he did time on the European front lines. A woman who knows the man satisfies the inspector's curiosity:
"He was in the war. He was a sniper."
No player in Todd's series receives as much attention, though, as its chief protagonist. One of the most uniquely conceived sleuths in modern crime fiction, Ian Rutledge is a man with more to hide than most of the criminals he's charged with apprehending. Nobody who remembers television's silly 1970s British private eye series Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) -- more familiar in the States as My Partner the Ghost -- would have thought to try again with a haunted detective; yet Rutledge and Hamish work well as a team, the former a dogged and experienced investigator, the latter an ill-tempered Greek chorus of doubt. Far from being an obviously heroic personage, Ian Rutledge lives with the fear that he'll be revealed at any moment for the troubled man he is. "To be shell-shocked," he explains, "was to be publicly branded a coward -- a man unfit to be mentioned in the same breath as the soldier with a missing limb or shot-away jaw. A shame -- a disgrace. Not an honorable wound but the mark of failure as a man." No wonder the inspector has become so committed to his job: He's trying to prove that his personal fragility won't stand in the way of his professional attainments.
Only five books into the Rutledge series (with a sixth installment, A Fearsome Doubt, in the works), Charles Todd has already established himself as a connoisseur's choice within this genre. Three of his works, including Search the Dark (1999) and his debut novel, the superbly executed A Test of Wills (1996), have been chosen by The New York Times as Notable Books of the Year. Legacy of the Dead, which boasts one of the most suspenseful endings you're ever likely to read, was nominated for an Anthony Award at this year's Bouchercon World Mystery Convention (but lost out in the Best Novel category to Val McDermid's A Place of Execution). The sole clinker in this series was Wings of Fire (1998), which proved altogether too Gothic for my tastes.
While it might be good to give Rutledge a non-rural case in the future, maybe force him to interact more with some of his fellow London coppers (a situation guaranteed to provoke whole new sets of tensions), it's hard to argue with the success that Todd and Rutledge have enjoyed thus far. These books may not be classic police procedurals, but they are certainly arresting. | November 2001
J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.