A deserted mansion, a lonely churchyard, a village frozen in time. Throw in a corpse or two and a dogged detective, and you have the outline for the traditional British mystery novel. Detractors cry, “Formula,” as if that were a flaw, but those of us who love the form know better. Indeed, one of the greatest pleasures of reading a well-crafted mystery lies in recognizing the ways a gifted author rings changes on the basic pattern. In the case of Charles Todd’s mysteries, we’re talking about two gifted authors: Todd, as “his” fans know, is the pseudonym for an American mother-and-son writing team that has churned out 13 previous mysteries featuring Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge, a battle-scarred veteran of World War I. What’s more improbable than the collaboration is how consistently ingenious and atmospheric the Ian Rutledge novels are.
Even given Todd’s superlative track record, “The Confession” is a standout. It opens with a sly gesture to that classic film noir “D.O.A.,” in which a dying man visits the police station to report a murder. (Watch the 1950 original with Edmond O’Brien, not the awful 1988 remake with Dennis Quaid.) In “The Confession,” a “walking skeleton” appears at Scotland Yard on an oppressive summer’s day in 1920 and tells Rutledge that he’s dying of cancer and wants to clear his conscience of a murder he committed five years earlier. A few days later, the guilty man’s body turns up floating in the Thames; a bullet to the back of the head killed him before the cancer could. Now Rutledge is involved in two murder investigations, with only the flimsiest of clues to guide him: the dead man’s confession (which turns out to be riddled with lies) and a woman’s gold locket found around the corpse’s neck.
Well, that’s not quite accurate. As Todd’s fans know, something or someone else is always guiding Inspector Rutledge. Like many great detectives, he has a sidekick who whispers warnings and, sometimes, recriminations into his ear. Rutledge’s Watson is named Hamish MacLeod; he was a corporal — and trusted friend — serving under Rutledge in France during the war. When Hamish refused a direct order to take his exhausted and bloodied men over the top in a suicidal attempt to wipe out a German machine-gun nest, Rutledge had no choice but to turn the insubordinate corporal over to a firing squad. Ever since that awful day, Hamish’s spirit has followed Rutledge wherever he goes. (Whether Hamish really is a ghost or merely a hallucination of Rutledge’s tortured conscience hardly matters. What does matter is that Todd manages to dramatize this eerie relationship with emotional weight and verisimilitude. We’re not talking Topper here.)
It’s a good thing, too, that Rutledge has company on this case, because his investigations lead him to one of the creepiest villages in all of English detective fiction: Furnham, in Essex, home to disgruntled fishermen, smugglers and hardscrabble farmers — all with a strange aversion to the tourists who are eager to spread some needed money around. When Rutledge takes his sister on an exploratory weekend drive into Furnham, they’re cold-shouldered by all the natives they pass. Finally, a heavyset man approaches their roadster and says:
“ ‘Looking for someone?’
“Not ‘Can I help you?’ or ‘New to Furnham, are you?’
“ ‘Actually,’ Rutledge answered, pulling up, ‘we were wondering where we might have lunch.’
“The man considered them. ‘We don’t run to restaurants,’ he replied. ‘Not here. You might find something more to your liking back the way you’ve come.’ ”
So much for the standard Merrie Olde England welcome of hot buttered scones and a cuppa. Just as uncanny as the village is the nearby manor house of River’s Edge, vacant since the war and scene of a famous unsolved disappearance. Rutledge obsessively returns to this ancestral pile, surrounded by tall marsh grasses that rustle constantly and conceal eyes that watch his every hesitant move. And let’s not forget the parsonage, set miles away from the church, which is itself at an odd distance from the graveyard. Why are everything and everyone in Furnham so damnably odd?
By the time these questions are resolved, the body count has mounted and Rutledge’s nerves are almost shot. “The Confession” carries forward some of the best elements of the British Golden Age mysteries and proves that there’s life in the old formula yet.
Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
By Charles Todd
Morrow. 344 pp. $25.99