“Shaken from sleep, and numbed and scarce awake,
Out in the trench with three hours' watch to take,
I blunder through the splashing mirk; and then
Hear the gruff muttering voices of the men
Crouching in cabins candle-chinked with light.
Hark! There's the big bombardment on our right
Rumbling and bumping; and the dark's a glare
Of flickering horror in the sectors where
We raid the Boche; men waiting, stiff and chilled,
Or crawling on their bellies through the wire.
"What? Stretcher-bearers wanted? Some one killed?"
Five minutes ago I heard a sniper fire:
Why did he do it?... Starlight overhead--
Blank stars. I'm wide-awake; and some chap's dead.”
― Siegfried Sassoon, The War Poems
A Jack the Ripper copycat is loose in London, but instead of joining the manhunt Inspector Ian Rutledge is dispatched to Cornwall. His boss, an Inspector Bowles, doesn’t like him very much, not very much at all. No one including Rutledge knows if he is really ready to go back to work at Scotland Yard. The war shattered him mentally and everything feels a bit rushed getting back in the swing of things. He also makes things worse for himself annoying his boss with these leaps in logic. Well, I’ll let Rutledge explain it. ”I survived in those hellholes they called trenches for four years. It seemed like forty--a lifetime. I learned to trust my intuition. Me who didn’t often died. I was lucky to possess it in the first place, and war honed it. I learned that it wasn’t a figment of my imagination. Nor was it a replacement for the God I’d lost. Whatever it was, you came to recognize it. An inkling, a warning, a sudden flash of caution, a split-second insight that saved your life. Indisputably real, however unorthodox the means of reaching you. It gave you an edge on death, and you were grateful.”
And then there is Hamish.
You see he is dead,
but very much alive in Rutledge’s subconscious. He is a Scottish lad that Rutledge unwillingly
had to execute on the battlefield.
Let’s just say the moment stuck with him.
Hamish whispers to him all the time undermining his confidence.
Even though this Cornwall trip was meant as a slap in the face Rutledge doesn’t mind. There certainly wouldn’t be anything to a pair of unmarried cousins committing suicide after all.
Another cousin falling down the stairs and breaking his neck, even with a missing foot from the war providing a place for blame, does seem to lead one to think the Trevelyan family is unlucky. It happens, ask the Kennedy family, but then the Kennedy’s did receive more than just a gentle push into the next world.
Another cousin Rachel was the one that asked Scotland Yard to investigate the suicides of her cousins Olivia and Nicholas. She finds it hard to believe that they would commit such a crime against their immortal souls. When Rutledge discovers that Olivia is actually O.A. Manning a poet who gave him many nights of solace in the muck and blood he is even more determined to find the truth. He always assumed she was a man and it takes a bit of mental wrestling to conceive how a woman could understand his state of mind so well without ever venturing a dainty foot into a trench. She is a poet after all, a crippled poet, a woman who knows fear and anger and how it is to look at the world with eyes tinged with both.
”Murderer I am, of little things, small griefs,
Treasures of the heart.
Of bodies and of souls I have taken
All that is there to give,
Life’s blood, the spirit’s wealth.
And these secrets I keep locked away,
For my own joy and your pain.”
As he begins to ask questions of the remaining relatives and the village people Rachel quickly reaches a state where she wants him to leave. He is digging too deeply into family affairs, rubbing raw wounds, and unearthing unseemly family secrets. She expected him to just come down there and by some trickery like a gypsy fortune teller ascertain what really happened. As he finds out more about the family he discovers more deaths each surrounded by more questions than answers. It doesn’t take long for him to realize there is a killer and it has to be a member of the Trevelyan family.
He has men searching moors for decades old clues. He resorts to unorthodox means to get people to talk. He makes an old woman cry. ”She began to weep, tears running down her white, withered face in ugly runnels, as if there had never been places for them to fall before, and now they couldn’t find a way.
Rutledge found himself breathing hard, his body tight with black and wordless rage. He gave her his handkerchief and she took it, fumbling in the blindness of tears. She touched her face with a dignity that was heart wrenching, because these were not tears for herself. She still hadn’t cried for herself.”
If the moors haven’t already put you in mind of a certain Sherlock Holmes maybe a fall off a cliff wrapped up in the arms of a killer will. ”Then before either person could brake their momentum, over the edge of the cliff.
It wasn’t a sheer drop. It was rock eroded by wind and weather. It was clumpy grass and earth, punctuated by straggling shrubs and heaved outcroppings. A long and rough slope that took its toll on bone and flesh as they tumbled down towards the fringe of boulders where the surf crashed whitely. The noise rose to meet them, so mixed with the thunder that there was only an endless, deafening roar.”
I really liked the first book in this series, A Test of Wills
, but this one was even better. The plot was riddled with plausible red herrings and the pressure that is brought to bear on Rutledge to just let it all go was palpable in my own reading chair. The conclusion comes together like a train loose on a track with a full head of steam. I couldn’t have put this book down if a scar faced one eyed bandit had a cocked .45 nestled up against my head. I’d get to him...after...I turned the final page.