A Test of Wills, by Charles Todd

In 1918, the combat-related illness known today as post-traumatic stress disorder was called “shell shock.” Its sufferers were more likely stigmatized than treated with compassion. In Charles Todd’s literary novel, A Test of Wills, Inspector Ian Rutledge, after four years of trench warfare in France and several months in a sanitarium for the treatment of shell shock, returns to Scotland Yard. Among his symptoms, he’s haunted by an echo in his brain—the voice of Corporal Hamish MacLeod, a man who died in the trenches, along with part of Rutledge’s soul. Hamish sometimes acts as a conscience or consultant, but he’s often a torturer who attacks Rutledge when he wearies.

When the Warwickshire constabulary requests the assistance of the Metropolitan Police in the case of a politically sensitive murder investigation, the ambitious but paranoid Scotland Yard Superintendent Bowles, aware of Rutledge’s delicate condition, dispatches Rutledge with the hope that the case will end his career.

The Warwickshire constabulary suspects that Captain Mark Wilton, ace fighter pilot, winner of the Victoria Cross, and a personal friend of both the King and the Prince of Wales, may have murdered a member of the local gentry. Should Wilton come to trial, he would embarrass the Crown. Should he walk free, the gossips would suspect a cover-up. To avoid negative publicity, the local police pass responsibility to Scotland Yard. Only an expert and experienced investigator, at the top of his game, can solve this riddle and dodge career-ending repercussions.

Barely able to function, Rutledge seemingly rides to his professional death. He’s lost faith in everything, including his intuition. His only possible escapes from Hamish are sleep and death.

“Shell shock” in its many forms meets Rutledge in Warwickshire—an alcoholic veteran whose mind remains on the battlefield, a war widow numbed by the burden of loneliness, a post-traumatic mute child witness to a bloody murder, all share shades of PTSD symptoms. Rejected by the community, they hold the key to the murderer’s identity, but no one believes them.

The Orlando Sentinel says of A Test of Wills, “A first novel that speaks out, urgently and compassionately, for a long-dead generation…A Test of Wills is both a meticulously wrought puzzle and a harrowing psychological drama about a man’s struggle to raise himself from the dead.”

Charles Todd, through his protagonist, explores the depth of every character to the point that the reader walks in their skin, weighs their hearts, and judges their guilt or innocence. Readers stalk the byways of this quaint rural community, visit the church, the inn and the house of ill-repute. They meet Dr. Warren, the ideal family physician who never rests as he ministers to his community. In contrast, Mavers, who disturbs the peace with his political rants and freely insults prominent town’s people, but for a seemingly iron-clad alibi, stands as the most likely “scapegoat” to hang for the murder. C. Tarrant, an extraordinarily popular artist in London, lives quietly in the countryside, allowing metropolitan art critics believe she’s a man. She conceals other secrets, as well.

The author not only rewards his readers with an intensely compelling story, but pleases with his lyricism: “Rutledge had just returned to the Yard after covering himself with mud and glory in the trenches of France…” and “Rutledge looked into the eyes like black plums in a pudding, and flinched at what he read there, a torment much like his own…” and “…he’d discovered in the trenches of France that hell itself was not so frightening as the darkest corners of the human mind…”

Ian Rutledge reminds the reader of the profound spiritual and emotional damage of war that endures long after the  battered landscape heals. He alerts us to the presence of souls about us, trauma victims who nurse deep scars inflicted by second and third hand shrapnel. And yet, “the War to End All Wars” is just the beginning.

A Test of Wills, by Charles Todd is the first volume of the Ian Rutledge Mystery Series.

She’s Leaving Home (The Breen and Tozer Mystery Series) Volume 1, by William Shaw

If “a book is a ship that takes you to distant lands,” then the Breen and Tozer series welds together a tour bus, a “Tube” carriage and a time machine. The Anglophile – with online maps and satellite views – becomes an accidental tourist, following the action, riding from one Underground station to the next and peering down on villages along the M4 and A33 as the detectives make their way across southern England. It’s not just a mystery, but a geography lesson, an anthology of Anglo-slang, and a time capsule.

If you’ve missed the 1960s the first time around, here’s a chance to catch a slice of 1968 just as the “generation gap” ripped open. The “gap” rent families, often with disastrous consequences. In England, it separated the older generation and its notion that “Britannia rules the waves,” from the “hippies” who preached, “Britannia waves the rules.” The moral imperative of the former – “Do what you like, but don’t get caught” – their greatest enemy, “scandal,” their ally was “the discrete wink and nod.” The boomers rejected the rules, did what they liked and resented the imposition of censure by the “establishment.” Homicide detectives Breen and Tozer stood on opposite rims of the gap, each with a family disaster affecting his and her world views.

In London, murder happens even around the corner from EMI’s Abbey Road Studios, the Beatles’ headquarters and the setting for Breen and Tozer’s first case together. Metropolitan Police Detective Sergeant Cathal “Paddy” Breen – the girls say he’s a looker, thirty-two, a contemplative loner who hadn’t a clue when it came to women or the Beatles. Temporary Detective Constable Helen Tozer –twenty-two, a farm girl from Devon, one of the original members of the Beatles Fan Club – had the effrontery, as a woman, to transfer into a detective unit. As you can see, they’re a match made in heaven.

Breen and Tozer blend their strengths as they travel to Devon and Essex in pursuit of the identities of murder victims and murderers. Subplots touch on immigration, popular and unpopular wars, urban development and police corruption.

The author masterfully developed his characters, illuminated the social and family lives of the constabulary, and the police interactions with the citizenry. In an effort at authenticity, his characters used sexist, racist, ethnically inflammatory, vulgar and otherwise “politically incorrect” language. He incorporated contemporary events, persons, news, fashion and attitudes of 1968 – a time of contrasts between cosmopolitan London and rural Devon, low-income housing and posh flats, Commonwealth immigrants and nationalistic Londoners.

Readers who lived through the 1960s may feel a twinge of nostalgia. Those who missed out, may recognize how much the 1960s shaped their own generation. The teens of the 60’s are the parents and grandparents of the majority of today’s readers. Maybe it’s time for a family discussion?

The Haunted Cathedral, by Antony Barone Kolenc (published by OakTara, 2013)

How could a story about Xan, a twelfth century English orphan possibly relate to today’s youngsters? Xan was neither caped-crusader nor superhero. Violence destroyed his neighborhood and family. He was poor, undernourished, homeless, and the victim of bullies. His relationship with his girlfriend became very complicated. Xan had no real control over his life and destiny. As a serf, the lord of his manor “owned” him. His uncle could have forced him to move away from his friends and serve as his apprentice in an unfamiliar city. With all this baggage, the reader can see why resentment could grow in Xan’s heart.

Xan’s teacher Brother Andrew reminded the boy that we pray “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And “If someone strikes your right cheek, turn your left as well.” Xan found these scriptures harsh especially after his bleeding mouth had swollen from a bully’s punch and when the Abbot prevented the local lord from executing the leader of the bandits who raided Xan’s village, killed his family and then attacked the monastery, injuring the Abbot.

Xan reflected on his difficulties during a cart ride from rural Harwood Abbey to the major city of Lincoln, its castle and haunted cathedral. His companions on this trip included, Brother Andrew, two armed guards and Carlo, the hated leader of the bandit gang. The relationships between the passengers reached a climax in a confrontation between Xan and Carlo. Could Xan see any good in the bandit? Could he trust Carlo with the lives of others?

While Xan awaited a meeting with his uncle, to decide his future, he toured Lincoln with neighborhood children. They showed him the sights, especially the haunted cathedral. Xan and his new friends attempted to solve the ghostly-mystery. Again, Xan’s analytical powers aided by the advice of trusted adults and the cunning of his companions, brings to light what had confounded everyone else. Carlo provided a key to the mystery, in the form of an unwelcome gift. Xan reluctantly accepted the gift while hating it almost as much as he hated Carlo. As events unfolded, the gift revealed its life-changing significance, suggesting repentance and inviting forgiveness.

Antony Barone Kolenc keeps his readers in constant suspense with his twisted story line while he delivers a powerful emotional punch and material for spiritual reflection. The Chronicles of Xan II: The Haunted Cathedral, speaks to all generations as it represents the pain and promise of growing up in any century. It recognizes the gift of children, their contributions to the community and the need for intergenerational dialogue. Antony Barone Kolenc has carefully crafted this second book in the Xan Trilogy as and excellent resource for educators, parents and youthful students. It deserves a place at the top of reading lists for school reading programs and in the personal libraries of those who love a great mystery.

(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)