Racing the Devil, by Charles Todd

Racing the Devil is the nineteenth book in the Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery Series and a tantalizing read. Like many previous Rutledge Mysteries, in Race with the Devil, the Inspector chases after a mass murderer who attacks anyone who obstructs his or her dark ambitions. Targets include Rutledge.

THE PLOT

Seven British Army officers pledge to meet in Paris, a year after the eventual conclusion of the Great War. The five who survive the trenches find that their battles continue after the Armistice. Someone, perhaps one of the five, tries to kill the others.

A year after the Paris reunion, a motorcar belonging to one of the five crashes in a Sussex village near the lime cliffs known as the Seven Sisters, killing the driver. The local constable calls “The Yard” for assistance. Enter, Inspector Rutledge.

The novel’s subtext speaks of the wreckage left in the wake of war—depopulation, especially among the best and brightest of the young men; grotesque physical and emotional wounds among the survivors, and the remains of their families; and the rusting remnant of the nation’s infrastructure. So many horses die in the war that unemployed blacksmiths turn their smithies into automobile repair shops—a salient detail in a story focused on cars and “accidents.”

Rutledge fans will notice a diminished role for Hamish Macleod. Hamish stars in his own, recent short story: The Piper, but his scarcity may say more about Rutledge’s long-term health than anything else.

THE SERIES

Charles Todd offers his readers, in addition to a tense, absorbing mystery, a travelogue of Southeast England, circa 1920, a prose rich in imagery, and period references. The reader would be wise to consult a detailed roadmap of the United Kingdom to follow the action. Online searches for images of the local landscape and geological features can add perspective.

Todd’s time machine douses readers with frequent rain, guides them through the tents and booths of market days, feeds them sandwiches, cakes, and pub fare, and nearly drowns them in tea, whiskey, port, and the ever-looming pint. Todd reanimates regional traditions and institutions such as the town constable. Rutledge encounters an assortment of local policemen and learns the value of those who have served long and well. They know everyone in and everything that happens on their patch. Then, there are the others who guard their turf and milk it for any benefit it may bring to themselves.

A master craftsman, Charles Todd can be counted on to ratchet up the level of suspense and conflict. He leads his readers on a merry chase by introducing squads of characters with means, motive, and opportunity. Just when the guilty individual seems to have been arrested, Todd saves another major wrinkle to unfold.

Race with the Devil is never boring. It’s the type of story where the readers may glance at the clock to realize that Todd has kept him or her up beyond the normal bedtime hour. The only regret is that fans must wait another year for volume twenty.

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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?

Flavia 006: The Dead in their Vaulted Arches, by Alan Bradley

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Trains, planes and automobiles, along with Winston Churchill and a military escort greeted Hillary de Luce upon her return to her husband, her daughters and her ancestral estate: Buckshaw. Thus began episode 006 of the Flavia de Luce Mystery Series. Alan Bradley had left Flavia, his protagonist, the youngest of those de Luce daughters, dangling at the conclusion of volume 005, only to have her land in volume 006 with one foot in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and the other in Kim’s Game as described by Rudyard Kipling.

The Dead in their Vaulted Arches introduced major plot shifts, revelations, reconciliations and retributions. Relics of the past flickered and flew into view, unveiling secrets that stretched back through three hundred years of de Luce history and service to king and country.  Flavia’s new and more durable personal nemesis emerged, Undine: younger, equal and opposite, perhaps brighter and potentially more dangerous than Flavia. Was she a usurper, a snoop or just a lonely child looking for a friend?

Flavia passed through a substantial stage of metamorphosis to an elevated sense of power and confidence and yet at times she was more flustered than she had ever been. Most importantly, she did emerge as a far more formidable Flavia as she began her trek toward volume 007.

Reviews of mysteries, especially a series in which the initiated would have shunned spoilers other than those offered by the publisher, must focus on style rather than substance. Alan Bradley often invited the reader to tea, a break in the action, an apparent distraction, where the author installed words in place as would a jeweler carefully set a variety of brilliant stones within the gold of a magnificent brooch. There was no better way to review Bradley’s skill than to quote the author on various aspects of volume 006, or as he would have had Flavia say, “Let’s take another squint…”

At their current situation:

We were told the when, the where, and the how of everything, but never the why.

Churchill…still had certain secrets which he kept even from God.

Logical beyond question but at the same time mad as a March hare

At her father:

Windows were as essential to my father’s talking as his tongue.

He stood frozen in his own private glacier.

Father, the checkmated king, gracious, but fatally wounded in defeat

(With Churchill) These two seemingly defeated men, brothers in something I could not even begin to imagine.

At her sister Ophelia:

The image of bereaved beauty, she simply glowed with grief.

Feely had the knack of being able to screw one side of her face into a witchlike horror while keeping the other as sweet and demure as a maiden from Tennyson.

She knew me as well as the magic mirror knew the wicked queen.

Her complexion—at least since its volcanic activity settled down

Her voice suddenly as cold and stiff as whipped egg whites

At Flavia on Flavia:

I wanted to curl up like a salted slug and die.

I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand in case of overlooked jam or drool.

One of the marks of a truly great mind…is to be able to feign stupidity on demand.

The comforting reek of nitrocellulose lacquer

It smelled as if a coffee house in the slums of Hell had been hit by lightning.

That bump in her bloomers was me! (A comment on a photo of her pregnant mother)

My emotions were writhing inside me like snakes in a pit.

There is a strange strength in secrets which can never be achieved by spilling one’s guts.

I slept the sleep of the damned, tossing and turning as if I were lying in a bed of smoldering coals.

My mouth tasted as if a farmer had stored turnips in it while I slept.

My brain came instantly up to full throttle.

There are few instances in life where, in spite of everything, one had to swallow one’s heart and go it alone, and this was one of them.

Giving praise at every silent step for the invention of carpets

My knees gave off an alarming crack.

At flying:

And with a roar the propeller disappeared in a blur.

The roar became a tornado and we began to move.

And then a sudden smoothness…we were flying!

Beneath our wings the marvelous toy world slid slowly by…miniature sheep grazed in handkerchief pastures.

At trains:

The gleaming engine panted into the station and squealed to a stop at the edge of the platform.

(The train) sat resting for a few moments in the importance of its own swirling steam.

At music:

Each note hung for an instant like a cold, crystalline drop of water melting from the end of an icicle.

Humming mindlessly to herself like a hive of distant bees

The music faded and died among the beams and king posts of the ancient roof.

The organ fell silent as if suddenly embarrassed at what it had done.

At children:

They had lost more than one baby in the making and I could only pray that the next one would be a howling success.

“You’re a child.” “Of course I am, but that’s hardly a reason to treat me like one.”

As we await volume 007, we might expect a twelve-year-old Flavia who would have behaved not so much as her teen-aged sisters but as her mother Harriet. The relevance of the photo of Churchill’s statue in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada will become apparent to the readers of volume 006.

Bradley, Alan. The Dead in their Vaulted Arches. New York: Delacorte Press, 2014.

(© 2014 Donald J. Mulcare)

The Flavor of Flavia

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Why read a Flavia de Luce mystery? Besides the “who done it”- brain jogging action of a tightly crafted plot, when the eleven-year old sleuth isn’t creeping through the grave yard on a foggy night in search of clues, author Alan Bradley entertains with humor, family interactions, village idiocy and diverting prose, especially his delicately crafted figures of speech. The samples cited below originated in the first five Flavia de Luce mysteries. The sixth member of the series—The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches—was published in January of 2014. Perhaps these quotes will encourage you to sample a Flavia mystery and encourage you in your own writing?

 

Malapropisms (These originate with Mrs. Mullet, the cook. Look for the several allusions to her burnt offerings.)

Ink quest and poets’ mortem

It gives me dire-rear.

The four horsemen of the pocket lips

Colder sock

The train makes your stomach go all skew-gee.

Retorts

Do that again and I’ll scream your name and your brassiere size.

No need to get owly!

I was not going to be circumlocuted.

Alliteration

Suffering cyanide!

Time hung heavily on our behinds.

That smarmy, sanctimonious look in humbug humility

Like a corpulent cockroach, she waddled toward the windows.

Shreds of nibbled newsprint

To talk of guts, gore and Tetley’s tea

The seed of a smile

Heathered Highlands

A flurry of freezing flakes

Scrapping clouds scudded across the moon swept along on a river of wind.

Allusion

 

A gander at Mother Goose

I was the eighth dwarf. Sneaky.

The urge to rip into the gift like a lion into a Christian

Feely had more swains than Ulysses’ wife Penelope.

Brought to an abrupt end by tragedy and a woman scorned

She pointed like the third ghost in Scrooge and disappeared.

Instantly recognizable from Greenland to New Guinea

A great actress can never be greater than when she’s staring in her own life.

Its lamps making cornucopias of foggy yellow light in the falling snow

She tempted fate to hand her another cadaver.

I hated her seed biscuits the way Saint Paul hated sin.

Personification

Our furnace has been bearing its fangs

Ragged children of ammonia

The scent of things best not thought about

To a professional soldier death was life.

A hidden part of me was coming back to life.

Grind with whatever grist you are given.

Fingers of friendship

Clearing the paternal throat

Simile

Her eyes, like two mad raisins in her wrinkled face, never left mine.

A lie wrapped in detail like a horse pill in an apple

The conversation stopped abruptly as if it had been cut off with a scissors.

Tombstones leaned like jagged brown teeth.

Looked like a vulture sucked up by a tornado and spit back out

Curled up in the library like a prawn

We shall eat like Corsican bandits and sleep like the dead.

Saint Tancred’s went through organists like a python goes through white mice.

He followed her about like a bad smell.

The Choir: Shoulder to shoulder like singing sardines.

He looked like a cherub brought to life. And he knew it.

She hangs around in silence like a clogged drain.

His face turned slowly, like a sunflower, toward the sound of my voice.

Her mouth so tightly pursed as if pulled by draw strings

Like shaking hands with a pineapple

Had us twitching like crickets

My nose running like a trout stream

Her face drained slowly like a wash basin.

Metaphor

The soup of bones below: the soup of which I was about to become just another ingredient.

“Good sport” was not among the phrases that described her, “ogress” however was.

Who’s Who, a catalog of the same old dry sticks harrumphing their way toward the grave

If poisons were ponies, I’d put my money on cyanide.

That was the way with ghosts, though they appeared at the strangest times and in the most peculiar places.

If cooking were a game of darts, most of Mrs. Mullet’s concoctions would be barely on the board.

I tend to make a swine of myself when there’s cake to be had.

She never missed an opportunity to dig in a critical oar.

Grumblers are deaf to any voices but their own.

The forest of gravestones

Lifting a dramatic forefinger

These two creaking relics had walked through deep drifts of snow.

 

Oxymoron

My sister was a pious fraud

Climbed into my refrigerated clothing

Inky scribblers

A pack of convalescent vampires

Hyperbole

Compared with my life Cinderella was a spoiled brat.

Life had become a long corridor of locked doors.

Bishop’s Lacey, a notable hotbed of crime

Spider webs clanging like horseshoes against the wall

Hug him to jelly

I let her silence linger until it was hanging by a thread.

I thought about these things until my brains were turning blue.

A voice that originated somewhere down among her kidneys

She was the local equivalent of small pox.

Once Max got started (talking) you might as well put down roots

The rest of the afternoon was pretty much a thud.

Would go on talking of these events until they were toothless

It smelled as if a sick brontosaurus had broken wind

An eye like a bloodshot harvest moon

His rat faced and rat hearted wife slinking home alone through the graveyard

Photographed almost to distraction

She was short and gray and round as a mill stone

Unbearably stiff upper lipped

Have my guts for garters

So tired I feel asleep with my eyes open

Irony

I never cared for flippant remarks, especially when others make them.

This was a lie, but a first-rate one.

Divorce him with a dose of strychnine.

She said something that had it lived might have become a chuckle.

A perfect rainbow of ruin

Gout: a painful disease of those who love their wine more than their livers.

Mediocrity was the greatest camouflage.

Pension: a small sum to tide him over to the church yard.

Stones worn down by 200 years of privileged feet

The corners of her mouth turned up about the thickness of a page.

Whenever I’m a little blue I think about cyanide.

Sometimes I hated myself but not for long.

She stood waiting for the vicar to come scurrying to her.

Dealt out poisons with a happy hand

Inflict her hand picked gifts upon us

She looked as if she had been up to no good, and knew perfectly well what I knew.

Pus-like custard pie

Laughed toothily

Hammered together by well meaning but inept carpenters

A Field Guide to the Flavia de Luce Mystery Series

A Field Guide to the Flavia de Luce Mystery Series

Alan Bradley, born in Ontario had two older sisters. His father left the family during Alan’s early years. Alan withdrew into the world of books, often reading in a cemetery. His award-winning Flavia de Luce Mysteries, set not in Canada, but in rural England described an eleven year old girl who shared a family situation similar to that of the author. Her mother, Harriet de Luce, heir to Buckshaw, died in a mountain climbing accident before Flavia got to know her. Flavia had two sisters, the bane of her existence. Her father, so disabled by grief seemed more interested in collecting stamps than in his family or in rescuing their home from impending bankruptcy. At times Flavia escaped her woes by lying among the gravestones, imagining her own funeral and burial.

Despite this apparent sadness Bradley’s novels have delighted readers around the world. His work, translated into most European languages, Mandarin Chinese and Japanese will soon take the form of a CBC television series. His current plans proposed to extend the Flavia de Luce Mysteries to ten books. This Field Guide relied on the first three books in the series, but may assist the uninitiated.

The Time: The first three mysteries played out during the summer of 1950.

The Household: Within Buckshaw, the disintegrating ancestral home of the de Luce family, dwelled Colonel Haviland de Luce, who married his cousin Harriet; their three daughters, Ophelia (Feely) 17, Daphne (Daffy) 13, and Flavia; Dodger, a former British POW who tends the cucumbers, keeps the hinges and locks well-oiled, and protects the Colonel and the free-spirited Flavia; Mrs. Mullet, the less than award winning cook, and Aunt Felicity, sure to be played by someone like Maggie Smith in the TV series. The Buckshaw dynamic fit somewhere between that of Downton Abbey and The Addams Family, with a touch of Arsenic and Old Lace added for flavor. One of Feely’s admirers likened the three de Luce girls to the Bronte sisters, but Flavia insists, “Compared with my life Cinderella was a spoiled brat.”

The Setting: “Bishop’s Lacey, a notable hotbed of crime,” where murder and larceny abound. Maps of the area come with book two: The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag and book three: Red Herring without Mustard. In them, Alan Bradley painted a detailed panorama of the English countryside with the quaint and dilapidated, common and aristocratic, festive and melancholy, pressed together cheek by jowl.

The Protagonist: Flavia, drummed out of the Girl Guides for “behavior unbecoming,” described herself as, “a master of the forked tongue” whose “particular passion was poison.” She actually “poisoned” Feely, but found that revenge cut both ways. Since Flavia sat front-and-center at the death of one victim, “discovered” the bodies of two others and dug-up the details of three different suspicious deaths, you have to ask yourself, was she a master criminal, a psychopath or perhaps the younger version of Miss Marple or Father Brown?

She quotes Shakespeare, Dickens and the Greek classics on almost every page; translates Latin, comments on the masterpieces of classical music and art, but shines most brightly in her delight for chemistry and chemists. Yet, for all her vast knowledge, quick wit and deductive powers, there’s no mention of schooling. Flavia de Luce avails herself of libraries. She cleverly extracts information from human and inanimate sources.

You might say that Flavia was the product of home-schooling. Feely, an accomplished pianist, when not gazing at herself in the looking-glass, exposed her sisters to concertos and symphonies on a daily basis. At each meal, Daffy read aloud the best of world literature. Flavia seemed to have absorbed every note and word, although her reading tended toward chemistry, diaries, confidential reports and library archives.

While her more proper, older sisters stayed at home wailing, during family emergencies, Flavia, wearing her well-worn dress, sensible shoes and white socks rode Gladys, her BSA bicycle, “with three speeds and a forgiving disposition” to the rescue. The bike, which once belonged to Harriet, proved to Flavia a truly “adventurous female with Dunlop tires.” It faithfully served as an appropriate steed for this eleven-year old with mousy-brown pigtails as she courageously delved for solutions.

Flavia shared her mother’s free-spirit. She feared neither dark of night, nor rising waters, nor filth, nor graveyards, nor the dead, nor intrusions into forbidden buildings. Consequently, she often took her lumps and in the words of Jacques Cousteau, she barely escaped with her life. She sought recognition, denied by her family by solving crimes before the police had a chance. Unfortunately, the constabulary often failed to appreciate her efforts.

Alan Bradley wrapped Flavia de Luce in rich language and carefully worded detail. Her mysteries entertain, educate and encourage. It surprised me that the author confessed in an interview that he didn’t know much about chemistry before he invented Flavia. Although there was one diagnostic reaction that I would take with a milligram of sodium chloride, I’m sure that Bradley and Flavia will spawn a wild enthusiasm for chemistry and in particular toxicology. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Bradley, Alan. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. New York: Delacorte Press, 2009.

Bradley, Alan. The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag. New York: Delacorte Press, 2010.

Bradley, Alan. A Red Herring without Mustard. New York: Delacorte Press, 2011.

(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)