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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Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, by Alan Bradley

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd: A Flavia de Luce Novel by [Bradley, Alan]

Flavia de Luce fans stand to applaud her return from her interminable trials in the tundra of Toronto. Unfortunately, her family barely recognizes her existence. “Like a pair of sick suns rising, (her sister) Daffy’s eyes came slowly up above the binding of her book. I could tell she hadn’t slept. “Well, well,” she said. “Look what the cat dragged in.”

“As if from some molten furnace, a new Flavia de Luce had been poured into (her) old shoes.” Now the chatelaine or mistress of Buckshaw, Flavia seeks her social level among adults, especially Cynthia, the vicar’s wife. Cynthia sends Flavia on a simple errand that quickly plunges the de Luce heiress into the realm of murder, veneered in witchcraft. With an appropriate malapropism, Mrs. Mullet warns, “there’s no good comes of meddlin’ the “Black Carts.”

To set the scene, the author borrowed his title–Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d–from an incantation first published in Macbeth. He lists a cat among his characters and no cats were injured in the telling of this Flavia mystery. The same can’t be said for chickens.

First, on the scene of an apparent homicide, Flavia attempts to unravel the mystery before Inspector Hewitt finds her out. This more independent Flavia tracks her clues to London where she meets her Canadian chemistry teacher and a member of the top secret “NIDE,” Mrs. Bannerman. From now on they are Mildred and Flavia.

Books, publishers, woodcarvers, child-stars, bones on the beach, winter fest, Horn Dance, and off-key singers muck through the trail of the murderer. Flavia courts danger in the graveyard and risks a running through. Flavia fans will always remember this volume for a particularly shocking revelation.

Like one of Flavia’s character who “left the thought hanging like a corpse from the gallows,” I leave the plot to discuss what matters most to me in an Alan Bradley novel. Although the mysteries weave and knot within a most fascinating skein of clues, it’s the polish that he rubs into his phrases that I most love. For example:

The vicar’s wife hears things that would peel the paint off battleships.

How many murderers have been undone by a blurt?

Since the British Lion was a kitten.

Her face glowed like a Sunday school stove.

Her voice hung shrill in the air like a shot partridge.

The kind of person who makes your pores snap shut and your gullet lower the drawbridge.

In the moonlight, even the kitchen garden glowed, the red brick of the old walls illuminating the dead beds with the cold, faded glory of silver.

Plumb wooden cherubs that simpered and leered at one another as they swarmed to their mischievous task.

The vicarage was especially damp and soggy, with an aura of boiled eggs and old books—a perfect setting for our encounter: dark brooding, and simply reeking of secrets and tales told in an earlier time.

Distant electric lights come on in other people’s homes, mere pinpricks in the gloom—mirages of happiness.

We seethed, like a mass of jellyfish, toward the station’s exit.

His office was like a cave carved into a cliff of books.

Stuck his little finger in his ear and wiggled it about a bit, as if fine-tuning it for truth.

A slapdash scrawl, as if the white heat of composition had overcome penmanship.

A kind of happy gloom.

It’s rayon, nitrocellulose by another name. It makes me feel explosive.

Someday, my prints will come.

Blackened bombsites still remained scattered round the church like rotting teeth in the mouth of some ancient duchess.

Finbar’s eyes swept slowly round her, like a lighthouse in the night.

Sad music began to ooze from the horn.

A book best read behind closed—or even locked doors.

One of London’s last remaining gas lamps flickered bravely and forlorn against the growing darkness.

As slick and soft and insincere as black velvet at a funeral.

Old Hanson was livid, but my father was incandescent.

I had a rather crush on Mother Nature. I did a bit of botanizing.

The wind moaned among the tombstones.

Some sleeps are washed with gold, and some with silver. Mine was molten lead.

This sampling should stoke the reader’s appetite for the hundreds of delights hidden throughout Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d. Alan Bradley leaves Flavia hanging precariously as the last page turns. What will become of her? How long must we wait until volume nine and a half?