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.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger

“The United States is so powerful that the only country capable of destroying her might be the United States herself, which means that the ultimate terrorist strategy would be just to leave the country alone. That way, America’s ugliest partisan tendencies could emerge unimpeded by the unifying effects of war.”

Polarization, random violence, and racial injustice disturb the domestic tranquility. Sebastian Junger, the author of A Perfect Storm, points to root causes and possible solutions to a growing national fratricide. As a war correspondent, Junger regularly observes the formation of “tribes”— fiercely loyal, egalitarian, classless, aggregations of humans that align their attitudes and values for the survival of every member.

He recounts examples of how humans meet disaster with amazing courage, composure, and unity. During World War II, the London Blitz and the Allied bombings of German cities brought local civilians together in air-raid shelters, forming them into classless communities that not only survive but thrive. The rate of suicides drops below peacetime levels, and industrial production increases as the bombing continues. He notes that persons of different social classes and background forget their differences and unite for national survival.

Because of war and other traumas, local ad-hoc groups exhibit the collective effort typical of the tribes that flourished in North America before the European invasion. After the war, the denizens of bomb shelters often go back to their individual lives and the tribal connections fade. Although they hate the war, some miss the closeness they experienced in the shelters.

The traditional Indian grouping is the band or clan of about fifty individuals. Its members work to preserve tribal unity because, without it, they could not survive. Migratory bands limit their personal property to what they could carry from campsite to campsite, reducing their ability to develop class distinctions based on wealth. After the hunt, every band member receives an equal share of the quarry ensuring that all survive, but none accumulates more than the others. Hoarding or selfishness by a few individuals endangers the rest of the group, so it is not tolerated. Neither are slacking or bullying.

One of the modern equivalents of the tribe is the military platoon. Soldiers live together, fight the same enemy, and, at night, sleep under the same roof. They share everything in common and build an intense bond that despite the external dangers and privation gives the band of brothers and sisters a feeling of belonging. They share a common cause, the safety of their platoon and their country.

Unfortunately, when veterans return to their homes and families, they not only miss the comradery of their platoon, but some are made to feel unnecessary. They notice that civilians seem more intent on serving themselves than the society as a whole.

Junger relates the typical veteran’s homecoming experiences to PTSD, disaffection, and violence. He suggests several practical responses to the needs of returning veterans and more generalized recommendations that urge society to embrace stone-age tribal values as a solution to many of our information-age problems.

Although Junger does not mention it, the characteristics and harmony of stone-age tribal life continue to exist in both monasteries and the persecuted church—“See how they love one another.”

Consider, by Kristy Acevedo

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Acevedo dazzles with her debut YA, sci-fi novel. Imaginative, insightful and exciting, Considerdraws the reader deeper and deeper through a one-way portal to another dimension—her clear and engaging style presents an open invitation to binge reading.

Today’s seventeen going on eighteen-year-old high schoolers suffer the usual teen maladies of terminal senioritis, hormonal imperatives, and family turmoil. Add to this traumatic brew anxiety disorder, a father’s PTSD, and an apparent alien visitation and you have the psyche of the protagonist, Alexandra Lucas.

Hundreds of vertices or interdimensional portals open around the world, each with a humanoid hologram that warns of an epoch-ending collision between Earth and an as yet undetected comet. The hologram offers a six month grace period where earthlings may escape imminent doom to a blissful parallel universe.

Conspiracy theorists, deniers, and interdenominational fundamentalists attack the notion of extraterrestrial migration while potential suicides, down-and-outers, and adventures line up at the vertices, ready to travel. Alex’s focus shifts from decisions about where she’ll apply to college and how far she should go with Dominick, her boyfriend to should she stay on Earth and how far she should go with Dominick.

Consider sails with Alex through the storms of her ramped-up anxiety disorder and her attempts to lead a normal life despite the impact of the hologram’s message on her family, friends, and the general population. The subtext of Consider explores the nature of anxiety disorder, the value of medications, counseling, nutrition and exercise—valuable information for readers of all ages. Might Alexandra’s life filled with panic attacks equip her for a time when the entire planet goes berserk?

The author’s imagination explores society’s diverse reactions to the vertices. Consider its implications for prison overcrowding, credit card collection agencies and hate groups bent on ridding the world of their victims. Acevedo describes a society that must reassess its values. How useful are money, school, and employment when there’s no tomorrow? She caps her novel with an astounding climax—worthy of The Twilight Zone— that blazes the trail into the sequel. Read Consider for clues about the setting of volume 2—Earth or beyond the vertex.

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.

Christmas Hope, by Leslie Lynch

Leslie Lynch creates such amazingly REAL characters, as we see again in Christmas Hope. Fortunately, she took time after the story to explain how she went into the real world to find her fictional protagonists among the heroes and victims of our crazy times. Fans of the Appalachian Foothills series will enjoy meeting Leslie’s latest characters and welcome another visit with Father Barnabas, who, up to his old tricks, plays a pivotal role in this novella.

We often see only our defects and assume that others hold the same perception. The Christmas season may add to one’s miseries as the holiday reopens family problems, especially for wounded souls desperately in need of completeness. If the family failed as a resource, Tennessee Williams, via Blanche DuBois, reminds us and the protagonists that “you can always depend on the kindness of strangers to pluck up your spirits and shield you from dangers.” Dreaded disasters that we all shun actually bring a couple together. The question remains, can they control their demons long enough to push beyond their first impressions and establish a loving relationship that heals their wounds?

Christmas Hope is the author’s fourth book of 2014, all of them segments in the Appalachian Foothills Series. Lynch has established herself as a formidable author who blends romance with grit and reality. Her characters come from life and reflect her interest in regular folks, the down and out, as well as law enforcement and the military. Louisville, Kentucky shines brightly as a venue. I look forward to another productive year as novels flow from the fertile mind of author Leslie Lynch.