Detective Inspector Ian Rutledge brought a cranial stowaway home from the trenches of World War I. Forced by the rigid statutes of military procedure to field-execute a broken man for his refusal to participate in another horrific run at the enemy, Rutledge has his men form a firing squad. In a bit of battlefield irony, due to fatigue and lack of heart, and despite the small target pinned to the large target’s chest, Rutledge must deliver the coup de grace himself. Thus dispatched, Corporal Hamish MacLeod finds continued life in the tortured brain of his dispatcher and, while having a Scotsman’s voice offering running mental commentary doesn’t sound half bad on the face of it, this proves problematic for Inspector Rutledge as he attempts to resume his career with Scotland Yard.
He is unaware that his colleague, Inspector Bowles (who seems to have a few invertebrates in his family tree), has set about engineering the hopeful failure of that attempt as a means to clear the field for his own ambitions. Recognizing the better man, though Rutledge has returned somewhat the worse for wear, Bowles contrives to send him on a politically delicate case involving the gruesome murder of a respected officer at the probable hand of another. For the War Office, and the Monarchy, such an outcome would be a public relations disaster; even if the right suspect turns out to be the one with all the medals, it could be a career-ender for the detective in charge. But on the rainy drive to Upper Streetham, Rutledge is only mindful of his own painful memories and the pithy voice in his head that he desperately hopes he won’t actually answer in front of anyone else. Adding to his discomfiture is the fact that, although ‘shell shock’ appears to be a medically accepted and well-treated condition, it is little understood or tolerated by the public. And so he arrives to sort out the villager’s stories and slights, real or imagined, struggling to uncover the truth about a murder even as he tries to hide the truth about himself.
My inner clinician is curious to know how Rutledge will continue to deal with Hamish’s observations and wry asides. Despite the obvious annoyance, Hamish seems to serve a therapeutic purpose as a sort of caretaker for the instinctive assessments Rutledge was known for before the war but was sure he’d lost. This is the first book of eleven in the series written by this (surprise! American) mother-and-son collaboration. It is a worthy addition to the genre of wartime mysteries that couple the psychological and moral adjustments imposed by war with the more mundane murderous impulses that appear to seethe beneath the quiet façade of normal English life.