This book is the latest offering by the mother-son writing team of Charles and Caroline Todd (writing as “Charles Todd”). Their 22 previous books are mostly murder mysteries set in Britain in the post-WWI period.
A majority of them, including the present one, are part of the Ian Rutledge mystery series. Ian Rutledge is a Scotland Yard detective and World War I veteran. Although Rutledge was one of the lucky ones who survived the Western Front to return home in one piece in 1918, he was not without his own war wounds.
Like many veterans then and now, he suffers from PTSD, then called “shell shock.”
In Rutledge’s particular case, this condition in part takes the form of a sometime presence of a deceased Scottish sergeant for whose death he was responsible. This Hamish Macleod is with Ian and frequently talking to him in a voice only he can hear. Although less present in “Hunting Shadows” than in some other Ian Rutledge mysteries set slightly earlier, Hamish does make his appearance chatting and sometimes arguing with Ian when the inspector is otherwise alone.
These mysteries offer a wonderful slice-of-life of the time and place. The horrendous loss of life in the recently concluded World War I, followed closely by the catastrophic flu epidemic of 1918, is readily apparent, as is the continuing grief and suffering of those who survived. Many who did not lose their lives ended up losing their betrothed, their brothers, their husbands, or their fathers. No family was untouched.
On a lighter note, the American reader will enjoy the quintessential British customs which abound in the book. Wherever Inspector Rutledge shows up to question a witness, he is generally offered a cup of tea before getting down to seriously discuss the murders. The characters vary greatly in their social status, always important in Britain of this era, and some have experienced a substantial rise or fall in that status in the turbulent postwar period.
Todd’s mysteries are always quite complex and cerebral and this is no exception. The story opens with two mysterious but very public murders in northern Cambridgeshire, England in 1920. A prominent ex-military figure is gunned down outside a church where he had arrived to attend a wedding. A few days later a candidate for Parliament is shot in a nearby town during a campaign rally. In both cases crowds of people were present but nobody saw anything. Scotland Yard is called in and sends Inspector Rutledge from London to investigate. After interviewing dozens of locals, he finds little information and can unearth no connection between the two victims and no one who had known both men. It does appear that the killer was an exceptional marksman, which points to an ex-military man as the sniper, but no such local sharpshooter comes to light.
As with all Todd mysteries, the eventual solution is a complex one involving several parties tied together in intricate ways. There are literally dozens of characters, many of whom turn out to have no importance at all in the central mysteries.
These are not stories with a simple solution that, once revealed, ties everything together neatly with few questions. In fact there are questions that are never answered. One minor quibble I would have with this writer is that there is very little denouement or explanation of the resolution of the murders. The killer is revealed and the story is over.
Only later upon further reflection does one realize, “oh, yes, we never learned such-and-such.” Still, that is a minor complaint when balanced against the engrossing storytelling of the author.