Usually when a book involves a mystery, a post-WWI-era British setting and tortured souls I get on board. With Charles Todd’s Wings of Fire, the second in a long-running series about Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard, this was not the case. I am a big fan of Charles Todd’s other mystery series on WWI nurse Bess Crawford (and eagerly await any new installments), so I’d given Rutledge a try. The first entry A Test of Wills, I do recall reading but little else. The second is equally forgettable and has sealed the fate of the scruffy, voice-hearing, depressive detective.
Wings finds Rutledge back in London awaiting assignment on a case of Ripper-like stabbings plaguing the city; his superior, Bowles has different ideas and sends him off to Cornwall to look into the sudden deaths of three members of a family (one of whom is the poet whose work gave voice to all Rutledge’s inner feelings about his war experiences). One of the surviving relatives simply cannot conceive of her cousin (? – I’m honestly not exactly sure how Rachel is related to Nicholas here, and it all seems somewhat incestual really but I think they’re cousins but only by marriage) doing such a thing and calls in a favor to a friend with connections at the Yard.
Initially Rutledge is hesitant to differ from the local constable’s prognosis on the three deaths. Olivia Marlowe and Nicholas Cheney obviously drank overdoses of laudanum on purpose; Stephen FitzHugh (I am not 100% sure that was his last name, I’ll explain my confusion later) fell down a tall staircase, his clumsiness due to having half his foot cut off in the war and died of a broken neck. The deeper Rutledge looks at the family, however, the stranger things seem and a pattern of accidental deaths over the years has Rutledge questioning everything he ever thought about the authoress of such beloved poems.
This book dragged on like nobody’s business. Perhaps it’s because the central characters (or at least the ones igniting the central plot) are dead at the outset of the novel. Such little interaction with them left me unconcerned whether the deaths were truly suicide/accident or were more nefarious. The more I got to know about Olivia and Nicholas, the less I liked them and the less I cared to find the truth. That’s good because it took Todd FOREVER to get us there. Normally I like to read a mystery in which slowly, over the course of reading, clues appear and once you reach the end you can piece them together to solve the mystery. In this particular book, we spend so much time in Rutledge’s head going over and over ‘evidence’ he turns up in his head. It gets rather repetitive, since he has very little aside from intuition, to go on.
Rutledge lives with a voice in his head as well. Hamish was a Scotsman in Rutledge’s troop (brigade? Infantry?) that he ordered shot for desertion; the overwhelming guilt he has felt since manifests in Hamish’s angry asides popping up, usually at the least opportune times. In essence, he’s a little crazy. I think this is supposed to be entertaining, or create depth to what could easily be any scruffy English detective. It doesn’t work for me.
My biggest complaint with this specific entry in the Rutledge series is the unnecessarily complicated family tree the central characters come from and the lack of a cheat sheet in the back to help. The dead (Olivia, Nicholas and Stephen) are all half- or step- siblings, children of a lovely woman named Rosamund. Over three marriages she gave birth to six children. Keeping them straight is a nightmare and it probably started me off on the wrong foot anyway.
In summary, read this if you have to or plan to read all the Rutledge novels, but I’ll be looking elsewhere to get my period piece/mystery fixes, thank you.