Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Inspector Ian Rutledge #2
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on May 15th 1999
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In Charles Todd's Wings of Fire, Inspector Ian Rutledge is quickly sent to investigate the sudden deaths of three members of the same eminent Cornwall family, but the World War I veteran soon realizes that nothing about this case is routine. Including the identity of one of the dead, a reclusive spinster unmasked as O. A. Manning, whose war poetry helped Rutledge retain his grasp on sanity in the trenches of France. Guided by the voice of Hamish, the Scot he unwillingly executed on the battlefield, Rutledge is driven to uncover the haunting truths of murder and madness rooted in a family crypt...
I’ve been looking for comfort reads this week, and that has led me to take a look at some mystery series that I’ve been meaning to get caught up on. Today, that led me to Wings of Fire, the second book in Charles Todd’s Inspector Ian Rutledge series. I love their Bess Crawford historical mystery series, but by the time I started with Bess, the Rutledge series was already into double-digits and I wasn’t quite ready to face catching up. I have read scattered entries in the series, including the first book, A Test of Wills, so I was happy to answer when this one started calling my name.
That it reminded me, a bit, of the historical mystery that served as part of (the best part of, to my reading) Magpie Murders was just icing on the cake.
The Rutledge series is set in the post-World War I period. Ian Rutledge was a Scotland Yard detective before he went to serve in France, and now that the war has ended, he has fought his way back into his old job – even though he doubts himself and his superiors most certainly doubt him at every turn.
Rutledge returned from his war with shell-shock, which in his time was seen as a moral failing and not as the psychological trauma that it truly is. He faces skepticism about whether or not he is remotely capable of doing his job from every direction. Including the doubts from within. A manifestation of his PTSD is that he hears the voice of a young soldier that he was forced to execute for desertion. Whether “Hamish” is merely a figment of his imagination or is the voice of his conscience and his intuition is anyone’s guess, including Rutledge’s. However, while Hamish’s voice may be imaginary, his advice is all too often correct – except, of course when it is terribly, horribly wrong.
Rutledge is sent to Cornwall to reopen the case of a series of suspicious deaths within one prominent family. His superiors want him out of the way while an important serial killer is pursued in London, and they assume that he can’t do any harm in Cornwall, but will assuage the conscience of the local squire who called for the fresh investigation.
But Rutledge is an indefatigable pursuer of the truth, no matter who he might make “uncomfortable” in the process. And there is plenty in this case to be uncomfortable about. The local police ruled that the deaths of half-siblings Olivia Marlowe and Nicholas Cheney were suicide, while the subsequent death of their half-brother Stephen was an accident.
That’s an awful lot of bad luck and tragedy for one family – enough to make any detective suspicious. When those suspicions are combined with the revelation that Olivia Alison Marlowe was also the famous WWI poet O.A. Manning, doubts multiply.
As Rutledge digs deeply into the past of this once-numerous family, he finds a history of tragedy of disaster that stretches the bounds of bad luck past breaking. A murderer has been hidden in their midst for decades, but no one wants to believe that a beloved child or sibling could have held so many in so much terror for so long.
The question is whether Rutledge can sort through the clues and prove it, before he becomes the next victim.
Escape Rating A-: This was just what the reading doctor ordered. When life is disordered it is cathartic to get sucked into the “romance of justice” where good is tested but triumphs, and evil receives its just desserts.
Rutledge is a fascinating protagonist, because he is always the quintessential outsider. Even back in his own London home, his wartime and peacetime experiences set him apart from the rest of his fellow detectives. They don’t trust him, and he honestly does not trust himself.
In this setting, Rutledge is the distrusted “City” man poking his nose into local business that everyone believes has been satisfactorily resolved. He is not wanted, and no one believes that he is needed. He is resented at every turn, and yet no one can tell him to “shove off” no matter how much they want to.
That no one wants to believe in even the possibility of foul play just makes his job that much harder, and his self-doubts that much louder. And yet, it seems obvious from very early on that something must be wrong. This is a family that lost two children, three husbands, one wife, and three adult siblings to various accidents and mysterious deaths over the course of two decades. Nobody has luck THAT bad – especially not when there is money and property involved!
Part of what makes this case so fraught for Rutledge is the identity of Olivia Marlowe as the wartime poet O.A. Manning. The possibility exists that Olivia is the person responsible for the long series of deaths, and Rutledge is desperate for that not to be so. He found comfort in her poetry during his war, and does not want her legacy to be diminished at her death if he can help it. Yet, when the evidence seems to point that way, he refuses to ignore it.
What makes this case so interesting is its tangle. Something was wrong within that family. But what or who? And how can Rutledge prove anything when it seems that everyone who might know something is dead as the result of whoever-or-whatever it is. And no one really wants to know.
It’s Rutledge’s dogged pursuit that keeps the case going, and the reader’s fascination with it that makes this book a page-turner. I’m looking forward to continuing my way through Inspector Ian Rutledge’s case file whenever I need to sink my teeth into a meaty historical mystery.