Review: Wings of Fire by Charles Todd

Review: Wings of Fire by Charles ToddWings of Fire (Inspector Ian Rutledge, #2) by Charles Todd
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Inspector Ian Rutledge #2
Pages: 306
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on May 15th 1999
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

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...

My Review:

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.

Review: A Casualty of War by Charles Todd

Review: A Casualty of War by Charles ToddA Casualty of War (Bess Crawford #9) by Charles Todd
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, World War I
Series: Bess Crawford #9
Pages: 304
Published by William Morrow on September 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From New York Times bestselling author Charles Todd comes a haunting tale that explores the impact of World War I on all who witnessed it—officers, soldiers, doctors, and battlefield nurses like Bess Crawford.

Though the Great War is nearing its end, the fighting rages on. While waiting for transport back to her post, Bess Crawford meets Captain Alan Travis from the island of Barbados. Later, when he’s brought into her forward aid station disoriented from a head wound, Bess is alarmed that he believes his distant English cousin, Lieutenant James Travis, shot him. Then the Captain is brought back to the aid station with a more severe wound, once more angrily denouncing the Lieutenant as a killer. But when it appears that James Travis couldn’t have shot him, the Captain’s sanity is questioned. Still, Bess wonders how such an experienced officer could be so wrong.

On leave in England, Bess finds the Captain strapped to his bed in a clinic for brain injuries. Horrified by his condition, Bess and Sergeant Major Simon Brandon travel to James Travis’s home in Suffolk, to learn more about the baffling relationship between these two cousins.

Her search will lead this smart, capable, and compassionate young woman into unexpected danger, and bring her face to face with the visible and invisible wounds of war that not even the much-longed for peace can heal.

My Review:

They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And that’s how it seems for much of A Casualty of War, as every time that Bess Crawford attempts to make things better for Captain Alan Travis, she seems to end up digging the poor man an even bigger hole. Bess being Bess, she feels more than a bit guilty about it, and a whole lot responsible.

And it’s that sense of responsibility that gets her in deep trouble. As it usually does.

Bess’ war is ending. Not with a bang, but seemingly with a whimper, as the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 is noted by the chiming of a surgeon’s watch and nothing more at the forward aid station where Bess is currently stationed.

The guns may have finally been silenced, but there are still plenty of casualties pouring into the aid station, including Captain Travis. Bess met Travis once before, as the both spent a brief respite at a canteen in between trips back to the front. She found him pleasant, affable, intelligent and eager to return home to his family estate in Barbados.

Now he’s a patient, claiming that he was shot by someone on their own side. Not merely someone unknown, but his cousin James. His late cousin James. Very late. A year late. Whether James went up or down after his death in combat, he hasn’t been shooting anyone recently. On either side. For more than a year.

And that’s where the story kicks into gear and moves back to England. All the nurses who served in forward positions get sent home for two weeks’ leave, including Bess. She still has a duty to perform, but where that duty can best be provided is something that she’ll learn after a couple of weeks to rest and regroup. Or at least that’s what supposed to happen.

Instead, Bess takes on Captain Travis’ continuing case. Not his medical case, not exactly. Rather, the mess that she feels she helped to land him in. Bess feels as if she was the one to suggest that his supposed assailant, the one who Travis said resembled his great-uncle, might be his cousin James. So when it turns out that James has been dead for over a year, Alan Travis gets classified as a head-case and sent to increasingly worse care.

Shell shock was considered a moral failing, not a disease.

But Bess remembers the man she met in that canteen before he was wounded. She thinks he’s telling a version of the truth. And that he’s definitely not crazy. Just because it couldn’t have been James does not mean that there was not a very real assailant, one who resembled his cousin, in a British uniform, shooting at him. Not once but twice. As Bess treated both his injuries, she knows for certain that the shots were real. The only question is who fired them.

Bess finds herself involved in not just a giant mess, but also a small town mystery. It’s not just that something is wrong with the treatment of Captain Alan Travis’ case, but it turns out that something is also very wrong with the administration of his cousin Lieutenant James Travis’ will. And that those two messes are somehow one and the same.

It will be up to Bess, with the help of her friend (and her father’s right-hand man) Sergeant Major Simon Brandon, to figure out who did what to whom before it’s too late. Not just for Captain Travis, but also for Bess herself.

Escape Rating B+: After the Magpie Murders a couple of weeks ago, I have been itching to sink my teeth into a good historical mystery. I pulled A Casualty of War out of the TBR stack a couple of weeks ahead of publication just to scratch that itch. And I’m glad I did.

A Duty to the Dead by Charles ToddI have loved this series from its very beginning in A Duty to the Dead. And if you like historical mystery or are a fan of Maisie Dobbs in particular, that’s where I recommend that new readers begin Bess Crawford’s journey. While Bess finds herself in the middle of a case during every book, the series is also the story of Bess’ war as a combat nurse. Her journey begins in A Duty to the Dead, while in A Casualty of War it is obvious that her war is coming to an end. Which makes this book not the best place to start.

The war itself is winding down in this book. It actually has wound down, but that’s something we know from history and not something that Bess was 100% certain of at the time. What happened on November 11, 1918 was an armistice, which is not a peace treaty. While the guns were silent, it was still possible that they would roar again. Which of course they did, but not for another 20 years.

So part of the underlying theme to A Casualty of War is that Bess’ war, and her war service, are coming to an end. Bess, like many combat veterans, suffers from PTSD, even if it wasn’t called that then. Her experiences, many of them horrific, will be with her for the rest of her life. And unlike women of previous generations, Bess is used to serving, not just to being useful, but to having a profession and the professional respect and recognition to go with it. Adjusting to peacetime is going to be difficult.

It’s not surprising that Bess involves herself in a mystery during her leave. She doesn’t know what to do with herself if she’s not taking care of someone else.

One of the things that made this particular case frustrating, at least for this reader, is that it was obvious fairly early on that whatever was going on in the village of Sinclair and whatever was going on with Captain Travis were connected, and that the issue revolved around his cousin James Travis’ estate. While whodunnit was not remotely clear, if only because we hadn’t met the perpetrator at that point, the why of things felt obvious.

But one of the fascinating things about the case was the way that Simon Brandon and Bess worked together. Their relationship has always been interesting. Simon is a few years older than Bess, probably ten but not more than fifteen. He’s been a part of her life from her very earliest memories as he joined her father’s regiment in India when she was a child, and when he had to lie about his age to enlist. While he seems to act as an older brother, he certainly isn’t. He is certainly her protector, but his protection never encroaches on Bess’ agency or autonomy, not even when he fairly obviously wishes that he could. Nearly every man who asks Bess to marry him, and there have been several, wonders if Brandon is the reason that she refuses. And so does this reader. He is the one person in Bess’ life who understands and accepts her as she is, and not as he expects a woman to be in that time and place.

So the mystery in A Casualty of War had its anticlimactic moments, and also resembled bits of A Pattern of Lies. But the questions that it asks about not just Bess’ future, but the future of all who served in that war that did not end all wars and must now lay down their guns and their scalpels, remains an open one.

I can’t wait to see where Bess finds herself, and how she finds herself, next.

Review: The Piper by Charles Todd

Review: The Piper by Charles ToddThe Piper: An Inspector Ian Rutledge Story by Charles Todd
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: ebook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Inspector Ian Rutledge #19.5
Pages: 63
Published by Witness Impulse on January 10th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Scotland Yard inspector Ian Rutledge returns shell shocked from the trenches of World War I, tormented by the spirit of Hamish MacLeod, the young soldier he executed on the battlefield. Now, Charles Todd features Hamish himself in this compelling, stand-alone short story.
Before the Great War, Hamish is farmer in the Scottish Highlands, living in a small house on the hillside and caring for a flock of sheep he inherited from his grandmother. When one spring evening he hears a faint cry ringing across the glen, Hamish sets out in the dark to find the source. Near the edge of the loch he spots a young boy laying wounded, a piper’s bag beside him. Hamish brings the piper to his home to stay the night and tends to his head wound, but by the time Hamish wakes the boy has fled. He tracks the footsteps in pursuit of the injured lad and finds him again collapsed in the grasses—now dead.
Who was the mysterious piper, and who was seeking his death? As Hamish scours the countryside for answers, he finds that few of his neighbors are as honest as he, and that until he uncovers a motive, everyone, including Hamish, is a suspect. 

My Review:

I’m not quite sure whether to call this a prequel or a sidelight to the Ian Rutledge series, but it was certainly a lovely little story. And it doesn’t need to fit anywhere in the series timeline for the story to work. It just is. And does.

In the Ian Rutledge series, Hamish MacLeod is the voice that haunts the police Inspector. In some ways, Hamish is the voice of Rutledge’s shell shock (read as PTSD) from World War I. In other ways, Hamish is the voice of Rutledge’s conscience, or perhaps his guilt, over the deaths of so many young men that occurred under his command during the war. Certainly Hamish’ death is the one that haunts him the most.

But this gem of a story takes place before the Great War, when Hamish is still a young crofter in Scotland, Ian Rutledge is probably at the beginning of his police career at the Met, and the Great War is a looming cloud over the not-too-distant horizon.

And long before Hamish and Ian met, and before Hamish became the voice of Ian’s instincts and perseverance, Hamish solved a murder on his own. No wonder he is so good at helping Ian, even if it is from the back of Ian’s mind. Or it’s all in his head.

The case at first seems open and shut. A young man traveling the Highlands during a raging storm is set upon and wounded, discovered by Hamish, and eventually killed after he leaves Hamish’ croft. It is meant to look like he died in the storm. But he didn’t.

At first, the police try to pin the crime on Hamish. After all, he was the last person to see the boy alive. But there’s no evidence there, and someone else had plenty of reasons to kill the young lad.

He was a piper, and he regularly traveled the Highlands by himself, on his way between gigs. And on one of those lonely trips, he witnessed a murder. Unfortunately for the piper, the murderer witnessed him.

Unfortunately for the murderer, Hamish is more than willing to place himself as bait for a trap to prove that he has already figured out who the guilty party is. Justice will be done.

Escape Rating B+: This is a very short novella. Even shorter than it appears in the Goodreads listing, as the book includes an excerpt from the next Ian Rutledge book. But even though it is short, it is a complete story in itself. It also doesn’t require any knowledge of the series that follows it. Any reader who is looking for an introduction to the works of Charles Todd will find The Piper an excellent starting point.

Hamish, like most detectives, amateur and professional, finds that everyone has something to hide. Including himself. As he goes around to his neighbors, setting up a trap for the killer, he discovers that most of them have some secret, small or large, that they would rather not reveal. Likewise, Hamish doesn’t reveal that the purpose of all of his sudden socializing is to lay a trap for the killer.

His secrecy results in a comedy of errors at the final crisis, as everyone, the killer, Hamish, and his waiting helpers, all stumble around in the dark. But in the end, his dogged persistence pays off, and the killer is unmasked for all to see.

hunting shadows by charles toddHamish is an interesting character, whether readers are familiar with the series or not. I’ve read the first book (A Test of Wills), an actual prequel story (Cold Comfort) and only one of the later books (Hunting Shadows), and found this story enjoyable purely as a mystery. The link to the series is merely tangential. I also found Hamish MacLeod to be a more active and less exasperating Highland detective than Hamish Macbeth in the recent books of that series.

So anyone looking for a little mystery, a little introduction to Rutledge series, or a little taste of the Scottish Highlands will find The Piper to be a little treat.

Review: The Shattered Tree by Charles Todd + Giveaway

Review: The Shattered Tree by Charles Todd + GiveawayThe Shattered Tree (Bess Crawford, #8) by Charles Todd
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Bess Crawford #8
Pages: 304
Published by William Morrow on August 30th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

World War I battlefield nurse Bess Crawford goes to dangerous lengths to investigate a wounded soldier’s background—and uncover his true loyalties—in this thrilling and atmospheric entry in the bestselling “vivid period mystery series” (New York Times Book Review).
At the foot of a tree shattered by shelling and gunfire, stretcher-bearers find an exhausted officer, shivering with cold and a loss of blood from several wounds. The soldier is brought to battlefield nurse Bess Crawford’s aid station, where she stabilizes him and treats his injuries before he is sent to a rear hospital. The odd thing is, the officer isn't British--he's French. But in a moment of anger and stress, he shouts at Bess in German.
When Bess reports the incident to Matron, her superior offers a ready explanation. The soldier is from Alsace-Lorraine, a province in the west where the tenuous border between France and Germany has continually shifted through history, most recently in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, won by the Germans. But is the wounded man Alsatian? And if he is, on which side of the war do his sympathies really lie?
Of course, Matron could be right, but Bess remains uneasy—and unconvinced. If he were a French soldier, what was he doing so far from his own lines . . . and so close to where the Germans are putting up a fierce, last-ditch fight?
When the French officer disappears in Paris, it’s up to Bess—a soldier’s daughter as well as a nurse—to find out why, even at the risk of her own life.

My Review:

The red herrings are much tastier, and much more substantial, than any of the meals described in this tale of Paris nearing the end of World War I. Rationing seems to have made all the food unpalatable, even if it is still served with as much French flair as ever.

Although the meals are often described with unloving detail, they are far from the point of this story.

Bess usually finds herself investigating murder in the midst of warfare – a time and place where it can be difficult to distinguish between one and the other. But this does not start out as a murder investigation, and it takes some surprising, and frequently twisted turns to get from the one to the other.

It’s the early fall of 1918, and it is beginning to look like the end of the war is at hand. Unfortunately, one of the ways that the end is being signified is for all of the forces, Allied and Central Powers alike, is to shoot off as much of their remaining ordinance as fast as possible. This war seems to be going out in a long and protracted series of very big bangs.

As a nursing Sister, Bess and her colleagues are busier than ever. Exhaustion dogs their every step. So when Bess spots a soldier who might be out of place, everyone above her in the chain of command is frankly just too damn tired to do anything about it. Until Bess unexpectedly finds herself with several days of medical leave in Paris.

That out-of-place soldier is a wounded Lieutenant in the remains of a French uniform that seems to have had all of its identification removed. While it is not completely unknown for a lost Allied soldier to find himself behind a different ally’s lines, there is one other notable thing about the man who calls himself Lieutenant Philippe Moreau. While unconscious, he speaks fluent and unaccented German. Is Moreau a German spy, or is he merely from the contested Alsace-Lorraine region, where residents were forced to use German since the end of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870?

When Moreau disappears into seemingly thin air, Bess’ instincts are aroused. Whatever Moreau is, he seems to be taking great pains to hide himself from his commanders.

Bess, wounded in a sniper attack, is sent to Paris to recuperate. She’s not wounded enough for a ticket back home, but the wound in her side becomes infected. She needs surgery and rest for healing. She’ll get neither in a forward aid station.

Bess, as usual, finds herself in the middle of multiple unfolding dramas while she is supposed to be resting in Paris. It is lucky for Bess that the mantra of “a change is as good as a rest” proves true, because rest seems to be the one thing she doesn’t get.

Under orders from her father, the Colonel Sahib, Bess has multiple officers, whether convalescent or not, instructed to keep her safe and out of trouble. Instead, Bess co-opts one after another in her search for the truth about Philippe Moreau. Only to find that nothing she has heard is true, and that there is murder at the heart of it all.

Escape Rating B+: I always enjoy a visit with Bess and her world. World War I is an endlessly fascinating period for historical fiction and historical mysteries. Bess’ perspective on her world is different for her time and place without being anachronistic. Being a nurse gave Bess much more agency and a considerably more active role in her world than she would normally have had. At the same time, she faces just enough restrictions because of her gender and class to remind us that her world was still very different from ours.

Unlike many of her previous books, in this story Bess finds herself somewhat at sea. She is a patient in the convalescent home rather than staff, and people look in on her, and attempt to look after her, much more than is usual (or comfortable) for her. Nurses clearly don’t make any better patients than doctors do.

At the same time, she is cut off from most of her usual resources. She is in France, and although she does speak the language tolerably well, she does not speak like a native and can’t hide in plain sight the way she does in England. Likewise, the powerful forces that she is able to bring to bear in England or even in her British Army nursing station are not available to her here. Here mother’s network of social contacts, and her father’s tremendous pull within the British Army are of no help to her on French soil.

She has no one she can trust the way that she does Simon Brandon, her father’s aide-de-camp and her own friend. Bess trusts Simon both in the sense that he will not betray her confidences and also in the sense that he knows her well enough not to stand in her way, and most importantly not to treat her like a delicate flower in need of his solicitous protection. Whatever Simon is or will be to Bess (and I do wonder) he knows her, likes her and respects her just as she is. A rare commodity for a woman who often steps out of what is defined as her sphere.

Bess begins by looking for a man who may be a spy, or possibly a deserter. She uncovers, as she so often does, a hidden cesspool that leads to an old murder. But as Bess is so often completely at sea during this case, the readers are a bit as well. The less she understands, and the more difficult a time she has putting things together, so do we.

But as her war draws towards its close, I can’t help but wonder what comes next for Bess. Wherever she goes and whatever she does, I can’t wait to read what happens next!

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