CHARLES TODD – A False Mirror. Harper; paperback reprint, January 2008. Harper hardcover edition, January 2007.

   Some facts first, some of which you probably know already, but if so, please bear with me. Or not, if you prefer, if your interest in mystery fiction consists more often of espionage thrillers, comic heists and/or high grade private eye dramas, none of which applies here.

Charles Todd: Test of Wills

   According to Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin, “Charles Todd” is the joint pen name of the (I believe) unique mother-and-son writing team of David Charles Todd Watjen & Carolyn L. T. Watjen. A Test of Wills, their first mystery novel, was also the first case solved by Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard. The book appeared in 1996, and they’ve averaged close to a novel a year ever since. A False Mirror is their 10th, and Rutledge has appeared in all but one of them, a standalone entitled The Murder Stone.

   From here it gets complicated. As a survivor of World War I (as yet unnumbered in 1919 and the 1920s, when the stories take place), Rutledge carries bitter memories of the conflict wherever he goes. In particular, in his head he hears the voice of Hamish MacLeod, a young Scottish soldier he had executed for refusing to obey orders during the worst of the war. The irony is that Rutledge now knows that given one more day of battle and the bloody onslaught, he would have refused orders to keep fighting on as well.

   Such is the background if not the underlying theme, and for folks like me, who pick up the ninth one as the first one, it takes some time for the explanation to be worked into the opening pages without disrupting the flow of the new tale being told. Hamish acts not only as a nagging conscience, but also as a Watson upon whom Rutledge tests his thoughts and observations, except that this particular (and antagonistic) Watson is not at all interested in telling the tale himself.

   It’s an interesting concept, and the Todds’ books have attracted a lot of attention, including mine, although until now only in terms of curiosity, having not picked one up to read until now. My first reaction: This is a dark and gloomy tale filled with sharply drawn characterizations.

Charles Todd - False Mirror

   In the small coastal town of Hampton Regis, a man Rutledge knew not well (and not favorably) in France has taken a woman as a hostage in her home, and he refuses to budge until Rutledge arrives. The man is believed to have attacked the woman’s husband, once of the Foreign Service, and left him near death on the shore.

   Rutledge arrives, and my second reaction is this: Very few detective stories can withstand the weight of nearly 400 pages of small print. Rutledge seems to do a lot, but very little gets done; and what seems as though should have been done as standard procedure seems to get little thought. Such as (primarily) the failure to keep a guard over the badly wounded victim, who disappears into the night soon after he begins to gain consciousness, leaving the doctor’s wife bludgeoned to death.

   The ending – the revelation of the killer’s identity – is equally mismanaged – not badly, but without the sureness (and brilliance) that one expects (and hopes for!) after several nights of intense reading just before bed. (It took me around eight installments averaging fifty pages each.)

   To be more precise, the tale is not strong on fair play detection, although the opportunity’s there. It could have been done. Toward the end an accusing finger is pointed at each of the possible killers in turn, but to do this well, an expert is needed. When the strings trailing from the authors’ hands begin to show, that’s when you’ll know the authors aren’t that kind of expert yet. (Or at least, not this time.)

   On the other hand, I wouldn’t have kept reading if the authors who write as Charles Todd didn’t know people, and knew how to make them come alive, as often in anguish (mental) as they are. Noir? You bet. All the way.