Friday, February 22, 2019

The Black Ascot

If there’s one thing better than finding a new author you love, it’s discovering an author you love who’s written a good number of novels already. So it is with The Black Ascot (William Morrow Books, 2019) and the mother/son team writing under the pen name Charles Todd, who somehow escaped my attention all these years despite their having produced more than thirty books, most of them mysteries and many of those historical.

Now, no offense to my own mother and son, but writing a book with either a parent or a child is the last thing I can imagine wanting to do. More power to Charles Todd that they pull it off so well. 

The story opens in June 1910, at an event later known as the “Black Ascot.” King Edward VII has just died, and to honor his memory, all the attendants at the annual races arrive dressed in mourning clothes. Quite a spectacle in and of itself, but the Ascot Races are just the beginning. We see them from the perspective of one Alan Barrington—also in mourning, but in his case less on behalf of King Edward than for his friend, Mark Thorne, a recent suicide. And perhaps for his friend’s wife, Blanche, whom Barrington loves and who has just married another man.

That makes twice that she’s chosen someone else over Barrington himself. The scene ends with Barrington heading for the parking lot, filled with horse-drawn carriages and motorcars, looking for one vehicle in particular. We soon learn that Blanche doesn’t survive the trip back to London, and her new husband suffers life-threatening and permanent injuries. Blame falls on Barrington, who had both motive and opportunity. But Barrington escapes justice by fleeing abroad.

Fast forward ten years, to January 1921. A Scotland Yard inspector named Ian Rutledge happens on a hostage taking in an English village, which he succeeds in resolving without harm to the victim. In gratitude, the former hostage’s uncle reveals that he saw Alan Barrington recently in Wales. And the hunt is on.

It would be churlish to reveal the many ins and outs of Rutledge’s hunt as he travels around England searching not just for Barrington but for any evidence that Barrington even returned from abroad. Suffice it to say that the mystery is well crafted, tension-producing, and ultimately satisfying: lots of red herrings, but in the end everything comes together, and we feel we knew the answer all along.

The most interesting element, though, is Ian Rutledge himself. A survivor of the Great War, Rutledge suffers from shell shock, a condition we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and understand to be a normal response to wartime events and similarly intense forms of trauma but that was then considered evidence of cowardice or emotional instability. In Rutledge’s case, it manifests as an internal voice he calls Hamish. Hamish was a real person (real inside the novel, that is), a Scotsman who served under Rutledge in the war and never came home yet who lives on in the detective’s mind. Hamish offers warnings and commentary, expressing Rutledge’s instincts and suspicions, as if delivering messages from the detective’s subconscious. Not that Rutledge himself thinks in such Freudian terms—historical sensitivity is a hallmark of this book—but as readers we recognize that possibility.

It’s a device that gives an appealing complexity to a character who could easily be flat: the quintessential English gentleman, with his repressed emotions and public-school education, his scruples and intellect. And it reveals the level of insight that this pair of authors has into not only their plot but their characters—so often an afterthought in detective fiction. I will definitely be reading more Ian Rutledge mysteries.

Many thanks to Danielle Bartlett of William Morrow Books, who sent me a review copy of this book. There was, however, no obligation on me to post a review, and as always, the opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

And for my own readers, let me also announce with many thanks to Five Directions Press that as of yesterday, Song of the Siren, the first of my new Songs of Steppe & Forest, is available in print and on Kindle. Just click the link to purchase, or check out the publisher’s book page for a description, endorsements, and audio and print excerpts first.

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