Sunday, March 8, 2015

Proof of Guilt

Charles Todd is a tease.

I don't mean his/her redoubtable Hero, Ian Rutledge, one of my favorite early-mid 20th c. fictional detectives. In Todd's Proof of Guilt (2013, HarperCollins) Rutledge remains his sternly compassionate and competent self.  No, it is the rest of the story that just does not deliver on many of its promises.

Funchal, Madeira is the setting for a terrific opening scene, when it is shelled by the Germans in December, 1916.  An English firm that creates and imports the eponymous beverage is damaged in the event, and the principle partner immediately enlists in the British forces.  Ooo, think I, spirits, how marvelous.  And, the War, of course, even better.  In our next scene, a body washes up on a Sussex beach four years later.  Excellent, a coastal setting to top it all off!  Then we settle into business, wherein Rutledge, investigating a John Doe hit-and-run in London, connects that body to the family which runs the importing firm, French, French, and Traynor.  But that's the end of the spirits.  I'm not sure anyone even has a drop of Madeira in this entire story.  And other than finally connecting the body to the story, there's no coastline, either.

It turns out that one, and maybe two principals of F, F, & T are missing.  Rutledge, drawn in by the first body, apparently has to drive from London to Sussex to Essex and back again and again and again in order to sort this all out.  He doesn't like trains, understandably avoiding claustrophobic situations after his war, but really, couldn't this story have been a little more localized?  The constant to-and-froing is quite a distraction, if you are not paying very close attention.  Perhaps it is there to demonstrate the authors' mastery of local geography, but otherwise it doesn't really serve the story.  Geography may also be their version of red herrings but really, it is just confusing because few of the secondary characters (who may be the actual killers or disappearers) have any depth.  By the point of the weak resolution you can't necessarily recall who is who, and you don't really care that much.

Even Hamish is barely a presence in this installment of Rutledge's post-war saga (except for a few predictable "'ware!"s), but Rutledge has a new sounding-board in Belford, a resident of the street where the hit-and-run is found.  Belford, like Rutledge, had "an interesting War" and is clearly a person with Connections.  But what are they, and why does he help Rutledge, and what happens to him?  Who knows, because this is yet another of the loose strings that dangle from this book, and another character who just sort of fades away.  Even the bodies are hard to find in this story, and by the end of it, I'm still not entirely sure that we've found all them.

If you like to read reviews online you'll find that I am not the only one who is disappointed in this latest outing for a favorite investigator.  Come on, Charles and Todd (we know you are two people), give Rutledge - and your readers - a little more to work with!

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