Listen to the Voice in Your Head

Most mystery-genre series fall into two broad categories. In the first category the narratives are primarily focused the murder itself; in the second category the murder is an event in the lives of the recurring characters who are the are focus of the narratives. A book that falls into the second category is often has a gimmick: the crime solver owns a mystery book store or the detective has a wife who is psychic. The Ian Rutledge has a gimmick - the protagonist hears voices, or rather a voice, in his head. The voice even has a name, Hamish MacLeod.

Still with me?

Set in the golden age of English mysteries, the Ian Rutledge series features a detective recently returned from the horrors of World War I and suffering from a unique case of shell shock. Rutledge is haunted, figuratively, by a soldier he was forced to execute and that guilt takes the form of the near-constant presence of Hamish MacLeod's disembodied voice in his head. I'm not usually a fan of gimmick mysteries but Charles Todd (a mother/son writing team) consistently pull off the seemingly impossible in the series: Each installment offers a compelling mystery, character growth and employ the gimmick (the one named Hamish) without the whole enterprise descending into complete silliness. Hamish is clearly meant to be both Rutledge's conscience and his intuition, the device allows the lone to detective to debate his ideas with, well, himself. Todd makes it work and has created a hero who believably evolves over the course of each installment.

The central mystery this time out (A Matter of Justice) is who killed Harold Quarles - a self-made business man who is revealed in the early pages of the novel to have a secret that can genuinely be described as horrific. As is often the case, there is no shortage of suspects. The question this time isn't simply who is guilty but to what degree is each guilty. Quarles is not a likable murder victim yet Todd gives him nuances and even qualities that make it clear that no one knew the whole man. Todd also presents a believable picture of village life circa 1920 that is nostalgic without being condescending or trite.

This is a highly enjoyable series for mystery fans, not an imitation of the golden age mysteries but a smart updating of the sort of novels that would make Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie proud.

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