Pretty much spoiler-free reading ahead, so have at it!
It’s my favorite time of year again—time for a new Ian Rutledge mystery by Charles Todd. I was not disappointed. Rutledge is still just as complicated a character as ever and the mother and son writing team who make up “Charles Todd” are still as deft at plotting as ever.
Proof of Guilt is a real corker of a mystery. Rutledge is sent to examine a dead body found lying in the street in Chelsea. The man has no identification on him, no money, no laundry marks, nothing except a very expensive gold watch. No one knows who he is, and the erstwhile constable called to the scene has called the Yard because he finds it suspicious that the body appears to have been dragged some distance, yet there are no drag marks anywhere near it. The watch turns out to be a slim clue and leads Rutledge to Lewis French, head of a wine firm. The watch belongs to French, but the body doesn’t. And French is missing, along with his car and his cousin Matthew, who was due to arrive in England from the Portuguese branch of the firm. It is indeed a perplexing puzzle—two men missing with no bodies, and one dead body who is neither of the missing men. All connected by that watch.
I have come to admire Todd’s ability to plot over the course of this series—just when I think I’m on the right track, I find out I’m not even in the right town, and they twist things so tightly you think they can’t possibly wring another turn out of it, only to find out they can. You have to be prepared for a truly complicated mystery to read these books, especially the later ones. But it’s fun to watch Rutledge unravel it all.
Ian is as driven as ever to get to the truth of things. In this case, he has several reasons for doing so: first, he finds himself with a new Acting Chief Superintendent to deal with while Bowles is on medical leave. The new Chief is a bit of an unknown quantity, but he’s used to running a county police force—he’s not a London Yard man. As such, he runs things as he would a smaller, more contained force, feeling that his purpose is to process cases in a timely manner, get the evidence to go to trial, and let the court sort out the whole proof of guilt. So he interferes with Rutledge’s instincts quite a bit here and insists on an arrest based on circumstantial evidence. Rutledge is convinced that’s the wrong move and that a murderer will go free. Plus one of the suspects is an attractive young woman to whom he finds himself inexplicably drawn.
There is no lack of suspects here—there’s a jilted fiancé, a current fiancé, both of the missing men, French’s disgruntled, unhappy sister, a man with a personal ax to grind with the family, the firm’s senior clerk, and a few others. Sorting through potential motives and alibis takes a great deal of time, time Rutledge’s boss seems disinclined to let him have. It’s all very complicated, so it’s important to pay attention to details when reading.
There were one or two minor annoyances for me. First, Rutledge spends entirely too much time driving all over England–this is an ongoing issue with this series in some ways. On the one hand, Rutledge does a lot of his thinking and reasoning in his car while driving from one place to another, so it serves as a handy means of giving him the time to work through his thought processes. On the other hand, we spend a lot of time driving all over England with him. Second, there’s an unusual (for Todd) hole in the plot—to say more would spoil things, and it’s only a small hole, but still. It is there. And finally, the first two chapters are both brief and used to set up the rest of the plot. The second of those chapters in fact serves very little purpose, and the information in it might have been better delivered in some other fashion. At the time, I didn’t really think of it, but once I’d finished the book, I did just wonder “why is that chapter there? It doesn’t need to be.”
But there were, of course, lots of positives. The writing is, as always, seamless (I’m always astounded that this is a writing team when I remember to think of it), and the secondary characters are well-drawn and well-developed. I am rather hoping that one of them, a former military man tangentially connected to the initial crime, is someone Todd plans to use again in future installments—he has great potential to become a male confidant for Rutledge, perhaps even a friend, something the character could use. Rutledge needs to continue to grow, and having a sounding board who is not the voice of Hamish gibbering in his head would help with that. Todd also drops a big bombshell on Rutledge near the end of the book that also suggests there’s a shake-up coming for the character in future novels. It will be interesting to see what happens with that, and whether the outcome is positive or negative. There is also some suggestion–the tiniest hint–that Bowles might not ever be able to return to duty, in which case Rutledge will have to learn to deal with his new superior and his goals, a development that promises just as much friction as his adversarial relationship with Bowles had.
So in a nutshell, I’d say this is another winning installment in the series. If you’re a fan, you’ll like it. If you’ve never read any of these books, you could start here and you’d be fine, but this is one series I really suggest reading from start to finish, not just because you need the backstory and to watch the character growth, but because I’ve yet to be disappointed by any of the Ian Rutledge books.