Battling demons

Bob Moyer reviews the latest in a long-running and outstanding mystery series.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

ROBICHEAUX. By James Lee Burke. Simon and Schuster. 445 pages. $27.99.

Year by year, book by book, Deputy Sherriff Dave Robicheaux sees more of the Confederate ghosts that appear out of the mist around his beloved New Iberia, Louisiana, home. These icons of evil and valor are consigned in death to those swamps that Dave is consigned to in life. One day, he will step into their ranks and march off with them into the ever-present past.  But not yet. Dave has too many demons, both his and society’s, to dispose of here in the present.

Still troubled by the death of his wife, Dave doesn’t just fall off the wagon; he dives into a bottle of whiskey. He surfaces the next day to discover the drunken driver who killed his wife is dead, his handprint is on the car window — and he can’t remember if he did it.

That’s the primary story in the tangled thicket of plotlines James Lee Burke lays out here. Besides trying to figure out if he dunit, Dave gets involved with a famous novelist and his disturbed wife; a thug who abuses his young son; a made mobster who wants to make a movie of the author’s book; a rogue deputy who wants to pin the murder on Dave; and a charismatic politician, a cross between Huey P. Long and Donald Trump, who Dave suspects is behind a string of murders. And who is the funny looking guy who appears just before people start getting shot?

The usual trio stands ready to support and stand by Dave — his daughter Alafair, his buddy Clete Boyer and his boss Helen Soileau. As Burke moves us through the narrative, he regales us in his elegiac prose of the wonders of the natural world, and the darkness of the souls who dwell therein. Dark forces threaten not only his friends, but also our nation, and Dave does battle for all of us.

Burke’s latest lands near the top of this venerable series.

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Challenging the powerful, a reporter’s story

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

REPORTER. By Seymour M. Hersh. Random House Audio. 14 hours; 11 CDs. Read by Arthur Morey. $40. Also available in print from Knopf, 355 pages, $27.95.

“I am a survivor from the golden age of journalism…” begins Seymour M. Hersh in his remarkable memoir, the aptly named Reporter.

On a much more modest scale, I am one of those survivors, too, and that’s one of the many reasons I found this book so interesting and rewarding.

Hersh was already a giant in journalism by the time I was starting my career. He’d won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1970 for his expose of the massacre of Vietnamese civilians by American soldiers at My Lai in 1968. When I, improbably thanks to the vision of a copy desk chief who hired and promoted young journalists, became the assistant national editor of The Sun in Baltimore in the mid-1970s, I had to deal frequently with late-breaking stories from Hersh moving on The New York Times wire.

I’d call our Washington bureau, which in those golden-age days was large and active, and ask if they could match whatever Hersh had come up with, or if I should just use his story. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at The Washington Post had owned the Watergate story from the beginning, but when Hersh, in the Times’ Washington bureau, began working on it, his stories ratcheted up the pressure.

I remember Sun reporters talking about Sy Hersh, with grudging admiration and sometimes annoyance.

Those were heady days to be working for a major daily newspaper. As Hersh’s opening sentence goes on to describe, those “golden” days were when newspaper reporters “did not have to compete with the twenty-four-hour cable news cycle, when newspapers were flush with cash from display advertisements and want ads,” and when he was “free to travel anywhere, anytime, for any reason, with company credit cards.” He goes on to mention being able to report thoroughly on a breaking news story without worrying about coming up with something immediately for the web page, and he could have added that he was sometimes given the luxury of spending weeks, even months, pursuing a big story.

Hersh does decry, as he should, what has become of journalism as corporate owners have not responded wisely to the challenges of the Internet age, as TV “experts” offer more opinion than fact, and as “fake news,” incomplete news and hastily reported news swirls around us.

But that’s just an unavoidable observation, not what he really has to offer us in Reporter.

Nor is this the sort of memoir that offers juicy details about the writer’s personal life or soul-searching personal revelations. Hersh titles the book Reporter for good reason. It’s a memoir by a consummate professional about his professional life. In the earliest chapters, he tells us enough about his childhood in a lower-middle-class family in Chicago to understand who he is. His parents were Jewish immigrants; his father owned a dry-cleaning business in the black ghetto on the South Side. He almost didn’t go to college and dropped out of law school. Later, he mentions that he married, but he talks about his wife, and later his children, infrequently, usually not by name, and for the most part, only when family logistics affected his work in some way.

Hersh’s writing evokes the reporter’s training and instinct to keep himself out of the story – even when, as in this case, he IS the story.

The story of how he got into journalism is interesting, but, again, that’s not the heart of the book.

This is mostly a book about how one of the best investigative reporters from that golden age of American journalism got his stories and what he learned in the process, and, because he was close to much of it, it’s a story of many of the events and trends of the latter 20th and early 21st centuries that brought our country to where we are now.

Without belaboring it or preaching, Hersh reveals a deep belief in the importance of a free press in a democracy and the people’s right to know, even when their political leaders – and, sometimes, newspaper or magazine editors – don’t want them to. He was a lone wolf, even when he was on the staff of the Times or regularly contributing to The New Yorker magazine. For much of his career, he worked independently, writing books and finding others to publish his investigative pieces when the publications he usually dealt with declined.

His account is quite the recent history lesson. He was close to the centers of power and pivotal events – Henry Kissinger, the justification for the Iraq war, Abu Ghraib, the CIA and assassinations, Dick Cheney. He has a strong sense of morality and the values on which America is supposed to operate, and his beliefs helped motivate his reporting and decisions. He grew up a Democrat, but he does not hesitate to criticize and challenge Democrats when he has reason to believe they fall short.

Although he gives his account matter-of-factly, even modestly, and makes a point of saying when he believes someone’s criticism or opposition was justified, it is clear that, once on the trail of a story, Hersh was a force to be reckoned with.

Hersh has made some mistakes over his long and productive career, of course, and he mentions some of them.

He also acknowledges criticism of some of his more recent reporting, such as his coverage of the killing of Osama bin Laden. There is also, as he notes, quite a lot of criticism – with some justification – of his extensive reliance on unnamed sources.

Time has proved much of what he wrote earlier, some of which was widely disputed at the time, to have been right, and he seems content to let history judge his more recent work.

This book is well worth reading for those of us who also participated in journalism’s golden age, and for anyone who wants a more thorough understanding of recent American history. Even more important, it should be required reading for those who aspire to be journalists, those often despised guardians of the people’s right – and responsibility – to know what’s going on in their government.

“I’ve spent most of my career writing stories that challenge the official narrative, and have been rewarded mightily and suffered only slightly for it. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Hersh concludes. Well done.

I have both the audio and print versions of the book. Arthur Morey’s reading of the audio version of this first-person account is so convincing, so right, that if I ever have the privilege of meeting Sy Hersh in person, I’ll probably think his voice sounds wrong. The print version has a useful and extensive index.

Posted in American History, Audio Books, Contemporary Nonfiction, Memoir, Military History, Politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Danger, danger everywhere

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE RISING SEA. By Clive Cussler and Graham Brown. Penguin Audio. Read by Scott Brick. 11 ½ hours; 9 CDs. $45. Also available in hardcover from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

No. 15 in the NUMA files books is everything fans have come to expect from Clive Cussler.

The Rising Sea is a fast-paced thriller, with lots of action and danger. There are some unexpected developments, some evil villains, a plot that strains credulity at least a little – but in an entertaining way. As a bonus, there’s a lot of interesting scientific information, and a bit of ancient legend. That the story is set firmly in the world of today or maybe tomorrow only makes it more credible.

Kurt Austin, Joe Zavala and the rest of the crew at the National Underwater and Marine Agency are studying the alarming pace of sea rise. The rise has accelerated beyond what can be explained by climate change and glacier melt, to the point that many areas of the world and billions of people could face imminent danger.

When their research alerts them to problems associated with a mysterious underwater mining operation in the East China Sea, they set out to investigate.

They quickly run afoul of an international plot to upset the balance of power in the Pacific, and Chinese conspirators who rely on both cutting-edge technology and a ruthless assassin.

Kurt and the NUMA team face grave danger in Japan, Shanghai, on and under the seas and on a secret artificial island as they race to try to save the world.

This is an exciting, interesting and sometimes surprising tale, one of Cussler’s best. Sure, the NUMA books, like all those in his publishing empire, follow something of a formula, but only in the broad sense. Each story is new and laced with fascinating information. If it’s a formula, it’s a formula for successful entertainment.

Scott Brick, as always, reads with the perfect tone and timing, not adding any unnecessary, artificial drama to Cussler’s dashing tale.The Rising Sea makes a fine vacation read, and the audio version would be a great way to enliven a drive to the beach – where, we hope, the sea level won’t have risen too much.

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To have and have not…

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

LOVE AND RUIN. By Paula McLain. Random House Audio. Read by January LaVoy. 11 ½ hours; 9 CDs. $40. Also available in print from Ballantine Books.

Paula McLain is brave, choosing to write historical fiction/memoir about well-known people about whom much has already been written and movies have been made. She’s also very good at what she does, and that’s why her books so captivating.

Her latest novel, “Love and Ruin,” is obviously a labor of love: McLain greatly admires and sympathizes with her protagonist, Martha Gellhorn, who has the rather dubious distinction of having been the third wife of Ernest Hemingway.

If you Google Martha Gellhorn, though, the articles begin not with the Hemingway connection – as is the case with the other three wives – but with her accomplishments as one of the foremost war correspondents of the 20thcentury and one of the first successful female war correspondents.

As McLain makes clear, Gellhorn would have liked that description.

Gellhorn lived to be nearly 90 and trekked the world covering wars for the better part of six decades.

McLain’s book, though it gives a brief account of the rest of Gellhorn’s remarkable life in an Author’s Note, focuses on the stormy years when she was involved with Hemingway, from their meeting in Key West in 1936 through their affair, marriage, separation and divorce in 1945.  She writes about their love, but also their rivalry, ultimate betrayals and the choices Gellhorn had to make to be able to pursue her remarkable career.

McLain has dealt with Hemingway successfully before, in her best-selling “The Paris Wife,” about Hadley Richardson, the first Mrs. Hemingway.

She obviously has done extensive research into both Hemingway and Gellhorn. What makes her novels succeed is that, while staying true to what is known, she lets her imagination fill in the conversations, thoughts and emotions that aren’t a part of the record.

Gellhorn’s story would be fascinating enough for several books even if she’d never become involved with Hemingway. A well-bred doctor’s daughter from St. Louis, her independent, determined, ambitious nature got her into adventures and predicaments.

Before she met Hemingway, she’d had an unhappy affair with a married man, and that experience left her wary. At first, she tried to convince herself and others that she and Hemingway – who was several years older and called her “daughter” in those early days – were just friends. He was already a famous author, and she was flattered that he noticed her and enjoyed talking with her.

But when they found themselves together in exciting and dangerous circumstances covering the Spanish Civil War, friendship became something more.

Hemingway was still married to his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, the mother of his two younger sons.

McLain takes us into the relationship as Gellhorn and Hemingway become increasingly involved and eventually marry. Though their passion was strong, the relationship was never easy. They were, in many ways, rivals, as Gellhorn fought to make a name for herself both as a fiction writer and as a war correspondent.

When Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tollsto great acclaim, she struggled with feelings of envy and insecurity. Hemingway loved to party and seemed to have a great need for public acclaim, while Gellhorn often would rather they could just be alone together.

Most of all, she wanted to pursue her own career, but that ambition, too, caused friction, because Hemingway needed the adulation not only of his fans but also of his wife.

The accounts of Gellhorn’s adventures as a war correspondent are well worth reading.

So are the passages where she struggles with decisions about whether and how to balance her life so that she can have both her career and her marriage. Occasionally, the terminology sounds as though it belongs in a feminist debate a few decades later, but for the most part Gellhorn’s dilemma is convincing.

This is a very good book about a remarkable woman, a pioneering and courageous journalist, and the tumultuous years when her life was caught up in the world of a remarkable, complex man. Both were strong personalities, forces of nature, and their coming together makes for a tumultuous story.

That story, with lots of action and adventure as well as emotion, lends itself well to the audio book format. January LaVoy does an outstanding job of narrating this fine historical novel.

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Hold your breath…

Briar Patch Books is the beneficiary when Bob Moyer goes on a reading/reviewing tear. Here’s his latest contribution.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE BOMB MAKER. By Thomas Perry. Mysterious Press. 372 pages. $26.

Thomas Perry usually writes thrillers that, like the standalone The Old Manor the series with Jane Whitefield, take your breath away from turning the pages so fast. The Bomb Makeris different.

This book makes you hold your breath.

He builds intricate bombs with astonishing kill capacity, and then delivers them in an intricate plan that blows up as many of his intended victims as possible. He has only one chosen target — the LAPD Bomb Squad. When 14 of the squad die, the authorities call in Dick Stahl, former commander who runs his own consulting firm. He proves to be a perfect foil for The Bomb Maker: He understands how to put a bomb together, how to take it apart, and how to get inside The Bomb Maker’shead.

Of course, it’s not smooth sailing to the noisy conclusion. Politics forces the police to remove Stahl from his position, with drastic results. Stahl himself complicates the matter by developing a bond with one of his team members, which puts her in harm’s way.

It’s that relationship that brings depth to the characterizations here. It’s quite a deep bond, beyond a one-night stand because of his strength: “She had realized within fifteen minutes that her only chance of making it to the end of watch that night was to do what he asked and to make herself be what he wanted. She had to see with her perfect vision into a dim space and extract the component he wanted out, reach into the hell-made contraption farther because her hands and arms were smaller and thinner… She had concentrated on seeing exactly what he saw and thinking what he thought.”

To bolster his efforts, The Bomb Maker sells his services to an unidentified foreign country, which both bankrolls him and backs up his effort to eliminate Stahl. He’s a formidable foe for Stahl, and Perry details the cold-blooded killer’s exacting process:  “He brought out ammonium nitrate, acetic anhydride, paraformaldehyde, distilled water and boron fluoride. He was going to have to do lots of stirring and heating and cooling for the next part of the process, which had to be done within very narrow temperature ranges…” and so on for another half-page. Passages like those make the reader grateful that Perry, not they, went into The Bomb Maker’smind to get them.

The conclusion features an explosion in which “…the body parts had been thrown too far, or the force and temperature at the center of the explosion had cremated the men and scattered their ashes.”  Then, and only then, can the reader take a breath.

 

 

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Not about the bad guys

Bob Moyer is catching up with all the new books he missed while off gallivanting. Here’s the latest, No. 17, in Robert Crais’ long-running  and best-selling Elvis Cole and Joe Pike private-eye series.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE WANTED. By Robert Crais. Putnam. 322 pages. $28.

The dust jacket says it’s an Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novel. Not really. Elvis does the heavy lifting, and Joe drops by to pull his bacon out of the fire from time to time. The book isn’t even about Elvis, either.

It’s about a boy.

A distraught mother hires Elvis to find out just what kind of crime her son has been committing. She has evidence of possessions he can’t possibly afford. Without too much trouble, Elvis finds out the boy is part of a small gang of kids who have been burglarizing upscale homes, and selling the products of their chicanery. Elvis sets out to get the boy and his cohorts a deal if they turn themselves in.

Unfortunately, the two meanest, and likely cleverest bad guys Robert Crais has ever conceived are a couple of steps ahead of Elvis and a dangerous step behind the boy. Obviously, those crazy kids took something that somebody wants back badly, and nothing seems to stop them. A trail of dead bodies turns up behind the two wisecracking, bizzaro versions of Joe and Elvis. Using state of the art surveillance, the villains close in on the last two of the gang, only to be thwarted by a last-minute turn of the plot, and the timely appearance of Joe Pike.

The narrative here is sustained by a growing connection and concern between Elvis and the boy. Elvis almost lost the son of his former lover, and the imminent danger the boy now faces hits home with him. With as much emotional depth as he’s ever put into a book, Crais has made sure this book is not about the bad guys.

It’s about a boy.

 

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What meets the eye

He’s back! After a couple of months gallivanting to Germany, Massachusetts and elsewhere, plus doing poetry things, the inimitable Bob Moyer is back reviewing books for Briar Patch Books.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE. By Celeste Ng. Penguin Press. 338 pages. $27.

Celeste Ng’s second book has hung near the top of the best-seller lists for seven months now. There’s a good reason —

She’s a magician.

With a sleight of handwriting, she conjures a Shaker Heights, Ohio, of 1997 that may or may not look like the town of the same name where she grew up. It’s a moot point, because her suburb reeks with reality —the facades, the posturing, the biases and underlying tensions that anyone who has lived in such a community can attest to, and people visiting for the first time can learn from. With no little sympathy at the same time, she takes on territory that John Updike staked out years ago, and matches him word for word.

Ng pulls two people out of a Volkswagen Rabbit and drops them into this nirvana, where “… purchase … includes protection forever against depreciation and unwelcome change.”  Their entrance introduces just that — unwelcome change. Artist Mia Warren and her daughter, Pearl, move into this idyllic bubble and rent a house from the Richardsons. Mia makes photo art pieces that sometimes sell, sometimes don’t, through an agent in New York. She has a noted disregard for the status quo. Pearl is literally taken in by the Richardson children.

A master of misdirection, Ng keeps our focus on one of those children, Izzy, for the first part of the book. As part of her literary prestidigitation, the author also starts the story at the end — the Richardson’s house is on fire, Mia and Pearl have already puttered out of town, and Izzy set Little Fires Everywhere before she, too, took off.

As she works her way back to the beginning, the author identifies issues that will upset the well-ordered community — the weight of secrets, racism, abortion and unrequited ambition.

When a custody battle breaks out over a Chinese-American baby, Mia sides with the mother against the community, and Mrs. Richardson makes a choice that will have unexpected results:  She uncovers Mia’s mysterious past.

That poignant backstory takes us into deep questions of identity and art, which play out in small but devastating bursts throughout the final pages of the book. As it turns out, it’s Mia’s presence and the pieces she puts together that set off Little Fires Everywhere, fires that do much more damage than the ones Izzy set.

This book is one for our age, if not the ages. Abracadabra!

 

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There’s nothing like a murder to make life worth living

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE GRAVE’S A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE. By Alan Bradley. Random House Audio. Read by Jayne Entwistle. 10 hours; 8 CDs. $35. Also available in print from Delacorte Press. 363 pages. $26.

Things are grim in Flavia de Luce’s world. A few months earlier, her father died unexpectedly, leaving Flavia and her two older sisters orphans. Aunt Felicity is determined to sell Buckshaw, the crumbling estate where the family has always lived, even though it now belongs to Flavia. Making matters worse, Aunt Felicity wants to haul Flavia off to London to live with her.

Feeling that they all need a change of scenery and an escape from Aunt Felicity, Dogger, the faithful servant and longtime friend of their father, takes the girls on a rowing holiday. Flavia, the world’s foremost 12-year-old chemist and sleuth, is delighted at the prospect of visiting the village of Volesthorpe, the site of St.-Mildred’s-in-the Marsh church, where the notorious Canon Whitbread had poisoned three female parishioners with communion wine one Sunday morning. How exciting!

Even more exciting, as Flavia absentmindedly trails her hand in the river water, she catches hold of something. At first, she envisions winning fame for landing a prize fish by hand – but then she realizes what she’s gotten hold of is a human head, attached to a body.

Oh, joy! There’s nothing better than a murder to solve to make Flavia feel that life is worth living again after all.

Thus starts what Flavia will come to call “the most complicated case I had ever come across,” and one of the best books in this delightful series. With Dogger’s help, Flavia begins to uncover the village’s secrets. Before long, she will be trying to solve more than one murder, and she will find herself in mortal danger.

Flavia is such an endearing heroine, despite her (often acknowledged) tendency to be something of a brat and a busybody, if doing so suits her purposes. She’s a precocious, very bright girl with an extensive knowledge of chemistry, but she’s also a lonely child.

A fringe benefit of the visit to Volesthorpe is that she makes a friend – a boy who’s the son of the undertaker, and like Flavia, growing up without a mother. He’s a little younger than she, and equally unusual. Another plus is that she and her sister Daffy patch up their differences at least temporarily and join forces.

At book’s end, Flavia is looking forward to the future, something she would have thought impossible just days earlier. And her legions of fans are looking forward also, to the next book chronicling her adventures.

As I’ve written before, these books are so addictive I take a double dose: As soon as the print version is out, I read it, enjoying every nuance of the mystery and quirk of Flavia’s personality. Then I listen to the audio version, savoring small details I missed in my first eager read, but most of all, relishing the wonderful accents and characterizations Jayne Entwistle uses to bring Flavia and family and friends to life.

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Lies and other tangled webs

punishmentReviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE PUNISHMENT SHE DESERVES. By Elizabeth George. Penguin Audio. 23 hours; 18 CDs. Read by Simon Vance. $55. Also available in print from Viking.

It’s been 30 years since Elizabeth George’s first introduced us to Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, in A Great Deliverance, her widely praised debut novel. It’s been three years since her most recent novel, A Banquet of Consequences, was published. Over the decades, Lynley and the series have had their ups and downs, including a bleak, dark stretch when Lynley’s pregnant wife, Helen, was murdered, and then both he and his inimitable sidekick, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, seemed bent on self-destruction.

Now there’s good news and more good news. There’s a new novel out starring Lynley and Havers. And The Punishment She Deserves is one of the best ever in the series. A Banquet of Consequences, the 2015 novel, was the most enjoyable one in a while, with Lynley back in good form and even Havers more or less behaving herself.

The Punishment She Deserves is even better, a well plotted, complex novel that’s both thought-provoking and highly entertaining.

Havers is still on a short leash, and it’s obvious that the higher-ups would be delighted if she gave them an excuse to banish her from Scotland Yard to some distant village. To that end, she’s assigned to go with her boss, Superintendent Isabelle Ardery, to the town of Ludlow to look into the apparent suicide of the much-respected local church deacon, Ian Druitt.

Druitt died in police custody, apparently having hanged himself after being hauled in for questioning about shocking allegations. His father, who is well connected, does not believe Druitt would have killed himself, much less committed the crime. A member of Parliament wants Scotland Yard to review the report on the death in custody.

Ardery is hoping that, during their time working closely together, Havers will stray into some of the disobedient and disrespectful behavior that’s gotten her into so much trouble in the past. But Havers, normally as rough as Lynley is aristocratic, is determined to be a model underling.

The problem is, despite her flaws, Havers is a very good police officer, and once she’s on a scent, she’s as determined as a bulldog. Early on in their investigations, Havers becomes convinced that Druitt did not kill himself, and that there’s quite a lot in Ludlow that needs a closer look. Unfortunately, Ardery, distracted by her personal problems, just wants to close the case and get back to London as quickly as possible.

When they do return to London, and Havers faces a dilemma about what to put in the report Ardery orders her to prepare, Lynley takes action in a way that could get them both in serious trouble.

As a result, Lynley and Havers are dispatched to Ludlow to settle things one way or another – and quickly.

The more the two follow leads and ask questions, the more secrets they discover under the surface of Ludlow, a seemingly quiet college town. As the case grows ever more complicated, they fear that they won’t meet the deadline that’s been imposed on them.

The book’s title takes on several layers of meaning, and it’s not just Havers who’s threatened with punishment.

The Punishment She Deserves is rich with characters, well beyond the familiar Lynley, Havers and Ardery. As readers, with the help of Lynley and Havers, try to figure out what really happened in Ludlow, other stories begin to emerge.

The book is long – 23 hours as an audio book, more than 700 pages in print – but it doesn’t seem that way, because it’s so rich with twists, insights and subplots. There is much to think about: the lies people tell, including to themselves; what it means to be a good parent; friendship; duty; justice…

And because the book is so well plotted and the characters so fully developed, it’s easy to follow Simon Vance’s expert reading on the audio version.

By the end, you will be so satisfied with this outstanding book in a fine series that – dare I say it? – you might feel like dancing, just as Barbara Havers is doing. Really. You have to read this book to believe it.

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No. 20: Inspector Rutledge, at his best

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE GATE KEEPER. By Charles Todd. William Morrow. 306 pages. $26.99.

gateIt’s hard to believe that The Gate Keeper is the 20th entry in Charles Todd’s mystery series starring Inspector Ian Rutledge, a British World War I veteran who’s now a Scotland Yard detective.

But A Test of Wills, the debut novel, appeared in 1996, and Todd has been producing new volumes with enough regularity to please his many fans. Several years ago, Todd introduced a second series, featuring Bess Crawford, a young British nurse in World War I. (Todd is, we all discovered a few books in, really two people, a mother and son writing team who live on the East Coast of the U.S. but love to travel to England for literary research.)

Inspector Rutledge, as fans well know, suffers from what today would be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, lingering emotional and psychological effects stemming from his role as an officer in the Great War. Specifically, the voice of Hamish, a young Scottish corporal whom Rutledge had to execute when he refused to follow a battlefield order to charge into no-man’s land, lives in his head.

Although I loved the first few books in the series, the intrusive voice of Hamish annoyed me at times. Perhaps Rutledge used the device more in the earlier works; perhaps I just got used to the idea. In any event, Hamish’s presence now seems to be an integral and not overdone part of the stories.

Why do I love these books? In part, it’s because of the setting. England in the years after World War I is a fascinating place and time, as the old order, accepted for centuries, seemed to be crumbling all around, and society was adjusting to the devastating loss of many of its young men. Fans of “Downton Abbey” will recognize the time of social and economic upheaval portrayed in these novels. There’s a melancholy that haunts Rutledge even at his best moments, a melancholy that also pervades England after the horrors and loss of the war.

The Inspector Rutledge books are also just good mysteries in the fine tradition of British detective fiction, and Todd sends Rutledge on investigations to an interesting variety of towns and villages.

With any series of this length, some books are more satisfying than others, but even the weaker ones – sometimes the mysteries and cast of characters get a tad confusing – are well worth the read.

The Gate Keeper is one of the better books in an outstanding series.

As the story begins, Rutledge has just given his sister, Frances, away in marriage. What should be a happy occasion is unsettling for him, because through his struggles to adapt to life and his police career after the war, Frances has been one of his anchors. So, rather than just retiring for the night in his London flat after the festivities wind down, Rutledge heads out aimlessly for a long drive in the country.

Miles into the countryside, he’s jolted out of his dark thoughts by the sight of another motorcar stopped in the middle of the road, with a woman in evening dress standing beside it. The woman has blood on her hands, and at her feet is a dead man, a shooting victim.

Thus Rutledge becomes involved in a murder investigation in the village of Wolfpit in Suffolk, over the objections of the local authorities. He successfully convinces Scotland Yard that he should work the case, as he was the first to come upon the scene, but on some level he knows he’s also glad to have a reason to postpone his return to London.

His inquiry into the death of the man, a bookseller named Stephen Wentworth, is anything but clear-cut. The first suspect, the woman whom Wentworth was driving home after a party that lasted well into the night, insists that she is innocent.

Rutledge hears strangely conflicting stories about Wentworth. Most people have nothing but the best to say about him and cannot believe that he would have done anything to provoke a murder. But his own mother, and his former fiancé, describe him very differently.

As Rutledge tries to figure out the truth about Wentworth, and discover anything in his life that might have led someone to lie in wait to shoot him, another man is shot to death – another man who seems to have no enemies.

It’s a difficult puzzle, complicated by deceit, jealousy, greed and vicious, destructive hatred. Rutledge is determined to figure it out. This aspect of life, at least, he ought to be able to make sense of – and, indeed, he does, in fine fashion.

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