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Onyx reviews: Hunting Shadows by Charles Todd

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 03/23/2014

Inspector Rutledge of Scotland Yard is dispatched to the East Anglia area to try to get to the bottom of a pair of shooting murders in nearby villages, two weeks apart. Both victims were men of some standing—one was a candidate for parliament and the other was a captain during the war. Both were shot by a daring sniper during public events—a speech in the village square of Wriston and a wedding at Ely Cathedral, respectively. The shooter escaped unseen in both cases, or was he? In one village, a woman swore she saw "a monster" in the parapets, but she soon recants after she is ridiculed.

The police in the two villages have done their due diligence in parallel investigations without any tangible results. One of the biggest issues is that no one knows of any connection between the two men, though there can be little doubt that the same sniper was responsible for both slayings. The villages are close, but in the 1920s proximity doesn't mean much. Villagers are clannish, suspicious of outsiders and rarely travel far. The boggy, watery lowlands between villages makes them like foreign countries until each other.

Rutledge doesn't travel to the countryside alone; in fact, he never goes anywhere alone. He is always accompanied by a nagging voice he dubs Hamish, after a man he was forced to execute during the war. Hamish is his conscience and his subconscious combined, a kind of Greek chorus that tells him things he already knows but hasn't truly considered yet. Hamish is one manifestation of the PTSD Rutledge and so many others of his generation suffer. He occasionally has full-blown melt-downs, but he is able to function well in his role otherwise. However, he keeps a loaded gun at his home in case there comes a day when he can no longer withstand the effects of shell shock.

He isn't exactly welcomed with open arms. The local constabulary see the intrusion of Scotland Yard as a slight on their skills, and they are all too willing to point out Rutledge's lack of success after many days on the job. "Early days," Rutledge responds over and over again, even after the killer shoots another man and he has little to show for his investigation. This isn't a forensics case: Rutledge has no physical evidence beyond a single gray fiber and a shell casing. The only way to solve this case is via legwork, lots and lots of legwork. He visits countless people, many of them multiple times, often asking the same questions over and over again in the hopes that something will jog loose a telling memory. Sometimes it does. Memory is a strange thing.

The book reveals an interesting detail about public attitudes toward snipers in the early part of the 20th century: they were often loath to reveal the nature of their work because to shoot a man who had no opportunity to defend himself was deemed un-gentlemanly, cowardly work, even though it saved the lives of many others. Since Rutledge is looking for a man who was probably a sniper during WWI who brought his rifle back to England with him, this prejudice against them makes his work harder.

Todd, a pen name for a mother and son writing team, create a seamless novel that feels like it was written by a British author in the 1920s instead of nearly a century after the fact by Americans. There's nary a false step in their period details, and the cloud of World War I feels like a recent injury. The gloomy mood is set immediately by Rutledge's arrival during a fog so thick that he cannot see the road in front of him, even when on foot. 

The cast of characters is large, consisting of the entire populaces of two villages, which puts a heavy burden on readers to keep everyone straight. The mystery, as it slowly gives up its secrets, is complex. Along the way, Rutledge unearths a second mystery, one that people believe they understand but which has a far more sinister truth that has ties to the shootings, though in a most oblique way. It's all very clever and entertaining, a thoroughly enjoyable crime novel, but don't be disappointed if you didn't work it all out. Technically Hunting Shadows is a whodunit, but readers stand little chance of solving the case ahead of Rutledge. 

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