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Onyx reviews: The Inheritance by Simon Tolkien

One reason The Inheritance is set in 1959, as the author explains in his introduction, is that the British justice system at that time offered only a symbolic appeal process for people sentenced to hang. The sentences were carried out expeditiously, often after only a few weeks. This gave a wrongly convicted person little time to clear his name. It's a good way to generate suspense.

By devoting the prologue to an atrocity committed in Marjean, Normandy during World War II, Tolkien shows his hand: the murder at the heart of The Inheritance must be connected to those events. Three British soldiers ambush a truckload of German soldiers and appropriate their weapons. Their leader, Colonel Cody, uses the confusion of wartime to search for an ancient codex containing the gospel of St. Luke and, according to legend, clues to an even more valuable relic. Cody and his co-conspirators use the stolen weapons to execute the Rocard family after the ensuing confrontation goes bad. An investigation into the massacre concludes that the Rocards, suspected German collaborators, were killed by retreating Nazis. Cody gets his codex, but not the information he needs to unlock its secrets.

When Stephen Cody overhears a conversation between his father and Sergeant Ritter about what they did at Marjean, he and his father—now Professor Cody—become estranged. The elder Cody was wounded during a return trip to Marjean after the war and is now cloistered in posh, gothic Moreton Manor, terrified that someone wants to kill him.

As it turns out, his fears were justified. Someone pits a bullet into his forehead and his son is the prime suspect. Stephen has ample motive—his father was planning to disinherit his sons—and his fingerprints are on the murder weapon and on the key used to lock the room where the murder took place. He was found standing next to the victim. His stories about foreign strangers in luxury vehicles near the estate and an aimless walk on the grounds at the time of the murder sound like the fabrications of a desperate man.

Detective Inspector William Trave was convinced of Stephen's guilt at the time of the murder, but now that the trial is under way he is changing his mind. Stephen's older brother, the adopted Silas, a sullen, uncommunicative voyeur, seems a likelier candidate, but Stephen won't let his lawyer cast suspicion on his brother. There are other possible culprits, including the daughter of a man whose reputation Professor Cody destroyed to elevate his own academic status, and Ritter, the violent sergeant who instigated the Marjean executions.

Though the events in wartime France keep coming up, neither Trave nor Stephen's lawyer can find any connection to Cody's murder. Until recently, no one knew the truth other than the three men who were present that day—they left no witnesses. When the other member of their cabal threatened to blackmail Cody, Ritter took care of him.

The whodunit, which borders on being a locked room mystery, is well executed. Tolkien introduces a manageable number of suspects and gives each one an interesting story and secrets that might lead to motive. The Ritters' dysfunctional relationship and Ritter's penchant for belittling people, coupled with Silas's tawdry predilections, makes for a deadly combination. Sasha Vigne, Professor Cody's research assistant, who bears scars of unknown origin, and who is the only person other than Cody who knows the truth about the codex's secret, is dealing with her father's infirmity and her own obsession with the historical relic the manuscript may point to. The Cody brothers have a well fleshed out relationship dominated by the way Silas was relegated to secondary citizen status after Stephen was born. Inspector Trave is a morose, grieving father who lost his son to an accident, and later lost his wife when the trauma of that accident took its toll on their marriage.

The book's title doesn't refer to the codex; instead, the inheritance is a legacy of violence and retribution—the sins of the father descending upon his sons. The codex is something of a MacGuffin, almost a nod to the subgenre of thrillers devoted to the location of medieval religious icons popularized by Dan Brown and others.

Tolkien is the grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings. Readers familiar with that classic fantasy series may be taken aback by the genre Simon Tolkien has chosen. However, his work should be considered on its own merits. The Inheritance has more in common with the works of P.D. James and Agatha Christie than with the author's ancestor's books. A barrister, Tolkien knows the inner workings and procedures of the British legal system, which allows him to create compelling, detailed and accurate courtroom scenes. He does an excellent job of misdirecting readers, who shouldn't feel cheated when the truth is revealed at the end.

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