I have enjoyed other novels by this mother-son writing team and was happy to pick up this one.
The Confession (353 pages, William Morrow, $25.99) is the latest in the Ian Rutledge series by Charles Todd. Rutledge is a veteran of the First World War, and he is deeply shattered by his experience in that devastating conflict.
It this novel, Rutledge, a Scotland yard investigator, finds himself exploring the seedier side of coastal life in Suffolk. A small group of local men have been adding to their meager earnings by grabbing contraband when ships go down, or maybe sometimes helping ships to founder on the rocks. When they discover a body and decide to keep the money in the pockets of the corpse, all their trouble begins.
Rutledge finds himself confronting venal behavior of various kinds, and as dispiriting as it is, people keep getting killed in this small coastal village and no one can help or even seems willing to explain why. The narrative takes Rutledge back and forth to London and back and forth in time. Events take place before, during, and after the war; and despite everything that makes the reader feel contempt for this village, there is also a vivid sense of how deeply the war changes and threatens this simple life on the coast.
I cannot say that I found this novel as engaging as some of the earlier ones in this series. The plot seemed to me pointlessly complicated, and I started to lose interest in the fairly horrible complications that Rutledge uncovers. Even worse for me is the technique of having Rutledge's war buddy, for whose death he feels responsible, pipe up and comment on Rutledge’s choices or confusions. Hamish has been a welcome presence in the past, a voice from the dead that challenges Rutledge and reminds him what his priorities should be. But in this novel, Hamish wears a bit thin. Rather than have Rutledge think about an issue, the writers have Hamish criticize him and then have Rutledge react to what the dead Hamish says. I got to think that there might be a more supple way to deal with Rutledge’s fears and aspirations.
Other characters are decently drawn, especially the local men who are trying to block Rutledge’s investigations and the other poor people of the village who are scraping together their meager livings.
As for the plot itself, I felt that this time the forward motion got a bit lost in the details of development. The writers have a complicated story to tell, and I am not sure that they make the right choices to render it as powerful as it might be.
If this novel was a bit disappointing for me, that does not mean that I will give up on the Charles Todd writing team. They do a great job in invoking a complicated period of England’s past; and when they are on, all the details come together beautifully. I’ll keep hoping that their next novel is up to the high standard they have already set for themselves.
The Confession is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.