Friday, November 04, 2016

The Confession, by Charles Todd

I read this on the recommendation of my mother, who has excellent taste in reading material. However--and this is an important caveat--she consumes her Inspector Rutledge books in audio format, where they are read by the excellent actor Simon Prebble, and his mellifluous tones soothe her to sleep. I can imagine how delightful that is, and has given her many hours of enjoyment of this series.

Which is to say that this is not a book for reading, this is a book for sleeping through.

It's not actually terrible, and it has the bones of a much better novel. There are dangerous secrets worth killing for, there is emotional anguish and class resentment and the terrible beauty of the English marshlands.  Sadly, the writing manages to rob the action sequences of any excitement, flattens the characters to the point of them being fundamentally indistinguishable, which makes it hard to keep track of the suspects or the victims. Which makes the plot nearly impossible to keep track of--I think the mystery might be clever, or interesting, but since I could never quite tell who was dead and who was under suspicion, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Spoilers below--as I try to figure out what happened.

First off, I recognize that this is the fourteenth book in a series, and I have not read any of the others. It is unfair of me to complain that things that happened in other books aren't explained in this one, and I will try to avoid doing that. The central character is Inspector Ian Rutledge, of Scotland Yard, who has returned to the force after a traumatic experience in The Great War (WWI). It is now 1919, and he continues to wake from his nightmares screaming on a regular basis. He is a broken man who pushes himself to hide the PTSD so he can continue working. Work is the only thing he has to live for now.

A seminal event of his wartime was the death of a soldier under his command. Hamish MacLeod had been Rutledge's closest confidante, but when he refused a direct order, Rutledge was obliged to have him shot. Rutledge himself had to administer the final shot. Now he hears Hamish in the back of his mind, as real as if Hamish still lived. There are other recurring characters, but they don't play much of a role in this particular mystery--Rutledge's sister Frances, various members of Scotland Yard, and an official at the War Office who can be used to gather background information. None of them were really called on to do much, so I'll just assume they are old friends from earlier installments.

Rutledge himself is fine. He's not terribly interesting as a character, but that's fine as he's the glass through which we watch the murder investigation unfold. He's competent, he's got a back story with emotional resonance, he's fine.

Hamish is--a problem. At least in this book he is. I could accept him as the disembodied manifestation of Rutledge's guilty conscience, as a way to illuminate Rutledge's struggle to re-integrate into civilian society. But he's used in a strange way to advance the plot, commenting on the motivations of the suspects, warning Rutledge of things that  Rutledge himself can't see. Hamish is basically Rutledge's ride-along partner, being Watson to his Holmes. Which means he is more than just the symptom of PTSD--he is a character separate from Rutledge. In my opinion, he needs to be either explicitly supernatural, an actual ghost who is literally haunting his killer, or Rutledge just needs a constable to ride around with him that he can talk to.

It's the nature of the mystery genre. Clues have to be revealed slowly, and the reader has to be shown the detective's thought process without showing the solution too early. Questions like "Do you believe this suspect's story?" and "Do you think this person is guilty?" have to be asked and answered. For practical reasons, a mystery novel needs that character to keep the plot on track. In theory, it could all be done with internal dialogue, and Hamish is apparently an attempt to do that. As written, however, his comments are just too different, too independent to be the product of Rutledge's own thought processes.

Basically--Hamish needs to pick a lane. Either be a straight-up supernatural presence, and acknowledge that. Or, be a manifestation of Rutledge's trauma, but then you have to be less substantial ( and also--the attempts to render the Scottish accent is decidedly off-putting). Or just give Rutledge somebody to talk to--his Boswell, his Watson, or have him bring different people along. "Hamish" is just weird.

PLOT SYNOPSIS

(Or, In which I try to tell several 2 dimensional silhouettes apart.)

The book begins with a "sensational" inciting incident--a dying man comes to Scotland Yard to confess to a murder. He quickly becomes evasive when pressed for details, then decides that this was a mistake. Rutledge is skeptical, but can't really do much in the absence of a body or a case. This man turns up dead a few days later, shot in the back of the head. Hurrah! Now there is a case!

In a surprise that shocks no one who has read a mystery novel before, the man isn't who he said he was. WHAAAAAT? You mean, men with fatal cancer diagnoses who decide to confess to vague crimes might not be totally truthful in all aspects?

In order to even begin to understand the convoluted story, we now leave the summary of the book and reconstruct the events in chronological time. All the the suspects and victims and most of what passes for investigation happen in and around a country manor house in Essex known as River's Edge. Owned by the Russell family, the patriarch (who is mostly skimmed over and ignored in the book) had a disastrous first marriage to an apparent gold digger who had a child after the divorce. Was that child Russell's son? Probably not, but also not definitively established.

He eventually became wealthy, married another woman-- mostly known as "Mrs. Russell," occasionally as Elizabeth--and they had a single son, Wyatt. They also acquired two wards/surrogate children/extended relation/cousins that they took in and raised as their own. Justin Fowler is a tragic boy whose parents were brutally murdered and was himself attacked and left for dead. After months in hospital recovering from multiple knife wounds (all three Fowlers were attacked in their beds while asleep), Elizabeth Russell brings him to River's Edge, and no one ever speaks of his trauma.

The second ward is Cynthia Faraday, who lost her parents to an accident while they were traveling. Despite this, she is well adjusted, a bit of a "spitfire" (which basically translates to rude, impulsive, but pretty enough to get away with it). You know what? Don't bother with Cynthia Faraday. She's mostly pointless. Everybody was in love with her, she didn't love anybody, she's the damsel in distress in the final boss battle. Other than that, no point to her.

There are two other boys, roughly the same age as Wyatt and Justin. There is a village boy, named Ben Willet, born to be a fisherman, but with aspirations to be a writer. He left the village to become a footman before the war. There is also a Mrs. Russell's driver named Harold Finley.

The plot begins with the disappearance of Elizabeth Russell in the summer of 1914. She was seen headed to the marshes, and never returned. Search parties failed to turn up any sign of her. The assumption was that she died due to depression caused by Wyatt and Justin going to WWI.

Justin Fowler and Harold Finley go missing in 1915, presumed deserters.

In 1919 (the book's present day), we get a shell game of identity swapping. "Wyatt Russell" turns up at Scotland Yard, and confesses to killing his cousin, Justin Fowler, in 1915. "Wyatt Russell" turns out to actually Harold Findlay? Can I keep these characters separate? No, because so far they are indistinguishable; just names.

So Ben Willett is the cancer riddled former footman who wrote a couple of books after the war. He confessed accused Wyatt of killing Justin in 1915. His body turns up shot in the head. Who did that? Why is he wearing Elizabeth Russell's locket around his neck? (Mostly in order to give Rutledge some clues to follow up, basically.) Did he engineer her disappearance in 1914?

Let's just skip to the resolution, rather than try to tease out all the clues and the red herrings. Everybody was killed by a madman. The anonymous child of that first disastrous Russell marriage? Grew up a resentful sociopath, convinced that he should have been the Russell heir. (Again--not clear he was even related, but whatever.) His life is literally devoted to destroying the Russell family. He becomes the rector at the local village church (????) where he hides in plain sight for the duration of the war I guess?

He killed Elizabeth Russell in 1914, tied her body to some rocks and sank her in the marshes. He also killed the Fowlers, failed to kill Justin as a lad, but managed to do it in 1915 when Justin was at River's Edge (along with Harold Finlay), recuperating from war wounds.

Finlay finds Justin's body, swaps clothes with the corpse, and dumps the body into the river to confuse identification. (He is apparently afraid that Cynthia will be blamed for the murder. No clear reason why.) He then fails to go back to the war in either identity, thus becoming a deserter, and sets up a new life for himself in Northern England or Scotland or somewhere.

Wyatt is in a nursing home somewhere, his mental stage swinging from clear to befuddled, mostly depending on what clues have to stay hidden. Rutledge plants a story that Wyatt had died, to lure the killer.

Who is the rector, going by the name of Morrison. But why does the rector want to kill all these people? To the extent there is any "reason" given, it's that he's SO resentful of Wyatt having the life he thinks he should have had, that he plans to kill everybody, leaving Wyatt for last so Wyatt is as miserable as possible.

Okay. This is not a theme or a trope or a leitmotif or an atmosphere or anything that has been running through the book. In fact, to the extent that there is a thematic emotion running through the book, it's that WWI sucked, and everybody's life is worse because of it. In fact, the sheer scale of the WWI carnage is such that it's hard to get worked up about a few hand crafted murders, really.

BUT--from a mystery perspective--this is a lot of carnage for not much payoff for Morrison, don't you think? I mean, these are all the people he has killed:

Mom and Pop Fowler
Justin Fowler (attempted)
Elizabeth Russell
Justin Fowler (successful)
Ben Willett
Wyatt Russell (he thinks, but not really)
Cynthia Faraday (attempted)
Ian Rutledge (attempted)

What did any of this do for him? He's still a rector in a tiny little village, where everybody hates him because he is an outsider, he doesn't get any of the Russell family money, nobody acknowledges him as family, he doesn't seem to get any satisfaction out of revenge. . .

There is no meat to this character at all. There is no reason for him to have been the murderer, except that in Mystery Writing 101, they tell you that the perpetrator has to be the most unlikely character. And he is, because this whole story of the "first marriage to a gold digger who dumped you when you were poor but then raised her child to be resentful of the eventual wealth" is only barely covered in this book. Because why tell that story when instead you can spend pages and pages talking about the emptiness of the marshes, and have people just looking out on the landscape.

THE MOST ANNOYING PART

The most irritating thing about this book is that there are scenes and secrets and dramatic occurrences that are basically shoved into the cracks of the plot like so much binding agent--everything is flattened into a sort of formless mess.

Let's talk about the single most dramatic thing in the book--the tragic story of the village.

This river village is overtly hostile to strangers--obnoxious to the point of caricature. Rutledge shows up in the tea room, and the operator would rather kick out the regulars and close up than let an outsider eat there. NOT THAT THIS IS SUSPICIOUS IN ANY WAY?

There is dialogue that amounts basically to this:
"Why are you so hostile to visitors"
"Because we are hiding a Deep Secret and we don't want people to hear about it!"

What is that Deep Secret? It's actually the most compelling story of the book--far more upsetting and emotionally scarring than the Mad Rector. Back a generation or so ago, river smuggling was a pretty big part of the economy. (Still is, although the presence of British soldiers nearby patrolling the coast has caused some fluctuation in the market.) A rich ship came up-river, got stuck on a sandbar, and the locals rowed out to investigate (loot) it. There was nobody aboard!

(Cue spooky music! OooooooooOOOOOOoooOOOooo!)

It was a plague ship, and there was a diary by the last survivor explaining what happened. One of the greedy villagers just tossed the diary overboard so as not to interfere with the looting. BUT THE PLAGUE CAME ALONG WITH THE LOOT! Some of the villagers became ill, and the then-rector started caring for them in the church, turning it into a makeshift hospital. The healthy villagers panicked, nailed the doors shut and burned down the church, killing everybody inside.

This is incendiary stuff. The toxic stew of emotions--the fear, the cruelty, the horror, hearing your family members dying inside the church, the long tail of guilt and misery. Why did the son of one of the arsonists went and named his pub after the plague boat? That is a story worth telling! The emotions! The visuals! The charred bodies and the destroyed church! The dancing flames and the rifts that grew up among the survivors!

But no.

This story does get told, but in a weird third-hand way that robs it off nearly all its power and majesty. Ian Rutledge reads about it--actually in Ben Willett's unpublished manuscript. But we don't get the manuscript either. We get the omniscient narrator reporting that Ian read about Ben's novelization of a scene he only heard about because it happened before he was born. I count that as something like fourth level hearsay.

Which is just so frustrating! There are the bones of a fascinating story here! The village history is still affecting the people who live there, a more traumatic experience than the entirety of WWI on the collective spirit of the village! That is a story worth telling!

Ben Willett might also have been interesting to get to know--a son of a river fisherman, who wanted something different out of life, and left to become a footman to an aristocrat, only to be mustered up and sent to France to fight WWI. He caught a glimpse of an even better life (than that of a footman!) and after the war, lived in Paris and wrote books! But his family never forgave him for getting above himself--so much so that he never came back after the war. That is a story worth telling!

Even the crazy story of Rector Morrison, maybe, if we saw the mix of the bright and the dark. I mean, the  character of the Rector is constantly being kind and helpful to Rutledge, and feeling hurt by being left out of the life of the village--well, they are keeping the secret of what they did to the LAST rector (more or less last one? The chronology is unclear here). How can this character be combined with the life-long-sociopathic-murderer that the plot requires? The book didn't do it, but that might be a story worth telling!

FINAL ANALYSIS

I should just quit farting around and write my own damn novels. I am so frustrated by the fact that a book like this gets published--actually, "Charles Todd" has written NINETEEN Ian Rutledge novels, and a further 7 with a different main character. WHAT THE HELL AM I WAITING FOR, thinking that I don't have anything to offer.

Is it too late to start NaNoWriMo this month?






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