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Charles Todd
A Test of Wills
Wm Morrow / HarperCollins
US Trade Paperback Reprint Edition
ISBN 978-0-062-09161-1
Publication Date:08-16-2011 (Originally published in 1996)
320 Pages; $14.00
Date Reviewed: 01-14-2015
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2015

Index:  Mystery

Inspector Ian Rutledge, just home from four years in the trenches of World War One, but not yet nearly recovered is the perfect target for Superintendant Bowles perfidy. A murder in Warwickshire looks to be a no-win case. The victim is a decorated officer from the war, and so is the chief suspect. That's not exactly what Bowles tells Rutledge, but the Inspector finds out soon enough.

It's not his most pressing problem. That's likely to be the voice of Hamish McLeod, the soldier Rutledge executed in the darkest of his days during the war. Hamish lives on in Rutledge, chiding him, goading him, trying to drive Rutledge mad if he is not already.

As an opener for what was to become a long-running series, 'A Test of Wills' has a lot going for it. Charles Todd's prose is evocative enough to craft the landscapes and characters, but never over-written. The pacing is lively, not frantic. The characters are crisp, easy to place and everyone is engaging in any scene. But 'A Test of Wills' has one thing that's not easily identifiable. Open this book up and the world goes away.

Charles Todd is a mother-son writing team of Charles and Caroline Todd, but you'll not guess it from reading the book. The collaboration is utterly seamless, and the results are so immersive that it's easy to miss the crafty intelligence that is at work here. The joys of historical fiction and mystery fiction are combined in such a way that the two play off of and strengthen one another. This is a very easy book to read, to like and to like to read.

But beneath what seems simple is actually a very complex creation. It might seem that Hamish is a gimmick, but the writers are surprisingly capable of crafting Rutledge's "shell-shock" in a manner that plays out at one level only with what Rutledge could know, at the time, of his condition, while being informed at another level with all that we know of what's now called PTSD. Rutledge suffers in a variety of ways, some of which he is aware, and others of which he is unaware. The result is sophisticated character who reads with ease.

The mystery itself is a nice twist on the classic village green plot, with the small town cast crafted vividly and memorably. Moreover, the plot feels organic, not programmatic. The authors take a page from literary fiction and use it without going over the top. Everything here feels nicely modulated.

'A Test of Wills' is a very nice start to this series. It's low-key and yet vivid, always smart, but never pleased with itself. Given that there are sixteen to follow, it's a great investment for readers who want to have a book at the ready. Ian Rutledge has served his country well, and he has the psychic scars to show for it. His service to readers is every bit as complex as that to his country. Yes, you will be whisked away, only to return with more than pleasant memories of great reading. You might find another voice in your mind, one that has less comforting thihngs to say about the world around you.

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