I've never been a huge fan of genre literature, and I've always held a particular antipathy for mysteries for the same reasons Lionel Twain does in the "reveal" scene at the end of Murder By Death, condemning detectives like Sam Diamond, Jessica Marbles and Dick and Dora Charleston:
You've tricked and fooled your readers for years. You've tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You've introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before! You've withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it. But now — the tables are turned. Millions of angry mystery readers are now getting their revenge. When the world learns I've outsmarted you, they'll be selling your $1.95 books for twelve cents.
My other problem might be more personal. While some of my fellow bloggers here will disagree, I've always felt that genre literature, detective fiction included, tends to sacrifice or fail to achieve fuller characterizations either due to the needs of plot or the inability of authors to meet the ordinary needs of three-dimensional personalities in "literature." A more generous person likely thinks the formats and demands of genre stuff infringes on character portrait, and a cynic sees an author running off to genre because he hasn't the talent to make the real world interesting. Sometimes I think a coin flip could determine which I'd agree with. Then again, maybe I'm just reading bad genre literature.
Imagine, then, my delight in stumbling across Charles Todd's series of "Ian Rutledge" detective novels.
Fans of the excellent ITV series Foyle's War will probably find immediate pleasure and familiarity in encountering Inspector Rutledge, but fans of detective fiction and history likely will as well. The series begins in June, 1919, in A Test of Wills (and continues monthly thereafter) and explores Englands' post-war atmosphere in the guise of old-fashioned insoluble death. Rutledge has survived years of The Great War and returned to his former position at Scotland Yard. A gifted investigator before the war, his superiors — all but an envious one — assume that his powers of detection remain as honed as ever. Unbeknownst to them, Rutledge suffers deep, tormenting shell-shock. He keeps hearing the voice of one of his men killed in the trenches.
The Rutledge series exhibits a few stylistic problems. Published from 1996 to the present, the books sometimes employ idioms that originated post-WWI. Also, author Charles Todd (actually a pen name for Charles Todd and his mother Caroline, both of whom appear to be American) often seems to be writing about an England that existed less from 1919 onward and more in period BBC miniseries about post-war England. Obviously, neither lived through the period, unless mother Caroline is roughly 100 years old, so the environment presented evinces something of a pre-sanitized pre-mythologized era.
In spite of that, the Rutledge character commands sympathy. Despite a recent spate of television shows in which a lead character regularly converses with the dead, Rutledge's internal tormented dialogue avoids the kind of melodramatic gimmickry we're all familiar with and that it easily could have become. What's left for the reader is, admittedly, something of an easy inroad to character development, but it works because it eschews any ponderous banalities about metaphysics and merely allows you to watch two characters handle each other. It just so happens that one is manufactured by the other's psyche.
Todd's conceit might have been a disposable take on both a familiar format and a familiar era had real life not interceded to give the poignancy of Rutledge's psychological damage more immediacy. As more American and British soldiers return home from Iraq and Afghanistan effectively mentally damaged, the Rutledge character no longer provides merely a tweedy and starched-collar retrospective of the police drama but a kind of back door to our own current experience.
The society into which Rutledge is reintegrated and given his old job is one too polite to address how broken its servicemen are. And while, as readers, we might congratulate ourselves on our own probity in this regard by comparing our conduct to the psychologically tone-deaf supporting cast of the Rutledge novels, the fact remains that we have not come so far ourselves. They had shell-shock. We have PTSD. Both are labels, and both are, in many ways, woefully insufficient for understanding
Historian, literary critic, essayist and author of the astounding The Great War and Modern Memory Paul Fussell (himself a veteran of the Pacific campaign in WWII) makes an excellent point about shell-shock in Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. He begins speaking of euphemism: how any condition can be improved by adding extra syllables to whatever you're describing. A "retreat" miraculously turns into something that sounds intentional and positive if you call it a "retrograde movement." Or, psychologically speaking, "Battle fatigue (United States) and battle exhaustion (United Kingdom) became ways of suggesting that a little rest-up would be enough to restore to useful duty a soldier more honestly designated insane." (Fussell, 147)
Consider, then, the power of a term like post-traumatic stress disorder. It has enough syllables to bury almost any horror comfortably. It's just a disorder! It has hyphens! I feel stressed just commuting to work!
The Rutledge novels, as mystery novels, feature some of the sins outlined in the quote above. Occasionally, Todd buries certain characters for the whole of the text, only to swell their importance suddenly in the concluding chapters. This ill pervades the genre and shouldn't single out these novels meaningfully. What should are Rutledge's ills.
Mystery novels often fail to present a main characterfully formed, but Todd cleverly circumvents this problem by creating a memorable character who is unmistakably broken. While the whole of him might never become unforgettable in literature, the situational presentation of his shards create a depth that elaborates on the "detective procedural" with empathy and humanity that the plots otherwise might lack.
The novels themselves might never be timeless, but they offer a charming and amusing whodunit story strung throughout the timeless inner conflict of a person asked by civil society to do murder in defense of it. The horrors visited upon Ian Rutledge as he tries merely to do his job — the fatuous idea that one dead body could, in his policeman's guise, ever be anything so nightmarish as what he saw as an officer — could appear, at first, to be cloying and contrived distractions.
While they entertain us with a good mystery, they also ask us what good — what anything — we can ask of men after we demand of them something so dire as programmatical evil.