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Like Rennie Airth's memorable River of Darkness, Charles Todd's novels function both as popular entertainments and as realistic portraits of an England devastated by the carnage of World War I. Legacy of the Dead, the fourth entry in an ongoing series featuring Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge, takes place in 1919, less than one year after the Armistice. With compassion, sensitivity, and scrupulous attention to historical detail, it depicts a complex series of tragic events that directly reflect the larger issues of that traumatic era.
Todd's protagonist, Ian Rutledge, is a credible, highly unusual hero. A guilt-ridden survivor of the Battle of the Somme, Rutledge finds himself haunted, quite literally, by the memory of his role in the execution of a burned-out Scottish soldier named Hamish MacLeod. Hamish, in the form of a garrulous, undead spirit that no one else can see or hear, has attached himself to Rutledge and follows him wherever he goes. In Legacy of the Dead, he follows Rutledge to Scotland and into the heart of his own unresolved past.
The novel begins when Rutledge (accompanied, as always, by Hamish) agrees to assist in a most unusual murder investigation. The alleged murderess is Fiona MacLeod, an attractive, independent young war widow. According to her accusers, Fiona murdered a wealthy young Englishwoman named Eleanor Gray, buried her in the hills near the Scottish village of Glencoe, and abducted her newborn child. When the bones of a young female -- tentatively identified as Eleanor -- come to light, Fiona is arrested, and formally charged with murder. When Rutledge, representing Scotland Yard, arrives on the scene, he finds, to his astonishment, that Fiona MacLeod is, in fact, Fiona MacDonald, the former fiancé of his dead companion, Hamish MacLeod.
Rutledge's attempts to exonerate Fiona, verify the identity of the nameless skeleton, track down a murderer, and come to terms with a multitude of personal ghosts form the substance of this deeply felt, cumulatively involving novel. Legacy of the Dead is more than just a complex, deviously plotted mystery. It is, at its deepest level, a moving, clear-sighted examination of a society shattered by four years of brutal trench warfare. Like all of Todd's novels, Legacy of the Dead treats this volatile material with sympathy and respect. Working within the conventions of the thriller form, it successfully illuminates the human cost of World War I, a ghastly -- and pointless -- enterprise that helped set the tone for the century to come.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has just been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).