A Test of Wills by Charles Todd
Publisher: Harper, 305 pages
What it’s about: The year is 1919. Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge has been sent into the countryside to investigate the death of a wealthy war hero. Rutledge’s superintendent hates him, and takes great delight in assigning the intelligent, well-bred Rutledge to a case he’s bound to mismanage.
Both the victim and the prime suspect served in World War I and returned changed men, as did Rutledge. In fact, Rutledge is haunted by Hamish MacLeod for whose death Rutledge was responsible. Rutledge does not know if he can comport himself honorably because of the shell shock (PTSD) that torments him and the ghost voice that lives in his head. To make matters worse, the villagers–including the victim’s beautiful ward; her fiance, a decorated pilot; some ex-lovers, a dying child; a recluse or two–all seem to be hiding something, some too eager to pin the blame on one they perceive as a war coward. Everywhere Rutledge turns he is confronted by this “strange test of wills” (245).
Rutledge, with ghostly Hamish as both torturer and assistant, combs the countryside of Upper Streetham for clues, seeking truth from liars, reliving the Great War where he senses the answers lie, all the while fearing a descent into battle fatigue madness.
What I thought: A Test of Wills is a novel every ghost enthusiast needs to read. The author has created a unique ghost persona–someone the protagonist wronged in life who now haunts him. We never see this ghost; instead, he rides in the backseat just out of sight or inserts himself into Rutledge’s head. What I find especially interesting is that the author complicates matters by creating a flawed protagonist whose shell shock causes him to doubt his sanity at times. In other words, he (as well as the doctors at the clinic where he recovered) does not know if Hamish is a real ghost or just a manifestation of Rutledge’s guilt and PTSD. Because I’m always going to be on the side of the ghosts, I believe Hamish is real. For instance, his birr and word choices are distinctly Scottish.
The other aspect I love is that Hamish is not a static character. He continues to evolve even though he’s dead. While he berates Rutledge, Hamish reveals a kind heart and keen insights that aid Rutledge in his quest for the truth. The irony is that Rutledge fears Hamish and fears Hamish will cost him his job (after all, Rutledge sometimes finds himself responding to the ghost in public), but Hamish offers suggestions that point Rutledge in the right direction.
One thing I didn’t like was the omniscient head hopping the author does. I like to remain with one character’s point of view in a scene. There were times when the inspector would interrogate someone and suddenly the author would whisk us into that person’s thoughts, mostly to show the reader that the character was hiding something. That interrupted the flow of the story in a distracting way. And I didn’t even feel the need to know the other person’s thoughts because I could tell from the reactions of both Rutledge and Hamish that the character was not forthcoming. Fortunately, I think in subsequent mysteries of the series the author scaled back this practice.
The ending worked well with an interesting tie-in to the Rutledge-Hamish duality though I would have liked a little more set-up earlier in the story. I think ghost readers will enjoy the series and will find the greatest satisfaction by starting with this original debut. Overall, despite a few minor quibbles, I recommend this novel.