Book Review: Proof of Guilt by Charles Todd

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Synopsis

An unidentified body appears to have been run down by a motorcar and Ian Rutledge is leading the investigation to uncover what happened. While signs point to murder, vital questions remain. Who is the victim? And where, exactly, was he killed?

One small clue leads the Inspector to a firm built by two families, famous for producing and selling the world’s best Madeira wine. Lewis French, the current head of the English enterprise is missing. But is he the dead man? And do either his fiancée or his jilted former lover have anything to do with his disappearance—or possible death? What about his sister? Or the London office clerk? Is Matthew Traynor, French’s cousin and partner who heads the Madeira office, somehow involved?

The experienced Rutledge knows that suspicion and circumstantial evidence are not proof of guilt, and he’s going to keep digging for answers. But that perseverance will pit him against his supervisor, the new Acting Chief Superintendent. When Rutledge discovers a link to an incident in the family’s past, the superintendent dismisses it, claiming the information isn’t vital. He’s determined to place blame on one of French’s women despite Rutledge’s objections. Alone in a no man’s land rife with mystery and danger, Rutledge must tread very carefully, for someone has decided that he, too, must die so that cruel justice can take its course.

About the Author

Charles Todd is the author of the Inspector Ian Rutledge mysteries, the Bess Crawford mysteries, and two stand-alone novels. A mother and son writing team, they live in Delaware and North Carolina, respectively.

Excerpt

Chapter One

Funchal Harbor, Madeira 3 December 1916

He couldn’t remember, later, what had taken him down to the harbor.

Now, staring out at the masts of the CS Dacia, the British cable-laying ship, he found himself thinking about England.

Dacia was said to be diverting the overseas cable, in an attempt to deny the Germans access to it. Whether it was true or not, he didn’t know. But she and the French gunboat Surprise had brought the war home to him in an unexpected and unwelcome fashion.

England had been at war since August 1914. But Portugal and, by extension, Madeira had remained neutral in spite of a centuries’ old alliance with Britain. In spite, as well, of clashes with Germany in the Portuguese Colony of Angola, in Africa. Neutrality was one of the reasons he’d decided to live here. His grandmother had been a Quaker by conviction, and he himself held strong views about war and the waste it brought in its wake.

He turned to look upward. Madeira was volcanic, its climate temperate, and its soil fertile. A paradise of flowers, which his mother had loved. Clouds were beetling down the mountainside, concealing the heights, but on a promontory to the far side of the bay, he could still see the tower of his house. Three stories, like most in Funchal, and in his eyes far more handsome than the house where he’d grown up in Essex. It was his late grandfather Howard French, his mother’s father, who had introduced him to the wine business here. He’d come as a boy and stayed as a man. An exile, but a happy one.

A flash spun him around to stare at the harbor just as an explosion amidships sent a column of black smoke rising from Dacia. He was trying to think what could have happened aboard when another explosion rocked Surprise, and just above him, from the vantage point of the Grand Hotel grounds, someone was pointing and shouting.

“There—look, it’s a submarine!”

The voice carried clearly, this close to the water.

He didn’t lose time trying to see. He began to run, turning his back on the harbor as other explosions shook it. People were coming out of doorways, stopping in the streets to stare, calling to one another, unable to believe the evidence of their own eyes. He risked a glance over his shoulder and saw pillars of black smoke rising from Dacia, which had been hit again, and Surprise, and even Kangaroo, a third ship near them.

Someone in the water was screaming, and he could hear other cries as the heavy smell of burning timbers wafted inland on the onshore breeze, making him cough.

His offices were on the street just above the harbor. French, French & Traynor, Exporters, handled Madeira, the fortified wine that had made the island famous. And if this shelling of the ships in the harbor was a precursor to an invasion, there was work to be done in a hurry.

Sprinting across the street, where a few motorcars were halted, and several carriages and drays had pulled up, their occupants transfixed by the burning ships, he passed a wild-eyed horse rearing in its traces, the odor of smoke terrifying it.

In the doorway of the export house stood most of his employees, and those who couldn’t crowd into the narrow space were at the windows, their faces nearly as shocked as he felt. “

Mr. Traynor!” his foreman shouted in English. “What are they doing?”

“I don’t know.” He pushed his way inside and ordered his people to follow him.

His own office was in the front, overlooking the street. Behind the offices was the long space where the shop stood and the heavy drays were kept. Above and beyond that the cavernous rooms where great barrels of Madeira, coded by age and type, rested on their sides. And the high-ceilinged rooms with the kettles and vats and gauges that heated the wine, along with the smaller room where all the tools collected through centuries of winemaking were displayed. And at the very back, the long room where employees ate their meals, walls hand-painted by them down the generations and a source of much pride.

Wood, all of them, and they were all vulnerable to fire.

He stopped short, suddenly overwhelmed.

What to do? It would take days—and at best would be a very risky task—to move the wine, and as for the equipment, more days to disengage the pipes and lines that connected kettles to vats. An impossible task.

Even if he managed it, where could he take an entire building to safety?

Matthew Traynor stood there, feeling helpless.

Damn the Germans. And damn the war.

Someone was asking him if Portugal had been attacked—if it had fallen—if this was a prelude to invasion. Others were pleading with him to allow them to leave, to reach their families before it was too late.

Torn, feeling for the first time in his life that he didn’t know how to answer, he tried to collect his wits and act.

Just as he was about to speak, someone poked his head into the doorway behind Traynor and shouted, “The U-boat. She’s surfacing.”

He went to the door to see for himself, and there was the U-boat, in plain view, water still spilling across her hull, gun crews clambering out of the tower, racing across to the deck guns. The fort’s harbor batteries, such as they were, hadn’t opened up. By the time he looked back at the submarine, men had reached the guns, swung them around, and the shelling began.

Not of the harbor, but of Funchal itself.

He realized then that it was too late. “Go home. While you can,” he told the employees waiting anxiously behind him. “If this is an invasion, stay at home. Don’t do anything rash.”

“What about the wine?” his foreman asked. “What are we to do?”

Traynor took a deep breath. “We’ll just have to pray it survives. Now go, take the back streets. Hurry. No, not this way, out through the rear door.”

He could hear the shells exploding now, picture in his mind the damage being done, the cost in property and lives. People were screaming, running in every direction, panicked.

His secretary, a young Portuguese man he’d hired last year, was tugging at his sleeve. “Come, you must go too. Look how the shells are falling!”

And Matt Traynor let himself be led to his own rear door, his mind numbed by shock and a terrible anger he couldn’t control. Around him the building shuddered as a shell landed not more than three houses away.

Years of work. Years. And there was nothing he could do.

The shelling lasted all of two hours. The harbor guns, ineffectual at best, could do little to stop the ravaging of the capital. Runners had been sent to other towns on the island, asking if there had been landings of German troops, but no reports came back.

And then, as suddenly as it had begun, the shelling stopped. The submarine decks cleared, the hatch was closed, and she slipped quietly beneath the harbor waves, leaving behind two burning vessels, the Dacia already sunk, and countless lives lost. In the town itself, shells accounted for other deaths, falling masonry and timbers for more wounded and dying.

Matt Traynor, hurrying by horseback into Funchal again, saw to his utter amazement that the firm’s windows had been blown out, glazing everywhere, but the building was still standing and appeared to be sound. Still, there were the casks, the great barrels, and the shaking they must have sustained, seals broken, staves sprung. The new wine the vats held, which would either be all right or a total loss, nothing in between. Weeks would pass—months— before he learned what the cost of the shelling would actually be. And there were the glaziers, to replace the glass. They would be busy—he must contact them at once, today, to protect the building from looters come for the wine. Meanwhile, he must hire more night watchmen to stand guard until the House of French, French & Traynor was secure once more.

Dismounting, he stood there for a moment, staring around him at the destruction that had changed this familiar street into a nightmare, masonry everywhere, trees shattered, the pavement itself pocked and broken.

And then, taking a deep breath, he prepared himself for what he’d find inside.

Someone was running down the littered street, calling his name. It was a maid from the house of his fiancée. He felt his heart turn over. “What is it?” he shouted to Manuela and stood where he was, rooted to the spot.

“It’s the Senhorita,” she cried, and he wanted to cover his ears.

Please, God, nothing more. I can’t face anything more.

The bleeding of war-torn France, the endless lists of dead, wounded, and missing from Ypres and the Somme, the suffering in England—none of these had touched him. But this was different. This was his own safe, happy world.

“She’s dead,” Manuela was saying, tears streaming down her red face, and he could read her lips even though the words refused to register. “The beam in her bedroom—she was praying before the Madonna, and it—She’s dead.”

He heard himself say, “But—that’s not possible. Her house was out of range, it was safe.”

“It was the shaking, Senhor. It went on and on, and the plaster gave way..”

A week later, his affairs set in order, his fiancée and her mother buried in the hillside cemetery where scarlet bougainvillea spilled luxuriantly over the wall, a brightness that hurt the eyes, he set sail for Portugal. To enlist there.

 

My Review

proofofguiltA procedural with a historical setting sees Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard investigating a death in unusual circumstances and a disappearance. All is not as it seems as Inspector Rutledge investigates.

I’m a great fan of modern police procedurals, and this was a departure from my normal tastes. The book remains faithful to its historical setting and as such elements of the procedural content take much longer than they might now, there are no mobile phones or computers, but the author ensures that he keeps the reader’s attention focussed on the story and the investigation.

The mysterious nature and suspense is maintained throughout the story with little pieces being revealed to the reader paying close attention, but otherwise key parts of the plot come with a sudden bang.

I liked the characters; they seemed true to themselves and to the period setting, with minor characters such as servants playing a role to add authenticity to the story. I personally disliked the character of Hamish (I don’t want to say too much here as that will spoil an element of the story), because I found him annoying, however he was quite fundamental to telling some of the story and to helping Rutledge reach his investigative conclusions. By the end of the book he was tolerable, but I wish the author had found another way to tell this part of the story.

I found the constant driving of Rutledge in his “motorcar”, to be a bit wearing. It was a necessary evil due to period setting of the story, but again I think the author could have found another way to cover this without constant reference to the ‘car.

If you’re a fan of the police procedural, you might enjoy this story; I think you’re more likely to enjoy it, if you’re a fan of historical stories and like a good mystery thrown in for good measure.

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars – I Liked It

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2 Responses to Book Review: Proof of Guilt by Charles Todd

  1. cherylmash says:

    Thank you for your honest review. Great post.

  2. ghott says:

    Thanks! That was interesting!

Comments are closed.