The Black Ascot is a new novel from author Charles Todd, which is the pen name of American authors, Caroline Todd and Charles Todd, a mother-and-son writing team. The Black Ascot is the twenty-first entry in the “Inspector Ian Rutledge Mysteries.” The series is set in and around England, post World War I, and focuses on Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard, who is a veteran of the “Great War.”
Rutledge is trying to pick up the pieces of his career with the Yard, but he is hiding a secret. Rutledge suffers from shell shock, and he lives with a voice in his head, that of Corporal Hamish MacLeod, a young Scots soldier Rutledge killed on a WWI battlefield for refusing an order. In The Black Ascot, Rutledge seeks a killer who has eluded the Yard for years.
The Black Ascot opens at the Ascot Racecourse, England, June 1910. This is the time of “The Royal Ascot,” the centerpiece of the racecourse's yearly schedule. This year, the race is called “the Black Ascot” in remembrance of the recent passing of King Edward VII in May 1910. However, the Black Ascot will be remembered for a murder that occurred after the race.
Blanche Richmond Thorne Fletcher-Munro is killed and her husband, Harold Fletcher-Munro, is grievously injured in a terrible automobile accident after leaving the Black Ascot. Police investigators discover that someone tampered with the Fletcher-Munros' car, and the blame falls squarely on Alan Barrington. Barrington was the best friend of Blanche's late first husband, Mark Howard Edward Thorne. Barrington believes that Harold Fletcher-Munro financially ruined Mark Thorne, which led to Thorne apparently killing himself. So was Barrington seeking to kill Harold in an act of revenge, but inadvertently killed Blanche instead? Feeling the shadow of the gallows, Alan disappears and evades capture for a decade. Some believe that he is dead.
The story moves to the present day, January 1921. Inspector Ian Rutledge helps a struggling ex-convict reunite with his spouse. Grateful, the convict gives Rutledge an astonishing, but seemingly implausible tip; he says that a friend of his has seen Alan Barrington! Rutledge brings this information to his immediate superior, Chief Inspector Jameson, who promptly puts Rutledge in sole charge of a quiet reopening of the search for Barrington. After struggling to make headway, Rutledge decides that he must get to known each of the major players in this case: Barrington, the Fletcher-Munros, and Mark Thorne, much better. He must delve into the past and into their past connections. This case, however, will test Rutledge's sanity, threaten his career, and put his life at grave risk.
THE LOWDOWN: First, I must say that I am totally crazy about the idea of a mother and her son writing novels, especially mystery novels, together. How effing cool is that?!
The Black Ascot is somewhat like a “cozy mystery,” a sub-genre of crime fiction associated with the so-called “Golden Age of Detective Fiction” (1920s and 30s). The Black Ascot is set in the 1920s (1921) and much of the novel's action takes place in the small, socially intimate communities that are the settings of many cozy mysteries. In fact, Charles Todd's beautiful and richly evocative prose will summon in the reader's imagination numerous small town and villages in glorious detail. The farm near where the Fletcher-Munro wreck occurs is a place I would like to visit for a summer.
That said, Inspector Ian Rutledge is not really a cozy mystery detective. He is a constant bloodhound, a relentless law dog in the eight-decade-plus tradition of hard-boiled detectives. We can start with Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, and move to modern “private dicks” like Robert Towne's Jake Gittes, Walter Mosley's “Eazy” Rawlins, and Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski.
True, Ian Rutledge is not a private detective; he is an employee of the Metropolitan Police Service (also known as Scotland Yard). Like the above-mentioned American private detective, Inspector Ian Rutledge is a big swinging dick with a fidelity to his vocation even in the face of an existential crisis.
We are always told about how important well-developed characters are to “great writing.” Charles Todd makes Rutledge's career his character, and the harder Todd depicts Rutledge working a case, the more alluring a character Rutledge is. The thrill in reading The Black Ascot is the story, and the story is Rutledge's investigation of the case of the missing Alan Barrington. Charles Todd is so good at telling the story of Rutledge's investigation that I would follow Rutledge even if his case was finding clean socks. The Black Ascot is a mystery lover's delight.
I READS YOU RECOMMENDS: Fans of Scotland Yard detectives and of British-set mystery fiction must arrive in time for the beginning of The Black Ascot.