” We looked at the wine, and not the laudanum. We looked for any connection with victims, and there was none. We looked for opportunity, and didn’t see how it could be accomplished. We told ourselves it was the darkness that mattered—we told ourselves it was the road—we believed it had to do with men who’d fought together. And in the end it was none of these things. It all came back to dying . . . (Ch.31, p.349)
The opening premise of A Fearsome Doubt is intriguing: Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard, returning from the war, is hounded by the widow whose husband he had incriminated and sent to the gallows. The man, named Ben Shadow, was found guilty of smothering old ladies to death. Bent on clearing her husband’s name and removing family’s stigmata, Nell Shaw presents him with what she says is evidence that must clear her husband.
But before he can review Shaw case, Rutledge is dispatched to Kent where former soldiers who lost a limb in the war are being killed, one by one, with overdoses of laudanum. Then, to complicate the matter, a German officer on a stolen passport whom Rutledge thought dead turns up in Kent. He makes a tangle of his life looking for a lost family heirloom since he was once taken captive in Kent. Guilty or not of the multiple murders, Rutledge makes the disturbing discovery that the attractive widow of his friend, Richard Mayhew, who was killed in the war, seems to be infatuated with this new man.
Yet he’d uncovered other possible motives now. It was Pandora’s box, an overturned case where everything that spilled out pointed accusing fingers at him for not seeing them before . . . (Ch.16, p.157)
The characters are very well-drawn, especially Ian Rutledge, who has been shell-shocked in the war and haunted by a man whom he forced to execute. Throughout the novel he faces the possibility that he may have sent an innocent man to his grave, before his stint in the war. Story-wise A Fearsome Doubt is lackluster, disjointed and constipated. The mystery solutions seem totally disconnected from the well-drawn characters and make little sense. Not only is the author stingy with information that there is no way the reader can figure out the culprit, the author also seems to have idea what to do with all the red herrings and unnecessary information. It’s a very slow read and the resolution is disappointing.
356 pp. Bantam. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]