Desperately waiting for the return of the white-hot PBS British import Downton Abbey? If so, Charles Todd’s historical mysteries could be the perfect tonic.
Set in a beautiful and brooding England during or shortly after World War I, the best-selling Ian Rutledge mysteries evoke the aura of that time and place.
Just one thing, half of “Charles Todd” is a she. Todd is the nom de plume of the mother-and-son writing team of Caroline Watjen of Greenville, and Charles Watjen who attended A. I. Du Pont High School and now lives in North Carolina.
Their series of crafty whodunits books feature Rutledge who fought in the trenches of France during the Great War. He returns home to pick up the threads of his job at Scotland Yard. His specialty is solving crimes in English villages in a country still coping with the horrors and carnage of war.
Rutledge is one of the lucky survivors, but he is fighting his own battles. Suffering from shell-shock or what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder, he feels the guilt of surviving when seemingly better men died. Rutledge carries with him a dark and frightening voice in the back of his mind, that of Hamish MacLeod. The British officer condemned the young Scottish corporal to a firing squad during the 1916 Somme offensive when he refused to lead his men into an inevitable slaughter.
Rutledge is petrified his superiors at the Yard will discover his secret, and take away the one thing that keeps him sane– his detective career. The inspector’s PTSD manifests itself in Hamish’s voice (he speaks with a Scottish accent) that articulates Rutledge’s worst fears and suspicions, personal and professional. “I’m a scar on your bluidy soul,” Hamish taunts him. But he also serves as an early warning device for Rutledge and acts as a sounding board for the inspector’s theories, even presenting ideas for the detective to consider.
The 15th book in the Rutledge series, “Proof of Guilt” debuted at No. 16 on the New York Times bestseller list earlier this year. It’s another gripping whodunit where the still haunted Rutledge is sent by Scotland Yard to investigate what looks like an accident. In his opinion, it’s murder. The only identifying item found on the body is a fine and expensive antique watch. With his usual thoroughness, Rutledge uncovers clues that lead him to a family of winemakers – who produce a very nice Madeira – and finds a twisted family relationship whose members spend time in both England and Portugal. And off we go.
Caroline Watjen is a former Associated Press reporter who spent plenty of time in the reference library researching stories. Looking back, she says it spurred her interest in writing historical fiction. Growing up in Greenville, Charles learned the rich history of Great Britain, including the legends of King Arthur and William Wallace, and is still a huge fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries.
The critically acclaimed books are a family affair. Caroline’s husband, John, a chemical engineer at DuPont for 33 years, is the proofreader. Their daughter Linda, a financial advisor, helps out with publicity and advising her mother on fashion for public events.
Masters of psychologically complex detective stories, Caroline and Charles work without an outline and start not knowing who will be murdered.
“We let the characters go, don’t tell them what to do,” Caroline explained. “They lead you into the next scene. We’re big movie buffs so that helps. The characters rebel sometimes. It’s a voyage of discovery for the readers and us. The trick is to beat them to the conclusion.”
Set in England in June, 1919, the first Rutledge novel, “Test of Wills” was submitted to St. Martin’s Press without an agent in 1996. Written in the fashion of the old fashioned British murder mystery, it’s the story of a war hero murdered on his estate in Warwickshire, shocking the countryside.
“When we started the book we weren’t thinking of it being published,” Caroline acknowledged. “Rutledge was a complex personality so we wondered whether we had the skill and experience to pull it off. So it was more a lack of confidence in ourselves. The story was always there.”
Caroline and Charles’ many trips to England gave them the opportunity to spend time in villages and the countryside, where there is such a different viewpoint from that of the large cities. Their travels are at the heart of the series.
“The villages each had a distinct personality and there is a certain ambience that is linked to the past,” Caroline explained. “Sometimes we have the idea for the mystery, sometimes not. We’ve developed an eye for spotting a particular setting. It’s all about what you feel and see. We’ll go for a week or so where we come across all these stories from staying at a B&B, visiting the local market, the pub, and especially talking with shopkeepers. Old photographs are wonderful, and we walk the grounds ourselves.
“When we went to a small airfield in Essex the locals did not appear to like Americans. We felt so much like strangers. We wondered what they were hiding. It was the germ for our book ‘The Confession.’”
The idea of joint authorship may seem tricky to some folks, but not this duo. They work by email, both working on each chapter. On visits back to Greenville, Charles further hashes out an intriguing plot.
“It really does flow seamlessly because we think so much alike,” explained Charles, a former corporate troubleshooter. “The characters in each novel evolve from the setting and the murder(s). Getting the tone of the first page is the hardest part. Once it’s written the rest seems to flow. Sometimes my mother will go off on a personal tangent that does eventually get me intrigued and something fresh turns up in the story. We call it insatiable curiosity.”
“We probably break all the rules by going with a brainstorming kind of thing,” Caroline added. “We don’t care much who writes what, as long as what’s written fits and works.”
What’s more intriguing than the collaboration is how the Rutledge novels are consistently ingenious and atmospheric. ”Hunting Shadows” will be released January 21. It starts with a society wedding at Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire that becomes a crime scene when a celebrated military man is murdered. Then another body is found. A witness describes the killer as literally a monster. But who believes that?
The partners also author a series on Bess Crawford, a nurse serving in France during World War I. “A Question of Honor” was tagged as a “vivid period mystery series” by the New York Times Book Review when released last fall. According to publisher William Morrow, the plan is to release a new Ian Rutledge novel and Bess Crawford novel each year.
For anyone who has fallen under the spell of Downton Abbey (season four premieres Jan. 5), Charles Todd mysteries could be essential reading. Brimming with wonderful characters and intriguing plots, readers feels transported back in time to the towns and countryside of 1920s England.
“Downton Abbey has certainly reignited interest in World War I,” noted Jennifer Hart, Associate Publisher and Group Marketing Director for William Morrow, an imprint of Harper-Collins Publishers.
“Novels like Charles Todd’s Bess Crawford and Ian Rutledge series bring the era’s mystery and drama to life and their sales have benefited from the renewed fascination with this time period.”
Terry Conway is a Delaware Arts & Culture writer. You can view more of his work online at www.terryconway.net and follow him on twitter @terryconway501.