Up Close: Charles Todd

Divided Loyalty in Fiction Only

By E. M. Powell

Any long running successful series is a major achievement, but it jolts into the remarkable category when it reaches its 22nd title. Such is the case with A DIVIDED LOYALTY, the latest in Charles Todd’s Inspector Ian Rutledge historical mystery series. Charles Todd is of course the pen name used by the dynamic mother-and-son writing team, Caroline Todd and Charles Todd.

In A DIVIDED LOYALTY, it’s 1921 and Scotland Yard detective Rutledge is assigned one of the most baffling investigations of his career. In the English village of Avebury, which is set inside a great prehistoric stone circle not far from Stonehenge, a young woman has been murdered next to a mysterious, hooded, figure-like stone. No one recognizes her. A colleague of Rutledge’s has investigated but has found no answers. It appears that her killer has simply vanished. Fresh from his conclusion of a case involving another apparently unknown woman, Rutledge is asked to look at the case by his superior. But he believes he’s being set up to fail—a fear that grows as his work brings him ever closer to the impossible answer.

Readers continue to express affection for the series’ central character, with comments like “Rutledge is one of the most fascinating characters in historical fiction” appearing in reviews. Rutledge’s continuing appeal shows no signs of abating and so I wondered why he connects with so many readers. The Todds’ response is candid. “We wish we knew!”

Caroline and Charles prepare for flight lessons in a WWI-era biplane.

They had, however, put a great deal of thought into bringing him to life. “When we first began to consider who our central character would be, we wanted three things. Foremost, a man who actually detected. Who had to face the challenge of finding a killer, alone, and with only the skills he possessed and the few forensic tools available. He must work for the Yard, because we wanted to move around England for the history and the atmosphere in various places. And he must be a veteran of the Great War. Rutledge walked onto the page and took over—and the man who finished A Test of Wills, the first in the series, was very different from the one we’d envisioned as we began the book.”

The mystery in A DIVIDED LOYALTY—a cold murder case with an unidentified victim and a cold trail with few clues to follow—keeps the reader hooked until the end. The Todds say that their sources for inspiration are everywhere. “In the war, in a scrap of history we come across while doing research, in a place we happen to visit. There’s one particular stone at Avebury, like a great hooded, figure looming over you as you look up at it. Benevolent in the sunlight, malevolent in the dark. Perfect place to discover a body. But what led the victim there? And why was a killer waiting? We were off and running!  But it’s the characters who really take over those threads of plotting and make them work.”

Caroline and Charles with fellow Sue Grafton Memorial Award nominees Lisa Black and Victoria Thompson at the 2019 Edgar Awards ceremony in New York City. Charles and Caroline were nominated for their 2018 Bess Crawford mystery, A Forgotten Place.

Plotting a satisfying mystery has particular challenges. It’s probably a fair assumption that plotting with a co-writer is even more complex. Caroline recalls what things were like in the early days of their writing partnership. “I drove Charles crazy when we first started out, because I hate outlines and he was great with them. It was the only demand I made. He soon got the hang of it, though.”

“I thought she was crazy,” Charles says. “But then I realized that not knowing all the answers frees you to think about what could happen, to keep your options open and discover things in your characters that unexpectedly shift the story line.”

Caroline explains further. “We follow our own clues, see where they go, how the characters develop within the setting, what secrets they possess, and near the end, how all of this begins to coalesce into one final answer. It’s really exciting, because you and the reader are journeying together.”

“We talk over every scene,” Charles adds. “Work it out on the phone or online, then begin to frame it out together. We argue, discuss, and go for what works best for Rutledge and that particular book. So far it has been the right process for us.”

Caroline and Charles at Bouchercon 2017 in Toronto with a 25-year veteran of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The process indeed sounds like a well-oiled machine. But it’s wonderful to hear that their writing partnership of 25 years is still enjoyable and exciting. “The great thing is, we continually surprise each other with some insight here or understanding there, or even a new take on a character. We’re two different people, we’ve lived different lives, and that always opens the door to fresh ideas. Seeing that each book is better than the last is the most important part of our partnership, and we work hard at it.”

Much of the hard work involves the historical setting of the novels, which works so well and is something that readers love. The Todds recall that there was some opposition to the setting in the early days.

The faces behind the mother-son writing duo known as Charles Todd: Caroline and Charles Todd.

“Everyone laughed about using the Great War—nobody else was doing it. But it had several things we were after. The political impact it had on the entire century as a backdrop, a time when forensics was in its infancy, so that it was the detective who solved the crime, not the labs, and a timeframe that was modern enough for readers to feel at home there. It also allowed us to explore real shell shock—PTSD—as part of Rutledge’s background. While as history buffs we both  had periods we loved, almost from the start we knew we’d found what we wanted.”

As with all historical fiction, there’s a great deal of research involved, something that the Todds relish. “Historians continue to write about that period, but we searched for firsthand accounts, books published at the time, anything about the countryside—and shelves of books about every aspect of the war. We walked in trenches, visited cemeteries, clambered over tanks, handled weapons, went up in a WW1 type aircraft—whatever we could find or do that helped us see the time as accurately as possible. We wanted it to be right.”

And right it certainly is. Meanwhile, Ian Rutledge marches on. “We’ve just turned in the next Rutledge. The First Body is the working title, and it will come out in 2021.  This time we explore what happens to an inquiry when everything is turned upside down, and that first body might actually be the last. The next Bess Crawford [their other series] is half written, and it takes her to Ireland and a wedding in the midst of the Troubles. There’s a real possibility that she will be shot before she can learn what happened to an Irish soldier in the British Army who is considered a traitor by his own people.”

So lots of great historical storytelling to come from the Todds—but they’re not neglecting the present day either: “July will find us in New York for ThrillerFest!”

 

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