The Mother And Son Writing Team Behind Charles Todd Talks About “A Matter of Justice”

Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge books have been called by the Washington Post “one of the best historical series being written today”  — a sentiment that their many fans (myself included) will surely echo. Over the course of eleven critically acclaimed and bestselling novels, Charles Todd — a mother and son writing team — has explored the world of post-World War I England through the eyes of Scotland Yard detective Rutledge, a man personally haunted by his own actions during that war, specifically the battlefield execution of young Scotsman Hamish MacLeod for refusing a direct order. 

9780061233593The Great War continues to cast a long shadow over the latest novel in the series, A Matter of Justice; Rutledge first shows up here for the wedding of an old friend who’d been injured in combat, and the detective worries about whether the young wife will be “up to the task of caring for a man who’d lost his leg in France, and with it, for many months, his self-worth.”

But the legacy of another, earlier war also takes center stage. A Matter of Justice opens with reflections on events during the Boer War: a military train carrying money across the South African countryside; an attack by the Boers that decimates the British troops guarding it; and decisions on the part of two of those British soldiers — Harold Quarles and Davis Penrith — to put personal financial gain ahead of any sense of morality or loyalty to their fellow men. Twenty prosperous years later, the secrets they carry with them not only continue to impact each man but may well have also cost one of them his life. When Quarles is found brutally murdered, Rutledge is called in to investigate and to sift through the man’s present and past to discover the truth.

Charles Todd — both the mother, Caroline, and the son, Charles — will be in North Carolina on Wednesday, February 25, to discuss A Matter of Justice; they’ll visit McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village at 2:30 p.m. that afternoon, and then Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books later that evening, at 7:30 p.m.  In advance of those talks, both mother and son spoke with me via email about the new book, the series overall, and the benefits of collaborative writing.

Art Taylor: Ian Rutledge has, of course, been haunted by his actions during the War — particularly the killing of Hamish MacLeod. A Matter of Justice explores, in large part, the legacy of decisions made by Harold Quarles and his partner in an earlier war — decisions which have followed him too and, it’s suggested from the opening pages, may have led to his murder. Had you planned from the beginning for a comparison/contrast of some kind between Rutledge’s situation and Quarles’ — wars, decisions, consequences?

Caroline Todd: Great question! Yes, we’d been thinking about that since I went to South Africa and looked at some of the Boer War sites. Here, it was intended to bring home the fact that terrible things happen in wartime, and different people handle them differently. Rutledge’s shooting of Hamish also went unreported — when the salient blew up, witnesses died too. But his conscience couldn’t deal with the magnitude of what he’d done. Quarles — and to some extent, his partner — benefited from their deeds,and so it must have been easier for them to turn their backs on what had been done. 

Charles Todd: Quarles would have done the same thing in Yorkshire, if the opportunity had arisen. He was that kind of man, and thus he was that kind of soldier. And yet if you notice, there is something about him that intrigues Rutledge, because he isn’t all bad. I think Rutledge was measuring himself by Quarles, although it didn’t offer him solace.

While a sense of history — those many glimpses into this era — form a core aspect of the Ian Rutledge books, there’s also a timeless quality to the issues encountered: morality, integrity, the “justice” of the title here. And your readers are, obviously, encountering these books against a backdrop of today’s ongoing wars and crises. How do you hope that your books speak to readers about today’s news and issues? And do you think about such potential parallels when you’re writing?

Caroline: We don’t intentionally draw parallels, because mysteries shouldn’t preach, but they are there to be identified nevertheless, because the history itself is there. (It’s better to be objective and let readers make their own determinations.) Rutledge is a man of his times, and so we must reflect that time accurately. In doing so, we must make certain that each and every character reflects that same time frame. So what we do is let them write the book, in a sense. What is right for them, what makes them live, is also what makes the book work in every sense.

Charles: Both Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw, in their books on the Twentieth Century, called WWI the pivotal event of that century. And so much that went wrong there, choices made, lines drawn, came back to haunt us, and haunt us still. And that’s one of the reasons, being history buffs ourselves, that we felt this was the perfect time and place to set a story. The other reason was the lack of forensics as we’ve come to know them. Rutledge must solve murders relying on his own skills, and knowing that the man or woman he arrests will be hanged. And if he’s wrong, it may be too late to right it.

What is the most interesting fact about this era that you’ve learned from your research for these books? And separate from facts or research for the books, how has the actual writing of the novels helped you better to understand England in those years?

Charles: We’ve had to read a great deal, mostly first hand accounts or what was actually known at the time, along with whatever research has been done since then. Also sometimes that new material offers an interesting contrast to what is known in the period, even if we can’t address it outright. But the second part of researching is walking the ground in a village that will become the setting, and getting to know the influences there so that you can capture the mood and the feelings of people. Not the modern inhabitants, but those who might have lived there in our time frame. I think out of all I’ve read and learned, the most surprising part has been just what you say, that a hundred years later, there is something about the human experience that is real, no matter what period you’re exploring.  

Caroline: The key, really, is to steep yourself in the period, so that what you write comes naturally. We don’t pause to inject information, we try to work it into the story itself. Think of yourself coming into a new town and getting to know it as you spend a few days there. What the stores are like, what the population is like, what the history has been — whether revolutionary war, war between the states, or the Great Depression, it doesn’t matter. Time leaves its mark. And when you drive away, you carry some of that town with you. Rutledge does as well, although we don’t dwell on that in the next book. It detracts from the new story. But he isn’t coming away scot-free. Someone once said that our scars are from what we’ve passed through to reach today. And in a way, this is true of Rutledge after each case. After all, we write HIS history, with each story. What have we learned from all our research, both in towns and in books? That the suffering didn’t stop on Nov. 11, at 11 a.m., when the fighting stopped.  A generation had been changed, and people had to adjust to that because they had no choice. The fact that Britain survived to fight another war over the same territory in 1939 is amazing. It points to something in the human spirit, doesn’t it, that makes us survivors? But at the time we are passing through this crucible of fire, we don’t have that hope to guide us. We see it only in hindsight. Perhaps at 50, Rutledge will look back at his own nightmares and finally see them for what they are.  

You’ve gotten questions about Hamish many times before, I know, but…. What was the genesis of this character? Was it literary in nature? One might think, for example, of precursors like the ghost of Hamlet’s father or of any number of Poe stories that feature some embodiment of guilt (hearts, cats, etc.). Or was the idea inspired by something psychological or historical? …by which I mean, have you discovered evidence of soldiers haunted specifically in this way?

Caroline: We’ve talked to many men who have served in the Armed Forces, and some of them were suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. Others who were never diagnosed as such still had nightmares they never talked about. There was one who could snap into the past in an instant, and be there for several minutes, directing traffic at the crossroads where he was severely wounded. And then he’d snap back into the present and go on if nothing happened. PTSD manifests itself in any number of ways, but in Rutledge’s case, the auditory “haunting” suited the story best. Hamish is dead, and Rutledge can’t face what he did to the young Scots corporal — or to any of the young Scots soldiers he sent to their deaths. Knowingly sent, because he was experienced enough to understand hopeless, militarily unnecessary actions that went nowhere. And if Hamish is talking to him — even in his head — he can avoid the truth of his death. Much as he dreads the voice, the voice is also an avoidance of truth. As for Poe and Hamlet’s father, Poe often used the concept of guilt — some thing or event driving a man mad because he himself knows the truth, and taking on a vivid haunting to bring it out into the open. And Hamlet is in a way part of the same theme — Hamlet needs the assurance of his father that what he suspects did happen. And so the ghost comes to meet that need. Rutledge is probably their heir in his own fashion.

Charles: We can’t use most of the material we learn from vets. It would be too horrific. But what we try to do is create a sense of what PTSD is, drawing on the overall suffering. And Hamish was necessary in a literary sense as well. If Rutledge had come home from France with a missing limb or eye or badly burned, he couldn’t return to the Yard, and so if he is to go forward, his wound must be severe to the point of crippling — but not visible. So many vets — and their families — have told us we’ve got it right, and that I think is what matters most. If you are going to use PTSD, you have to be true to it, for the sake of those who don’t or can’t talk about their suffering. As for Poe and Hamlet’s ghost, the parallel is not direct, but as Caroline says, it is isn’t off base either. 

Finally: another question about craft. From previous interviews, the two of you seem very much in sync, almost seamlessly so, as coauthors of these books, but surely any creative process encounters an occasional false start or brief wandering off down the wrong path. How do the two of you handle any differences of opinion about a plot choice or the direction of a scene or a character? Or do two perspectives simply make it easier to talk out and work through creative choices? 

Caroline: In the beginning, we didn’t really know how to collaborate. Neither of us are very good at outlining, and when we tried, the story sounded dead, even boring. “He does this, and then she says that, and then they go here….”  We’d lose interest quickly. So we worked out our own system, which was to talk about the scene and understand where it was to go — much as we do with the history! — and then put the characters into play and listen to what happens to them. And in talking it out, we sometimes catch the false starts, sometimes have to learn from experience. But what evolves is seamless because we didn’t divide, we coalesced, brought together the workings of two minds and two viewpoints to make a whole.

Charles: We argue. We sometimes get tired and cranky and don’t like what we have before us. That’s why we never work in the same room. Even in the same house, we use our computers on different floors, so that the system doesn’t break down. But as a rule, once the characters begin to take over, it’s hard to keep up with them. We see so much through their eyes, and even if we rip out a paragraph, a page, or a chapter, it’s because somewhere we hadn’t listened to what we’re being told. That’s why it’s seamless. We have already ironed out the problems.

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