In 1914, Rutledge is a Scotland Yard detective courting a privileged young lady named Jean Gordon. Like other women of her class, Jean is concerned mostly with clothes, socializing, going to balls, and maintaining her position in society. Jean's family isn't happy with Rutledge's job, and her father, Major George Gordon, gently suggests that Rutledge take up some other profession - like architecture. (This made me laugh. As far as I know, even in 1914, a person couldn't wake up one morning and decide "Today I'll be an architect."). Rutledge's sister and friends think Jean is the wrong woman for him, but hold their tongues once he gets officially engaged.
As the story opens, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated in Sarajevo, and it's clear that Europe is on the brink of war - a conflict that will inevitably envelop England. As hostilities escalate, British men start to enlist in droves, inspired by patriotism and the belief that England will emerge victorious in a few short months.
As some of his acquaintances march off to war Rutledge is investigating a string of homicides in towns across England. In each case, a man is found dead with a large amount of laudanum in his system. Rutledge is convinced the deaths are connected, perpetrated by a single killer. However Rutledge's boss, Superintendent Bowles, doesn't want to hear it. Bowles' sole concern is making quick arrests, and he wants a local suspect nabbed for each murder, even if the evidence is sparse or non-existent. Bowles comes across as a jealous, unimaginative supervisor who looks for any excuse to chastise Rutledge, who's wealthier and better educated.
Rutledge more or less ignores Bowles instructions and pursues 'the real killer' across Britain. Rutledge essentially has to work alone, but gets secret tips from another detective, Chief Inspector Cummins, who doesn't think much of Bowles. (One has to wonder how a lackluster detective like Bowles becomes a Superintendent at Scotland Yard. LOL)
Rutledge's investigations take him away from London for days at a time, which distresses Jean - who wants her fiancé to escort her to dinners and parties. Jean also gets caught up in the excitement of war talk, especially when her friends discuss sending off their brothers, fathers, friends, and beaus. As a consequence, Jean pushes Rutledge to join the military.....apparently thinking he'll be gone for a couple of months and return covered in glory. (Jean and her friends seem to be very naive, not realizing that soldiers - even English ones - die in war.)
Rutledge resists Jean's entreaties to enlist, feeling that his detective job is important, and that he does it well. And Rutledge does demonstrate intuition and smarts as he pursues the killer - a wily fellow who's been planning his crimes for a long time.
Though Rutledge dedicates most of his time to his job and his fianceé, he sometimes dines with his sister Francis - a parentless 20-year-old who's entering society, or visits with Melinda Crawford - a kind of surrogate mother who provides advice and support. Francis and Melinda are among the more savvy women in the book.....much more sensible than shallow Jean.
Through most of the book Rutledge drives back and forth across England in pursuit of the killer, whom he eventually confronts. In the end, Rutledge also enlists in the army, with consequences that play out in the rest of the series.
I liked the book, which has a suspenseful plot and engaging characters. The story also has an interesting historical perspective on an 'upper-class' segment of society that hopes for peace.....but must prepare for war.
I'd recommend the book to mystery readers, especially fans of non-traditional cozies.