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Interview: January 12, 2015

In A FINE SUMMER’S DAY, the latest entry in their Ian Rutledge series, the New York Times bestselling mother-son writing team known as Charles Todd takes readers into the Scotland Yard detective’s past --- to his perplexing final case before the outbreak of World War I. It’s a can’t-miss for fans of the series, set in a more carefree time when Rutledge’s first love was still alive. In this interview with’s Ray Palen, the Todds discuss why A FINE SUMMER’S DAY isn’t quite a prequel --- although it's still a crucial chapter in Rutledge’s personal history. The pair also opens up about the challenges of writing as a team and how they’ve managed to make the most of their collaboration. The Ian Rutledge series is a personal favorite, as he is a character in which readers can instantly invest themselves. What made you choose to write a prequel to these books?

Charles Todd: A FINE SUMMER’S DAY really isn’t a prequel --- at least it isn’t intended to be. We’ve got to know Rutledge so well in the years immediately following the war, and we’ve written short stories about him in the trenches during the fighting, and we wondered if we could go back and take a long look at the man before the war began in earnest. And it was a surprising and rewarding journey for us.

BRC: Whenever two writers collaborate, there are challenges dealing with their different perspectives that require much compromise. What unique challenges arise with a mother-and-son writing team?

CT: For starters, we had time to grow on our own before we began to collaborate, and so we could work together as adults. Then we realized that what mattered wasn’t our individual viewpoints --- it was what was best for the characters. Once we understood this, it solved all the challenges. Amazing how those people on the page take on such rich identities that they matter more than their creators!

BRC: The voice of Hamish MacLeod is a recurring character in the series. Why does a strong-willed man like Ian Rutledge need him? Is it survivor’s guilt for the deaths of so many young men during the war, or simply an embodiment of his own sense of responsibility for having to carry out a sentence of death for a solider he respected?

CT: So many men come home from war feeling survivor’s guilt. Why did I live when so many died? Why was my best friend blown apart, and I wasn’t? Why me? It can change their lives for better or for worse. Some learn to cope with it, but it is a battle that requires even more courage than they displayed on the battlefield. That is the test Rutledge faces every day. And because he’s strong-willed, he’ll have a better chance than most. But it’s never a certainty… 

BRC: Many crime series rely heavily on blood and gore or sensational events to drive the plot. Did you deliberately choose to make solving the crime more important than how the victim died? Was that more in keeping with the period or your own interest in the WHY rather than the HOW of murder?

CT: We love thrillers, but we also enjoy the challenge of answering WHY a person had to die, what drove an ordinary individual --- not a drug lord or a spy or a terrorist, but an ordinary human being --- to decide that murder was the only way out. There are only so many ways to kill, but there are hundreds of reasons why, and that gives us a lot of material to work with. And, of course, it suits the period perfectly.

BRC: What is the reason for setting the series in the World War I era? Is there a personal family history connected to that war? Or a historical reason that made you want to look back in time?

CT: The Great War was an important part of the 20th century and set in motion many issues that are still haunting us today politically. It’s also close enough to the modern era that people feel comfortable with the setting. But the clincher was the fact that forensics were in their infancy. Which means Rutledge has to do his own thinking and make his own decisions about the guilt or innocence of a suspect. A writer’s heaven, having a character like that! We did have relatives in the war, which also makes it quite personal.

BRC: Now that we've read this novel about his beginnings, what do you think is the major difference in Rutledge pre-and post-World War I?

CT: For us, it’s probably the enthusiasm that was true of so many men of his age in 1914, the youth and hope and joy in life that was lost in the trenches. This was what we wanted to capture, a generation that was lost, both in this book and in the series that began with A TEST OF WILLS. But revisiting Rutledge before the war was a moving experience for both of us.

BRC: Why do you set your other series, featuring battlefield nurse Bess Crawford, in the same era?

CT: It suited Bess, the daughter of a military family. And we wanted to show how women also served their country during the war. The women who came out of strict Victorian families and yet had the courage to nurse the wounded in England and in France were exceptional --- and would have made good sleuths, too.

BRC: What is your process for researching this era in European history? Do you ever use real events as inspiration for your various plots?

CT: We use contemporary accounts usually, newspapers, memoirs, letters, books, even oral accounts from families to create a picture of the times. Material published in later years often contains information that wasn’t known at the time, so we have to be careful there. Plots mostly come from the background and setting as we explore a village. Our view is that if we find one good idea in any source, it has paid for itself. Then we tweak it to give it life.

BRC: Besides A FINE SUMMER’S DAY, you’ve written short stories when Hamish was still alive and also a short story about Bess Crawford when she was younger. Do you find that these are helpful to you and the reader to see into the history of the character?

CT: Absolutely. It gives us a different view of a character’s life and experiences, and we hope it does the same for the reader. A character has so many dimensions, and a place or an event or a bit of history can bring that out so well, whether in a book or a short story.