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A well written novel can introduce us to places we have never been and times we’ve never known.  A good author with respect for authenticity can teach us things we have no other way of learning.  Yes, history books can tell us what happened when, but it takes more much more research to learn what life was like then.  A novelist who does his homework can allow us to escape into a different era as well as to a different place.

Charles Todd is an American mother and son team, Caroline and Charles Todd, who write the Ian Rutledge mystery series set after WWI.  They have gone further back into the Great War to tell the story of Bess Crawford, an English nurse who seems to be drawn into murder mysteries every time she is given leave to return to England from the battlefield hospitals in France.

Bess is the daughter of an Army Colonel who retired in 1910 but still occasionally performs mysterious work for War Office.  Richard Crawford, aka Colonel Sahib, (to his wife and daughter) traveled the globe in England’s service with his wife and daughter in tow, including time in India.  Simon Brandon, also retired from the Army, was the Colonel’s regimental sergeant major. He now lives in a cottage near the Crawford estate in Somerset and seems to always be on hand when Bess gets herself into deep water.  Which she does frequently.

A Duty to the Dead

In A Duty to the Dead, Bess Crawford, while on convalescent leave after surviving a serious arm fracture during the sinking of the Britannic, decides to finally deliver a dying man’s last words.  

She had nursed Arthur Graham in France and was at his side when he succumbed to an infection and died.  She had feelings for this soldier that weren’t quite love, but could possibly have become such in time. His final words were a request for her to deliver a message to his brother in Kent.  She had failed to do so while on an earlier, shorter leave, and determined to do it during this visit home.
When Bess arrives at the Graham house in Kent, Jonathan Graham listens to his brother’s last wishes with surprising indifference. Neither his mother nor his brother Timothy seems to think it has any significance. Unsettled by this, Bess is about to take her leave when sudden tragedy envelops her. She quickly discovers that fulfilling this duty to the dead has thrust her into a maelstrom of intrigue and murder that will endanger her own life and test her courage as not even war has.  Author's Website
I enjoyed this first novel of the series. The mystery worked fairly well and made sense.  The countryside of Kent in winter was described well enough to make me wish for a hot cup of tea. The early chapter on the sinking of the Britannic was well done and historically accurate, matching up very well with a first person account that I had read earlier.


An Impartial Witness

An Impartial Witness is a very different book from A Duty to the Dead.  In the first novel, Bess becomes involved with intrigue and murder because of a commitment she made to a dying man.  For the most part, everything follows from that basic premise.  It is not terribly difficult to suspend one’s sense of disbelief.  But within An Impartial Witness, there were simply too many convenient coincidences.

The novel opens as Bess Crawford is accompanying wounded soldiers home from France.  One of them wears on his shirt a photograph of his wife for whom he is fighting to survive his wounds.  After delivering the wounded safely, Bess takes a train to London, where at the station, she sees the woman from that photograph giving a very emotional farewell to a man in military uniform.  Unlikely coincidence, perhaps, but one that in wartime, could happen.

But in another coincidence:

Back in France, Bess discovers an old newspaper with a drawing of the woman’s face on the front page. Accompanying the drawing is a plea from Scotland Yard looking for information from anyone who has seen her. The woman was murdered-the very day Bess saw her at the terminal.

Given leave to report her sighting to Scotland Yard, Bess returns to London.  And more coincidences.

Her flatmate invites her to a week-end house party that just happens to be held by the sister and brother-in-law of the dead soldier that Bess tended, who clearly don’t mind extra week-end guests.  

Bess’s mother just happens to know someone who knows someone else who knows someone who has a sister in Little Sefton who welcomes Bess into her home like a long lost relative. This allows Bess to meet the man who will eventually be charged in the death of the woman from the train station.

Too many of the situations felt too contrived.  This is a nurse during World War I who unaccompanied, demands and receives access to the office of an Inspector at Scotland Yard late in the day.  Really?

It was a disappointment after reading the first Bess Crawford novel and made me wonder if something had not gone askew in the writing partnership.  An Impartial Witness felt disjointed and contrived, as if the two authors had all of these good ideas for scenes and forced them into the novel, whether or not they were needed.


A Bitter Truth

I read the third book because Amazon offered it for $1.99 on May 8, and I had pre-ordered it.  I think A Bitter Truth held together better than An Impartial Witness.
When battlefield nurse Bess Crawford returns from France for a well-earned Christmas leave, she finds a bruised and shivering woman huddled in the doorway of her London residence. The woman has nowhere to turn, and, propelled by a firm sense of duty, Bess takes her in. Once inside Bess’s flat the woman reveals that a quarrel with her husband erupted into violence, yet she wants to go home—if Bess will come with her to Sussex. Realizing that the woman is suffering from a concussion, Bess gives up a few precious days of leave to travel with her. But she soon discovers that this is a good deed with unforeseeable consequences.

What Bess finds at Vixen Hill is a house of mourning. The woman’s family has gathered for a memorial service for the elder son who has died of war wounds. Her husband, home on compassionate leave, is tense, tormented by jealousy and his own guilty conscience. Then, when a troubled house guest is found dead, Bess herself becomes a prime suspect in the case. This murder will lead her to a dangerous quest in war-torn France, an unexpected ally, and a startling revelation that puts her in jeopardy before a vicious killer can be exposed.  Author's Website

This story was much easier to believe because, once you get past her going to Sussex instead of home to her own family at Christmas, events proceed logically and believably.  At least they appear to.  There is a good description of the area in Sussex.  And when the action moves to France it gets even better. A new, and one hopes recurring, character is introduced.

Although the mystery is fairly intriguing, and the journey to its solution interesting, I think it would have been better if the murder had somehow been connected to it.


An Unmarked Grave

There is a new Bess Crawford novel coming out on June 5th.

World War I nurse and amateur sleuth Bess Crawford matches wits with a devious killer in this exciting and suspenseful adventure from New York Times bestselling author Charles Todd

In the spring of 1918, the Spanish flu epidemic spreads, killing millions of soldiers and civilians across the globe. Overwhelmed by the constant flow of wounded soldiers coming from the French front, battlefield nurse Bess Crawford must now contend with hundreds of influenza patients as well.

However, war and disease are not the only killers to strike. Bess discovers, concealed among the dead waiting for burial, the body of an officer who has been murdered. Though she is devoted to all her patients, this soldier's death touches her deeply. Not only did the man serve in her father's former regiment, he was also a family friend.

Before she can report the terrible news, Bess falls ill, the latest victim of the flu. By the time she recovers, the murdered officer has been buried, and the only other person who saw the body has hanged himself. Or did he?

Working her father's connections in the military, Bess begins to piece together what little evidence she can find to unmask the elusive killer and see justice served. But she must be as vigilant as she is tenacious. With a determined killer on her heels, each move Bess makes could be her last.

I don't think I will rush out to get this latest Bess Crawford mystery, but I will probably read it eventually.  The mysteries aren't really bad, I just don't find them very appealing.  My thirst for a feel of what life was like for women in England between 1910 and 1930 is barely touched with this work.  Yes, the sinking of the Britannic was historically accurate, as are some of the scenes in France.  But I find difficulty in accepting the ability of a woman of middle class upbringing to be driving alone all over England during wartime with rationing, and her confrontational manner with others.  Showing up at someone's doorstep, uninvited, with all types of questions doesn't seem to fit into what I know of women in this era.

While I recognize that some literary license is needed to allow a nurse to become a sleuth, I think I would rather read about a professional sleuth if the license is to be so broadly applied.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Power is out up here, so this is being posted from (17+ / 0-)

    my iPad.  Hope it is back on later this afternoon.

    "I cannot live without books" -- Thomas Jefferson, 1815

    by Susan Grigsby on Mon May 14, 2012 at 03:23:08 PM PDT

  •  My library has (10+ / 0-)

    a waiting list for the new Bess book, and I'm No. 1!! So I'm not going to read your excerpted review here, thankyouverymuch, as I'd rather wait and read it for myself.

    But this series, and the other series with Inspector Rutledge, presents a poignant picture of England in World War One and immediately thereafter.

    We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time. --T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets / Little Gidding

    by Mnemosyne on Mon May 14, 2012 at 05:10:55 PM PDT

  •  The Inspector Rutledge series has been (9+ / 0-)

    a favorite of mine since its beginning. Rutledge has a companion one won't soon forget, and the relationship is "fleshed" out as the books continue.

    The Todds also add little touches of authenticity, such as the way people of various classes treat Rutledge, a policeman who is not an aristocrat.

    Have you read any of the Maisie Dobbs books by Jacqueline Winspear? I wondered how they compared in your opinion. I've read only the first one and thought it was competent, but others have said the later books got better.

  •  Hey Susan (8+ / 0-)

    Awfully glad to see you back here, although I enjoyed the diaries by those who stepped up to the plate for you.  

    I have not read the Bess novels, although I have read the Rutledge books, almost all of them, and suspect, since they were the first series, that they are the better for it.  

    I am trying to keep up with some of bookgirl's suggestions for Contemporary Literary Fiction, so have not been reading too many mysteries.  Have just started A Cursed Inheritance by Kate Ellis, a so-so mystery set in a small/medium town, Tradmouth, in Devon.  The
    DI is a Black transplant from London and there is a corollary mystery that took place in Virginia in 1605 that will be tied into the  current one.  So far, a bit of a yawn for me, but it came recommended highly, so will keep on it for awhile.  

    Also, tried the new Elizabeth George and found it terribly turgid, so tossed it back to the library.

    Oh, also forgot that I just read The House at Sea's End (Griffiths), about a group of men patrolling and protecting the seacoast in the Norwich area during WWII, one of whom is responsible for murdering a group of German sailors whose bones were hidden in a cleft which has been washed away by the rising sea levels.  Forensic archaeology with an interesting set of awkward characters, with a bit of a stretch for the ending.  I liked the characters so much, however, that I would read another by the author.

    Hope someone mentions a tantalizing mystery read tonight, for clearly I have had far too many reservations about my recent reads.  Come on, someone suggest a mystery that I will stay up late at night to finish.

    Just waitin' around for the new Amy Winehouse album

    by jarbyus on Mon May 14, 2012 at 06:21:50 PM PDT

  •  hi...sorry to be late... (7+ / 0-)

    Hubby and I left the cave to see grandbabies and then ate out with a gift card.

    We all see different things in mysteries and characters which is fine.  I also understand that some books in a series are weaker than others.

    I just fell in love with Bess and her independent spirit.

    I guess I allowed for various shortcomings just to see Bess at work.  I don't seem to have many mystery heroines besides Bess and Maisie Dobbs.  I did like Mrs. Polifax and I used to like VI and Kinsey.

    I wonder if it is harder to write a female investigator?

    Thank you for an interesting diary and for making me think.

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Mon May 14, 2012 at 07:32:13 PM PDT

    •  Sorry to be late in my response, power went out (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Limelite, cfk, Caddis Fly, Gorette

      again and then I fell asleep.

      I liked Bess in the first book, but the coincidences in the second one kept drawing me out of the story and making me realize that I wasn't really in WWI London or France or Little Sefton.

      So far I am liking Maisie, but I can see where the New Age type stuff could turn others off.  I also like Anne Perry's Charlotte Pitt and Hester.  

      Good question about female investigators, though.  Hmm, may have to give that some thought.

      "I cannot live without books" -- Thomas Jefferson, 1815

      by Susan Grigsby on Tue May 15, 2012 at 11:15:22 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Just occurred to me that next week's diary is (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      cfk, Caddis Fly, Gorette

      about three women from the same era, Mary Russell, Maisie Dobbs and Lady Rose Summer.  

      "I cannot live without books" -- Thomas Jefferson, 1815

      by Susan Grigsby on Tue May 15, 2012 at 01:37:36 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  It may be harder for a woman to achieve (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      cfk, Susan from 29

      the level of gravitas or respect as a detective that one affords to a man. How sexist is that! On the other hand, there are so many good female sleuths, it seems once they show their brilliance it's a piece of cake. Do they have to be more brilliant than their male counterpart?

      "extreme concentration of income is incompatible with real democracy.... the truth is that the whole nature of our society is at stake." Paul Krugman

      by Gorette on Tue May 15, 2012 at 03:09:35 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  A couple of possible reads. (6+ / 0-)

    I just finished The Crystal Gardens and The Paid Companion by Amanda Quick. They both have to do with murders yet many might consider them romances. They were plotted well and didn't bog down at all.

    I enjoy a little romance in my mysteries. I started on a third novel by Quick, Burning Lamp. This book seems darker though and not so much a murder mystery. I don't yet know if I will stick with it.


    Diaries are funny things Sam. Type one letter and you never know where you might end up. My apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien.

    by Caddis Fly on Mon May 14, 2012 at 08:09:26 PM PDT

    •  I don't know why a mystery can't have a little (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Caddis Fly

      romance thrown in.  The Crawford novels hint at romance, but nothing has developed.  It does seem that most mystery writers tend to shy away from romance. Wonder why that is.

      "I cannot live without books" -- Thomas Jefferson, 1815

      by Susan Grigsby on Tue May 15, 2012 at 11:26:42 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  My guess is that... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Susan from 29

        they don't want to risk being associated with "Harlequin" type novels.

        I haven't read any of the Crawford novels, but will put A Duty to the Dead on my tbr list. You made it sound interesting.

        BTW, I am almost done with Burning Lamp and it is not a murder mystery in the usual sense. It is more of a paranormal romance and quite good, but doesn't really fit here.

        Thanks for the enjoyable diary.

        Diaries are funny things Sam. Type one letter and you never know where you might end up. My apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien.

        by Caddis Fly on Tue May 15, 2012 at 03:04:31 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for This Diary (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Susan from 29, Caddis Fly, cfk

    This sounds like a series Lime Spouse will enjoy.  He's not afraid of meeting strong heroines (not even in real life -- heh heh).

    I'm intrigued, too.  Perhaps for read aloud?

    You write great reviews -- not too much info but obviously enough to hook our interest.  Great job!

    Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

    by Limelite on Tue May 15, 2012 at 12:14:34 PM PDT

  •  Not much of a Bess fan (spoilers) (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Susan from 29

    I've read all of the Bess books thus far.  The first and the last are the best.  The middle books have too many coincidences and Bess really is a bit of a busybody.

    Also, I find her continual traveling about to be the merest bit unbelievable, especially in wartime.

    The nursing stuff is interesting, however, and there are a strong cast of supporting characters.

    I much prefer Mary Russell or Maisie Dobbs.  If you want to jump across the pond and a bit later in time, Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher series is quite amusing.  

  •  I don't know why, but I never like mysteries (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Susan from 29

    that are written by duos. I have read several Charles Todd books, one of the Bess ones, the first one, I think, and several Ian Rutledges. They were okay but I'm not a big fan. I have read all the Maisie Dobbs books and even went to see the author at my local mystery bookstore (now gone, alas). I liked the plots, but the characters seem so one dimensional, humorless and flat.
    I have been wishing for a new Kate Atkinson. "Case Histories", which is a wonderful book, was made into a miniseries in England. I saw it when it aired on KQED, but I missed part of it. I got it from Netflix and I can hardly wait for the second installment. Jackson Brody, the P.I., seems like a real (and very attractive) person to me.
    I hope you are doing well, Susan.

    48forEastAfrica - Donate to Oxfam> "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness." Edna St.V. Millay

    by slouching on Wed May 16, 2012 at 03:54:50 AM PDT

    •  I saw the first episode of that mini-series and (0+ / 0-)

      remember promising myself to read the book but I never got around to it.  Thank you for reminding me.  I really do have a TBR list that I sometimes choose books from.

      Have you read any of the Mary Russell mysteries by Laurie King? I'll be writing about her next week, but she is perhaps my current favorite of that era.

      I'm doing okay, especially when I can find a book that takes me away from my own reality.  Thanks for caring.

      "I cannot live without books" -- Thomas Jefferson, 1815

      by Susan Grigsby on Wed May 16, 2012 at 08:57:52 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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