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 WebsiteI 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.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.
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
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 ToddI 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.
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.
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.