An Impartial Witness, Charles Todd
This is the second book in a mystery series set in World War I, featuring Bess Crawford, a nurse serving on the front lines in France. I posted about the first, A Duty to the Dead, a couple of weeks ago. A Bitter Truth, the third book in the series, has just been published.
As An Impartial Witness opens, it is early summer, 1917. Bess has returned to England with a convoy of wounded soldiers. Among them is Lt. Meriwether Evanson, a severely burned flyer whose will to live is sustained by the thought of his wife Marjorie; her photo is pinned to his uniform. After settling her patients at their hospital in Hampshire, Bess travels on to London. Leaving the train station, she recognizes Lt. Evanson's wife, standing with an army officer, clearly in distress and openly sobbing. The man makes no move to comfort her and eventually leaves her to catch a train. Bess tries to follow her out of the station but loses her in the crowds.
Weeks later, back in France, Bess comes across an old newspaper article asking the public's help in solving the murder of Marjorie Evanson, who was killed later that same day. Bess immediately writes to Scotland Yard to offer her information, and from there she is drawn into the case, especially when she learns that Lt. Evanson killed himself on learning of his wife's death. As in A Duty to the Dead, Bess feels a responsibility for "her" patients that goes far beyond their physical care, and a conviction that justice must be done. When an old friend of Marjorie's is accused of her murder, Bess believes him to be innocent and immerses herself in investigation, over the wishes of both her family and the lead investigator.
Unlike the first book, which was set mainly in England, the story in this book moves between France and England. We see Bess on duty in the field hospitals, with all the difficulties and dangers of life on the front lines. She can only pursue her investigations during her leaves, and though she manages more time than most of her fellow nurses, she is still caught in the discipline of the service. When she does make it to England, her family naturally expects her to spend time at home with them. Her parents did not play a large part in the first book, though we met her father, a retired army officer whom Bess and her mother refer to as "Colonel Sahib." Here they are an important part of the story, as is another member of their family, Simon Brandon.
I don't quite know what to make of Simon. Originally the Colonel's batman, through long years of service he became the regimental sergeant-major and a friend of the family. Retired from the army like the Colonel, he lives in a house close to Bess's parents, and he and the Colonel are involved in confidential war work. Bess describes him as "Half confessor, half godfather, half friend, half elder brother," someone she has known all her life and dearly loves. For much of the book, he is at her side, arguing with her, trying to get her to drop her investigation, but in the end using his contacts to find information, as well as offering comfort and advice. Since Bess narrates these stories, we have only her point of view, and I can't decide if I'm reading too much into their interactions, or if Bess does not understand her own feelings. I am also not sure how the social code of the time would see a relationship between a colonel's daughter and her father's former batman. Perhaps the next book will make things clearer. I'm looking forward to it, because I like these characters and these well-told stories.