Thursday, June 28, 2012

Murder in the midst of war

An Unmarked Grave, Charles Todd

This is the fourth book in a series of mysteries set during World War I, whose main character and narrator, Bess Crawford, is an English nurse serving in France. Caring for the wounded in the field, or escorting convalescents home, she becomes involved in their lives and their problems, which usually end with someone murdered. Bess frequently turns for help to her father, a retired Army colonel now working with the War Office, who has connections and sources all over Britain. She also relies on Simon Brandon, once her father's Regimental Sergeant Major, who has remained close to the family and also works with the War Office.

As this book opens, it is the spring of 1918, and the Spanish Influenza is decimating the Army and the medical staff, as well as the civilian populations. One evening, the orderly on duty asks Bess to come with him to take the body of its most recent victim to the temporary morgue. Despite her exhaustion, she follows him into a room full of bodies. There he shows her one that she recognizes, Vincent Carson, from her father's former regiment. This man died not of influenza, but from a broken neck. Hours later, Bess herself falls victim to the influenza, and it is weeks before she remembers the body. She learns first that Major Carson was reported killed in action, and then that the orderly who took her to his body hung himself that same night. These are the first in a string of mysterious deaths. It becomes clear that someone is hunting down those with any connection to Major Carson, or to the field hospital that night. Bess herself becomes the killer's target. As before, she moves back and forth between England and France, between service and leave, as she works with the Colonel her father and Simon Brandon to catch the killer.

I have to say that I found this book rather confusing. There are a lot of characters, some introduced only as victims, and it was hard to keep them straight. It was also a challenge to follow the constant shifts in location. I found myself wondering at the ease with which Bess could move back and forth, even with her father's connections. The killer also moves at will around the battlefields, towns and hospitals of France, stealing supplies, uniforms, and cars - presumably under cover of the chaos of war, which must also explain how he is able to murder so many people and escape undetected. But I found his motive, and the solution of the mystery, to be a bit disappointing in the end.

In the last case, A Bitter Truth, Bess found an ally in an Australian sergeant, who made his interest in her clear as he helped to solve her case. This time, she finds an American, recovering from wounds received while fighting with a Canadian unit. He too becomes attached to Bess while acting as her assistant and, briefly, bodyguard. Bess seems impervious to both of them. Her nursing and detective work apparently leave her no time or inclination for personal relationships beyond friendships, or much of a social life. This may be because of her attachment to Simon Brandon, though the exact nature of their relationship remains frustratingly ambiguous. They care deeply for each other, though there doesn't seem to be much romantic tension. Perhaps Bess really means it when she describes Simon as "Half confessor, half godfather, half friend, half elder brother." With this book ending in the summer of 1918, perhaps the next book will see the end of the war. It will be interesting to see where Bess's life takes her then, and with whom.


  1. I love the WWI era, but I have never been able to read the mysteries set during or after the war. They seem a bit far fetched to me.
    I also enjoy reading about strong women during this era so I'd be drawn to Bess, but this doesn't sound like the one that would hook my attention.

  2. I signed up for a World War I reading challenge this year but haven't been making much progress with it. I had been planning to read this series for the challenge, so thanks for reminding me about it! I'll see if I can get the first one from the library.

  3. Anbolyn, though the series is set during the war, and it's Bess's nursing that involves her in the cases, I don't get a real feel for the period from the books. But I haven't read much from the period, just a couple of nurses' memoirs.

    Helen, you may already know that the Todds have another series, set just after the war, with a demobbed soldier coming back to his work at Scotland Yard. I haven't read them, I've been told they are darker than the Bess books. I'll be interested to see what you think.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!