Friday, September 16, 2011

A soldier's last request

A Duty to the Dead, Charles Todd

I have never read anything by this author before, or I should say authors, since "Charles Todd" is a mother & son writing team, Caroline and Charles Todd.  I was at a "Mystery Author Luncheon" the other day, naturally hosted by Murder by the Book.  I didn't know anyone else at the table where I was seated, but we all fell into an easy conversation about books that lasted through the luncheon, an exchange of reviews and recommendations, and a constant refrain of "Have you read this?"  It was such a treat for me, because I rarely get to talk books with such enthusiastic readers.

Charles Todd was one of the names that came highly recommended.  I found out later that they have written a series of twelve books featuring a Great War veteran who resumes his career at Scotland Yard after demobilisation.  They have a second series whose main character, Bess Crawford, is a nurse in the war.  I've become interested in reading about World War I from fictional accounts of the war's effects like Laurie R. King's Folly and Justice Hall, and particularly after reading Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth. Since I'd recently read Helen Dore Boylston's account of war nursing in France, "Sister", I decided to try the first Bess Crawford mystery, A Duty to the Dead.

The story opens in November of 1916, with Bess traveling on a hospital ship to collect wounded soldiers.  The ship is the Britannic, which strikes a mine and sinks in the seas off Greece.  Despite a badly-broken arm, Bess makes it into a lifeboat, is rescued, and returns to England to recuperate.  There she finally faces a promise she made to a dying soldier, Arthur Graham, to give his brother an intriguing message: "Tell my brother Jonathan that I lied. I did it for Mother's sake. But it has to be set right."  When Bess travels to Kent to meet the Graham family and fulfill her duty to the dead, she stumbles into family secrets, including an older brother confined in an asylum for murder.  She is compelled to learn more about the family, and to try to unravel Arthur's last words.

Every character in the book is touched by the war, but the story has less to do with the war itself than I expected.  The mystery kept me guessing (wrongly, as usual) and turning the pages to find out what happened next.  Though her background is only sketched in, Bess is an interesting character and good company.  I'll be interested to see where the next book in the series takes her (a third has just been published).

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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!