Sunday, October 30, 2011

A family's bitter truths

A Bitter Truth, Charles Todd

This is the most recent in a series of mysteries featuring Bess Crawford, a nurse serving in France during the Great War.  Over the past couple of months, I've read and posted about the two earlier books, A Duty to the Dead and An Impartial Witness.

As this book opens in mid-December 1917, Bess has arrived in London on leave, planning to spend Christmas with her family at their Somerset home.  In the doorway of the house where she shares a flat, she finds a woman taking shelter from the wind and cold.  Her voice and clothing are those of a woman of means.  Bess insists that she come inside, out of the weather, which she reluctantly does.  The cause of her reluctance is written on her face; she has clearly been hit, leaving a black eye and other bruising.

The woman, who says her name is Lydia, eventually relaxes enough to tell Bess that it was her husband, a serving officer, who is on compassionate leave following his brother's death.  After he struck her, she walked out of their home in Sussex and went to London, with no clear plan in mind, simply to get away.  She begs Bess to come with her back to Sussex, where they live with his widowed grandmother and mother, so that she doesn't have to face him alone.  Bess agrees, though it means her visit home will be cut short.

At Lydia's home, Vixen Hall, the family has gathered with friends for the ceremony of placing her brother-in-law's tombstone.  The problems between Lydia and her husband Roger, with her bruises still clearly visible, add to an already complicated family situation.  Then, on the day Bess is to leave for her home, one of the guests is found murdered.  Initially considered one of the suspects, Bess eventually returns to duty in France, but she remains connected to the case.  At Lydia's request, she is searching for what may be the key to it: the child of an English officer and a French mother, abandoned to an orphanage after her mother's death, who is said to bear a striking resemblance to a member of the Ellis family.

As in An Impartial Witness, Bess moves back and forth between France and England.  In France, her nursing duties leave her little spare time.  But she talks to the soldiers coming into her field hospital, using her connections and the network of the army to gather information about the Ellis family and to try to track the child.  In England, she again relies on Simon Brandon, an NCO in her father's regiment, retired now from the army, who has become part of their family.  I'm still confused about their relationship, though it seems less intense in this book than in An Impartial Witness.  On the other hand, in France Bess meets an Australian soldier, Sergeant Larimore, who helps her search for the child but makes it clear that he has a more personal interest, in Bess herself.  Is a colonial sergeant a better match for a colonel's daughter than her father's former regimental sergeant major?  I'll be interested to see what Simon, and the Colonel, make of the sergeant.  In the meantime, after reading about Bess's work, as well as Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth and Helen Dore Boylston's "Sister," I want to read more about nursing in the Great War.

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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!