It is the summer of 1917 and the world has been drawn into war. England stands almost alone against the Triple Alliance, with Germany as the Alliance’s central power. Though the United States has joined with England and her allies, its war machine is slow in getting started, and British soldiers are paying the price.
Bess Crawford, a young field nurse, is often within harm’s way, caring for the wounded and dying as the ground shakes with artillery fire and camps are strafed by German pilots.
The story opens with Bess’s train pulling into London on a dreary rainy day. She has just returned from France with a convoy of critically wounded men: 17 gas cases and a burn victim, a young pilot, Lt. Meriwether Evanson, whose face is burned nearly beyond recognition. His tenuous hold on life is the picture of his wife he keeps pinned to his tunic.
At the train station, imagine Bess’s surprise when she recognizes the face she has seen daily under the most trying of circumstances, the young wife of Lt. Evanson. An even greater surprise is witnessing the frantic and hysterical parting between Mrs. Evanson (Marjorie) and an unknown officer with the Wiltshire regiment headed back to the front. But he coldly boards his train without a backward glance. Twenty-four hours later Bess reads of the murder of Marjorie Evanson and Scotland Yard is asking for any witnesses to step forward.
Thus begins Bess’s obsession with finding out what happened, especially after the pilot dies, not only of his injuries, but of his great loss. There was a bond between patient and nurse that death could not break. That bond, and the justice she seeks for Lt. Evanson and his wife, keeps her on the track of a killer.
Clues in this mystery are not so much physical evidence, as interviews followed up as to time, place, opportunity, and motive. Family secrets are revealed, scandals are only barely contained from public scrutiny, and all are mixed in the cauldron of war and its sacrifices.
What is exceptional about the Bess Crawford mystery, is the deep insight the author (more about Charles Todd later) exhibits into the society and culture as impacted by World War I. As most of their men are off fighting in the trenches in France, English women are left to run households, businesses, industries, and social interaction, except for those men who are convalescing, retired, or too young for service. The women are also left to mourn their dead or live in an agony of fear when mail fails to arrive. Silence from the front is the long shadow of a specter with a scythe.
The tables are turned for Bess’s family — her father a highly respected retired colonel, and her mother a stable, intelligent, and socially competent homemaker. For, instead of fearing for a son at the front, they must fear for their daughter. And now that she’s mixed up in murder, they have a double shot of anxiety and it wears on her father, whom she affectionately calls “the Colonel Sahib”.
The Colonel: “I’ll be just as happy to see you back in France,” the Colonel tells her. “Out of reach [of killers] . . . You ask too many questions . . . and will need to be cautious.”
Bess: “Being shot at by Germans is preferable to being stabbed by Englishmen?”
The Colonel: “Absolutely. Just don’t tell your mother I said that.”
The mother’s point of view probably mirrors many a mother’s thoughts in that time, given here as Mrs. Crawford helps her daughter pack for her trip back to France and the front.
Mrs. Crawford: “When your father went off on a dangerous mission, I was so grateful to have a daughter. She would never walk in harm’s way, I told myself. I won’t lose a night’s sleep over her out in hostile territory. My only worry will be whether or not she chooses wisely when it comes to marriage. And look at what this war has brought me.”
Here, in this framework of traditional family and cultural values, we get a peek through the window of 1917. We see it through the character of Mrs. Hennessey, who runs a boarding house for respectable young ladies, and whose rectitude and sense of propriety are uncompromising. We see it through the men in Bess’s life — her father, and the family friend, Simon Brandon, who has known Bess all her life and seems to worship her from afar. The love of these men is protective to the point of hovering, and they expect unqualified obedience in serious matters.
The only problem I had with the writing was repetition. I know some of it had to be repeated during tea-time talks with various characters, but the ruminating got done to death during too many internal monologues.It got to the point where I was scanning. And that’s not a good recommendation. Otherwise, for the points given above, the book is well worth reading. Just scan the hundred and tenth repeat.
Charles Todd, the author, is not one writer but two. A mother/son team working from two respective locations, Delaware and North Carolina. Under the name Charles Todd, they are “a” New York Times bestselling author of mystery novels. The Charles Todd mysteries are mainly known for the protagonist, Ian Rutledge (12 publications). Bess Crawford is rather new on the scene, with one previous novel, A Duty to the Dead.