October 29, 2009 - 4:00 am
World War I nurse Bess Crawford knows better than to get too close to her patients. With the Europe of 1916 transformed into a charnel house by the war, anything less than a professional relationship with wounded soldiers is a sure path to grief and heartbreak.
In "A Duty to The Dead", the first of a new mystery series by the mother/son writing team of Charles Todd, Bess forgets that rule and connects with Arthur Graham, a dying English officer who presses her into carrying a last message to one of his brothers: "I lied. I did it for Mother’s sake."
It’s a charge that Bess puts off for months until she ends up as one of the wounded herself and is sent back to England. The deathbed charge weighs on her, partly because she doesn’t want anything to tarnish her memory of the bright-eyed charismatic lieutenant who wanted to marry her and died before he could.
But Bess is the only child of a military man, the Colonel, who reminds her that a promise made to the dead is sacred. Under that onus, Crawford reluctantly sets off for Kent to fulfill her duty. The journey plunges her deep into a dark family secret that has sent one Graham brother to an asylum and two others spiraling into defensiveness and denial. She also has to confront the reality of what happens to physically ruined and mentally shattered soldiers once they return home, sometimes to less than understanding families.
As she’s drafted into service by a village doctor, Crawford begins to piece together the real facts of the childhood tragedy that haunted Arthur Graham even as he drew his last breath. It soon becomes clear that lies and twisted loyalty have wrongly imprisoned an innocent man and allowed a serial killer to remain free. As Bess closes in on the truth, the Graham family begins to crumble under the weight of guilt carried too long and misguided love.
The authors do an excellent job of weaving together history and mystery, unfurling their story against a backdrop of violent cultural shifts that changes England forever. Some reviews describe this mystery as a "cozy," but there’s really nothing quaint about it. As in the authors’ Inspector Rutledge series, World War I looms large as the wellspring of mass-produced death and tragedy that tears through the fabric of English life in predictably horrifying ways. This is a writing team that has the gift of making history seem like a main character in their novels, giving unusual depth and believability to the rest of the players on the page. It’s a compelling launch to a new series and I am sure that Bess Crawford is someone I’m going to get to know a lot better.