Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Book Review: A Duty to the Dead

Title: A Duty to the Dead: A Bess Crawford Mystery
Author: Charles Todd
Rating: *****
Tags: mystery, series, bess crawford, world war i

I've been a big fan of the mother-son writing team known as Charles Todd since I was lucky enough to read the first Ian Rutledge novel. There have so far been twelve books in that series, and it has been uniformally excellent. I rank Charles Todd up there with those who are not only great mystery writers, but great writers of any literature. Others in that category include Laurie King and Deborah Crombie.

This is the first volume in a new series, and it shows the authors at their peak. The main character is Bess Crawford, a British nurse in World War I. She is on a hospital ship in the Mediteranean that is sunk, and she breaks her arm. While back in England recovering, she fulfills a promise to one of her patients who died, to get a personal message to the patient's brother. She comes to think the message has to do with Arthur's older half-brother, who was sent to an asylum after allegedly killing a housemaid at age fourteen. The search for the truth causes a crisis in several lives.

It is a real pleasure to see how artists of this caliber work. It isn't until seeing the craft of this book that one realizes how poor most other books seem by comparison. The Todds' characters are complex and real. The plot is smoothly written, and each part seems to grow organically out of the rest, without resorting to freaky coincidences or other weak plotting techniques.

Oddly, while the war is the background to the book, it isn't as important as in the Rutledge books which are set post-WWI but where the war hangs heavy over all the characters. It does in this novel to a degree. The authors seem to have claimed this era as theirs, and one can understand why. It was a terrible war, with millions of lives lost in the horror of trench warfare that seemed endless. The losses were heartbreaking, for a cause that seemed minor to cause such great slaughter. Bess is touched not only by the physical wounds of her patients, but by the mental and emotional trauma they deal with.

This book cannot be recommended too highly.

Publication William Morrow (2009), Hardcover, 336 pages
Publication date 2009
ISBN 0061791768 / 9780061791765

No comments: