Sunday, August 5, 2012

Review Bundle: Charles Todd's Bess Crawford Mysteries

My Review:

After having read the fourth novel in Charles Todd's Bess Crawford mystery series, An Unmarked Grave (click here to read my review), I then proceeded to read the first three novels in the series - A Duty to the Dead, An Impartial Witness, and A Bitter Truth.  Given the similarities between each of the three novels I've decided to bundle them together into one review. 

Set in England and at various casualty clearing stations near the front lines during the Great War, the heroine of this series is young English battlefield nurse Bess Crawford.  The only child of a famed British Army Colonel, Bess becomes a nursing sister in an effort to do her part to help the war effort.  But nursing is not the only thing Bess finds herself engaged in during the War, as she also becomes involved in trying to solve the mysterious deaths of several people whose lives, in one way or another, intersect with her own. 

In A Duty to the Dead, Bess is entrusted with delivering Lieutenant Arthur Graham's last message to his family.  While the young officer was administered to by Bess on the hospital ship Britannic, the two became close.  After recovering from injuries sustained during the sinking of the Britannic, Bess is finally able to deliver Lieutenant Graham's message.  As Lieutenant Graham had impressed upon Bess that the message was of the utmost importance to convey, she is surprised by his family's indifferent reaction.  Disappointed and curious at the family's reaction, Bess sets out to discover the message's full meaning by delving into the lives of the Graham family.   In so doing she unearths long buried family secrets, placing her own life in jeopardy in the process. 

In the series second novel, An Impartial Witness, Bess finds herself caught up in another family drama when she witnesses the wife of one of her recent patients tearfully embracing another man at a train station.  When the woman is found murdered the following day, Bess realizes she might be one of the last people to have seen the woman alive and thereby becomes involved with the investigation; a situation that once again puts her life in danger.  

In the series' third novel, A Bitter Truth, Bess finds herself helping an unknown young woman who shows up on her London doorstep after having been abused by her husband.   In her attempt to help the young woman, however, Bess ends up getting pulled into a murder investigation involving the woman's family, an investigation in which everyone is a possible suspect, including Bess herself.  

One of the series' greatest strengths is the Todd's (a mother/son writing team) ability to create a strong sense of time and place.  As a result, the books are able to successfully convey the experiences of the nursing sisters stationed near the front lines at various casualty clearing centres, as well as both the anxieties and carry-on attitudes of those back home.  Bess Crawford is a well-drawn heroine, one for whom it is easy for readers to like.   She's smart, determined and committed to helping others, even if it is not always in her own best interest to do so.  Along the way she is helped by both her father, retired Colonel Crawford, and longtime family friend Simon Brandon, a man who started out his army career as Colonel Crawford's batman before rising through the ranks to become the Regimental Sergeant Major.   It is to Simon that Bess most often turns when she needs advice, support and information to help her solve the investigations she becomes involved in.  While Simon is not a romantic interest for Bess, the way Todd develops their relationship over the course of the series has me wondering if, ultimately, this is where their relationship is headed.  I for one hope this to be the case.  As for the mystery featured in each of three novels, I found them to be both well-developed and plausible.   Further, for this reader at least, their ultimate resolutions were not obvious until the closing pages. 
Overall, the first three Bess Crawford mysteries are well thought out and engaging novels.  I recommend them to all fans of the historical mystery genre, as well as to readers interested in historical fiction set during World War I. 

Note: The first two Bess Crawford mysteries come from my own personal collection.   The third was provided to me by the publisher as a thank you for reviewing An Unmarked Grave and I was not under any obligation to review it.