Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. As I post this, it’s Remembrance Day (or just before, depending on where you live). It’s a time to remember those who gave their lives in war, and it seemed like a good time to turn the spotlight on a novel that takes place during The Great War, and deals with some of what those who fought and died in it faced. So let’s take a closer look at A Duty to the Dead, the first in the Charles Todd writing team’s Bess Crawford series.
The novel begins in 1916 on H.M.S. Britannic, a hospital ship that’s carrying a number of medical professionals and wounded soldiers. The ship is heading towards Greece when it’s attacked by a German U-boat and sunk. Several passengers die and many more are wounded. Among them is an English nurse Ellizabeth ‘Bess’ Crawford, who’s suffered a broken arm as well as superficial cuts and injuries. Crawford is sent back to England to recuperate. What she hasn’t told anyone yet is that this trip will also give her the opportunity to keep a promise she made to a dying soldier whom she nursed.
Just before his death, Arthur Graham asked her to take a message to his brother Jonathan. He made her commit the very cryptic message to memory and promise to deliver it only to Jonathan, and not to entrust it to anyone else. Uncomfortable at the prospect, Crawford also feels a strong sense of duty, so when she arrives in England, she makes arrangements to visit the Graham family home at Owlhurst in Kent.
Crawford is invited to visit Owlhurst and duly delivers her message. But she is struck by the odd reactions of the family members. Jonathan has very little response at all, and his mother and brother Timothy pass it off as the ravings of a dying man. But Crawford knows that Arthur was completely lucid when he told her what to tell Jonathan, and very clear about his wishes. What’s more, little bits and pieces that she hears suggest that there is much more going on here than just the passing on of a message. There are some dark undertones among the family members, and Crawford senses them.
She doesn’t want to overstay her welcome and is beginning to think she already has. But before she can leave, there’s a local tragedy that draws her in. And before she knows it, she’s also drawn in to the local history, the family history and the story of a murder. All of these are tied together, and the closer Crawford gets to the truth, the less certain it is who is trustworthy.
Crawford is determined to get answers, mostly because she feels she owes that much to those who can no longer speak for themselves. But there are people who are just as determined to sweep everything under the proverbial carpet. If she’s going to find out the truth about Arthur Graham’s last message, and what it really means, she’s going to have to be willing to risk a great deal.
The main plot of this novel concerns the murder and the history that Crawford uncovers. I can say without spoiling the story that the truth is almost unbearably sad. And finding it out does not make everything all right again. In that sense this story doesn’t have a happy ending. Yet, you can’t really call it completely bleak. There is a sense of hope and the knowledge that life will go on. And that provides much comfort for Crawford.
Along with the murder plot, there is also the World War I context. Crawford is a seasoned battlefield nurse, and we learn about life on the front, in operating tents and so on. Readers also get a strong sense of the scars that do not heal so quickly. One of the topics in the novel is what used to be called ‘shell shock’ (later ‘battle fatigue’ and today, PTSD). Because those wounds are not obvious, it’s much harder to understand them, and some civilians have a great deal of trouble accepting that PTSD is far more than just a case of not being able to face up to one’s responsibilities and get over something. In fact, it’s easier for civilians to accept, say, a lost limb or eye than deep and possibly permanent psychological wounds.
The majority of the novel takes place in London and Kent, so there are also strong reminders that those in the trenches are not the only ones making sacrifices. There are food shortages and other scarcities. There are also many families waiting to hear news about loved ones who are off fighting, and several families who have already heard the worst possible news. Everyone seems to know someone who is in service, is convalescing, or has been killed. By the time of this novel, the war’s been going on for two years, so there’s no longer the energetic zeal for it that there was at the beginning of the war. Here’s the way Crawford describes the situation:
‘The train’s carriages were filled with eager young men on their way to war, leaning out their windows and talking excitedly to others boarding at each station. I looked at their faces and felt sad. The captain of artillery sitting next to me said under his breath, ‘Little do they know,’ when a rousing cheer when up as we pulled out of the last small town.
We weren’t winning, and the killing would go on and on. That was the fate of trench warfare, of a stalemate neither we nor the Germans could break.’
Crawford herself has seen more than her share of injury and death. She is committed to service, but she still hates the cost of war.
And the character of Bess Crawford is an important element in this novel, since the story is told from her point of view. She is a skilled nurse with battlefield experience, so she’s hardly a proverbial shrinking violet. Yet she is human. She makes mistakes, and she feels afraid as anyone might when she sees where her interest in Arthur Graham and his family may lead. She is intelligent and quick-thinking, as you would expect a wartime nurse to be, but she’s hardly perfect. She’s been deeply affected by what she’s seen of the war, but is free from the demons that seem to torment so many fictional sleuths.
A Duty to the Dead is the story of how the past can haunt people even many years later. It takes place against the backdrop of an England suffering the privations of war and doing as well as possible under the circumstances. It also gives the reader a look at what so many people sacrificed during The War to End All Wars, and features a sleuth who’s seen more than her share of it. But what’s your view? Have you read A Duty to the Dead? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 17 November/Tuesday 18 November – The House Without a Key – Earl Derr Biggers
Monday 24 November/Tuesday 25 November – The Suspect – L.R. Wright
Monday 1 December/Tuesday 2 December – Thumbprint – Friedrich Glauser
This post is dedicated to the memory of all those who sacrificed everything in service to their country, and to their loved ones.