In The Spotlight: Charles Todd’s A Duty to the Dead

>In The Spotlight: Walter Mosley's A Red DeathHello, All,

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

In Memoriam…


This post is dedicated to the memory of all those who sacrificed everything in service to their country, and to their loved ones.


Filed under A Duty to the Dead, Charles Todd

29 responses to “In The Spotlight: Charles Todd’s A Duty to the Dead

  1. This book sounds like a wonderful read, I’d only got a couple of paragraphs into the post before I knew I wanted to read it. Set during World War I with family secrets and family history as well as detailing life outside the trenches, it sounds perfect for me. A really well-timed post when we are remembering those who gave their lives for us – thank you Margot.

  2. Katy McCoy

    I just read this and enjoyed it. I’m trying to read more on World War I given the anniversary and happened to pick this up. (Although I’m currently occupied by trying to complete several lists – a mystery from each of the United States, at least one mystery each from each continent, and alphabetical authors and titles of mysteries – anyone have a title starting with U, X, or Z or an author starting with X or Y?)

    • Katy – I’m glad you enjoyed this one. I give you so much credit for working through all of those challenges! I’m in awe! I’m not sure what your particular crime fiction tastes are, but when I read your comment I thought of Marian Babson’s Untimely Guest. And for authors, there’s Margaret Yorke and James Yaffee. Hope that helps! I’ll keep thinking…

    • Katy McCoy

      Thanks, Margo! That’s a big help. It’s ordered. I knew your amazing memory would help! I found an “X” – “X’s, an Allie Armington Mystery” by Louise Gaylord. Now I just need a Z title. I’ll use a book by Qiu Xiaolong for the X author so I still need a Y author.

      • I wish you well, Katy. May I humbly suggest you check out some of the excellent review blogs on my sidebar. Those folks are crime fiction experts and I’m sure if you ‘surf’ their reviews you’ll find something.

  3. Been meaning to give a book by the ‘Charles Todd’ duo a go for ages – thanks Margot – is this the right place to start for a newbie?

    • Sergio – The ‘Todd team’ have two series: the Ian Rutledge series and this Bess Crawford series. Both are well-written I think. However, I have a slight preference for this one. I have to say though that the Rutledge series is a solid one. I just think this one is a bit better. If you do start with this series, this is the first novel in it, so I think it sets the tone quite nicely. Hope that helps.

      • Brill – thanks Margot, just what I needed to know 🙂

      • Katy McCoy

        I have never been able to get into the Rutledge series – that’s one of the reasons I picked the Crawford series. This one was so readable that I will p0robably give the other series another try.

        • Katy – I have to say I prefer this series myself. It is, as you say, very readable and I think well-written. And sometimes it does pay to try a series a second time. it doesn’t always work, of course. Sometimes a series just isn’t for you. But sometimes it’s mood, or life situation, or something else.

  4. Another series I have meant to dip a toe in.

  5. Another one that sounds intriguing, and another author(s) I’ve not come across. It’s always very dangerous visiting you on spotlight day, Margot… 😉

    • FictionFan – Bwahahaha 😉 … And I might say, turnabout is fair play ;-). In all seriousness, I do think this is a solid series. If you get the chance to try it, I hope you’ll like it.

  6. Margot: I liked the character of Bess. I thought she provided another perspective on being a WW I nurse sleuth from the Maisie Dobbs series of Jacqueline Winspear.

    I did not really like the method of resolving the mystery.

    It is the only book I have read featuring Bess. Between Bess and Ian Rutledge I prefer Ian and Hamish.

    • Bill – That’s one thing that, to me, is the sign of good writing. The ‘Todd team’ created two quite different series and sleuths, both of which have appeal. As I mentioned, I have a slight preference for Bess, but I like Ian and Hamish too. In fact I wavered between the two when I was deciding which sleuth to spotlight.

  7. I read several of the Rutledge series, and kept meaning to look out for more, but this sounds as though it would be even better. Thanks Margot.

    • Moira – The Rutledge series is a good one, and I can see why you’d want to look out for more of them. I think this series is very good too. If you read it, I hope you like it.

  8. Col

    Not one for me thanks – lack of time!

  9. I read this first one, and I was not all that thrilled with it. I found it more psychological suspense than whodunit and I did not particularly like the heroine. On the other hand I did like the picture of WWI and the role of nurses in that war, and I think the book is worth reading for that alone. I may try more of the series. But I am more likely to return to the Ian Rutledge series.

    • Tracy – I agree with you that readers get a really solid picture of the era in this novel/series. I’m sorry to hear you didn’t warm to Bess Crawford, but that’s the thing about crime fiction; there’s something for everyone, and no-one’s going to like everything. And you could do far, far worse than go back to the Rutledge series.

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  11. I’ve been meaning to try a Charles Todd book for years, and now I’ll also have to choose which series. Do you think one might be a better starting place than the other? This sounds very good.

    • Richard – I do hope you get the chance to try one of the series. I think that the ‘Todd team’ is very talented. My slight preference is for this series. Others prefer the Rutledge series. Quite honestly, either would give you a good sense of the way this team writes. I know – not a direct answer to your question, but it’s the truth. Whichever series you choose though, I recommend you start with the first novel, as both characters evolve over time.

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