Category Archives: Charles Todd

Well, On His Porch They Stretched a Banner That Said ‘Johnny, Welcome Home’*

Returning VeteransThe end of a war doesn’t mean that people go back to whatever passes for ‘normal’ when it’s over. The guns, bombs and so on may stop, but postwar life often involves major upheavals, uncertainty and trouble. We’ve seen that far, far too often in real life, and it’s woven through crime fiction, too. That backdrop of uneasiness and uncertainty can make for a compelling context for a story.

One challenge that any postwar society faces is the reality of returning soldiers. These people have seen unspeakable things, and, sometimes, done them. They are not the same as when they left, and society doesn’t always know how to respond to them. That’s particularly true for those who come back with obvious physical disabilities.

We see this struggle, for instance, in Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, which takes place in post-World War I London. In one plot thread of this novel, Maisie, who’s just hung out her shingle as a private investigator, looks into the goings-on at The Retreat. That’s a refuge built especially for injured veterans who’ve found it too difficult to function among ‘regular’ people. They’ve found that most people are too uncomfortable around them because their wounds remind others of the lives lost and the horror of war. I know, I know, fans of Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge novels and Bess Crawford novels.

That theme of returning veterans is brought up in Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed, which takes place mostly in Glasgow just after World War II. Douglas Brodie has just returned from service and is trying to put his life back together in London when his old friend Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan asks for his help. Donovan’s been arrested, tried and convicted in connection with the murder of a young boy. He claims he’s innocent, and he wants Brodie to help clear him. One of the facts of life for Donovan is that he was severely wounded in the war. Despite several surgeries, he still has very obvious (and to many people, repulsive) scars and wounds. What’s more, he’s in quite a lot of pain, and has taken up the heroin habit to cope. All of this makes his case all the more difficult. While the focus of the novel isn’t really on Donovan’s service (or Brodie’s, for the matter of that), we do get a sense of the struggle that returning veterans face, especially when they’ve been wounded.

Returning veterans also have the task of fitting in again into a society that often doesn’t want to hear about (and probably wouldn’t understand) what they’ve experienced. War can’t help but leave deep psychological scars, and veterans have to deal with them. That’s one of the things we see in Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Digger’s Rest Hotel. In this, the first of his Charlie Berlin novels, it’s 1947, and Berlin has recently returned from war. He has nightmares, flashbacks and other signs of the psychological burden he bears. It doesn’t help matters, either, that he’s been jilted by the woman he’d hoped would wait for him. The main focus of this novel is his investigation into a series of robberies by a motorcycle gang, as well as the death of a teenage girl whose body is found in an alley. But throughout the novel, we see how Berlin has to adjust to peacetime life.

So do Lynn Marchmont and David Hunter in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide). They’ve both recently returned from service (the story takes place just after World War II), and both are having their issues adjusting. Hunter is the kind of risk taker who’s invaluable in war, but who can’t adjust to peacetime social expectations and rules. Marchmont thought she longed for home, daily life and so on; but now that she’s back, she finds it hard to re-adjust to the mundane life of her village. The main plot thread of this novel concerns the death of a family patriarch, two other subsequent deaths, and what it all means for the family involved. But throughout the novel we see the difficulty of adapting to peacetime life after the pace of war.

There’s also a look at the economic privations brought on by war. Wars are very, very expensive, even for the victors. And it doesn’t help matters that after the war’s over, all of the industries that supported it must either change to meet the needs of a peacetime economy, or close. In the England of Taken at the Flood, there’s still rationing going on, prices are high, not much food’s available, and everyone feels the pinch. That includes veterans who are looking for jobs.

Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests depicts that economic privation too. That novel takes place in 1922 London, where Frances Wray and her mother have suffered heavy economic blows as a result of the war (to say nothing of their grief over the loss of Frances’ brothers Noel and John Arthur, who died in the war). There’s not much money, and even for those who have money, there’s not much to be had. So the Wrays reluctantly decide that their only choice is to open their home to lodgers – ‘paying guests’ is the euphemism. Len and Lilian Barber like what they see and soon move in, and that choice has drastic and tragic consequences. Throughout the novel, we see how difficult it was for returning soldiers (many of whom can’t get jobs, can’t adjust to peacetime life, and don’t fit in). We also see society’s ambivalence towards them. At the same time as one feels sorry for them and compassionate, they also make people uncomfortable.

All of these novels also depict the uncertainty of post-war society. The war’s over, so what comes now? What are the new rules? It’s not easy for a society to switch its focus from wartime unity of purpose, efforts, and sacrifices to peacetime. And in many cases, there’ve been a lot of major changes in social roles as a result of war. As just one example, many US Blacks served with distinction in the military during World War II and Korea. When they returned, it was to a society that wasn’t ready to accept them as full partners, despite their sacrifices. Some people argue that this had an impact on the Civil Rights movement that started just a few years later. And it wasn’t just in the US. To return to McGeachin’s The Digger’s Rest Hotel, one of the characters is an Aboriginal former soldier who’s faced with the same paradox: a country that welcomed his wartime service, but now wants him to go back to being a second-class citizen.

Post-war life is challenging enough for a society that supports a war. It’s even more so for an unpopular war. Vietnam, the Falklands conflict, and the wars in the Middle East have not at all had the support that other wars have had. This has made life extremely difficult for returning veterans of those wars. And we see that reflected in crime fiction, too. For example, in one plot thread of Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian By Night, we learn the back story of octogenarian Sheldon Horowitz, who’s recently moved from his native New York to Norway to be closer to his granddaughter and her Norwegian husband. Her father, Saul, died during his second mission to Vietnam, and parts of the novel describe his visit home between missions. He doesn’t really fit in, and has to deal with people who bitterly opposed US involvement in the war. And part of Horowitz’ later burden is guilt over encouraging Saul to enlist in the first place.

Just because the guns are put down and the bombs stop doesn’t mean that trouble ends after a war. There are often real and difficult struggles that societies face when they return to peacetime life. And veterans and their families have their own difficult burdens to bear, even when they’re no longer fighting.

This post is dedicated to those who served, and continue to serve, their countries in the military, and to their families. They’ve made sacrifices many of us wouldn’t be willing to make. I truly hope the time will come when no more young men and women in uniform will be lost to war. poppy




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Shut Out the Light.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Charles Todd, Derek B. Miller, Gordon Ferris, Sarah Waters

But I’ve Found a Driver and That’s a Start*

Drivers and ChauffeursMost of us haven’t had the experience of having our own chauffeur/driver. More likely, we’ve taken on that role for our children and grandchildren. But there was a time when families who could afford to do so had a chauffeur, or at least someone whose duties included driving people where they wanted to go. And there are still plenty of people who consider it a real status symbol to have a driver. There is also a big market for professional car services; they, too, employ drivers.

Drivers and chauffeurs can play interesting roles in a crime novel. They see a lot, and they know a lot about their employers’ personal business. This makes them both potentially powerful (because of what they know) and vulnerable (for the same reason). There are lots of examples of drivers and chauffeurs in crime fiction. Here are just a few.

In Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, General Guy Sternwood hires PI Philip Marlowe to help him out of a difficult situation. Local book dealer Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood an extortion letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter Carmen. Marlowe’s task is to find Geiger and stop him; this Marlowe agrees to do. By the time he tracks the book dealer down though, it’s too late: Geiger’s been murdered. Carmen Sternwood is a witness, but she’s having a mental breakdown (or perhaps has been drugged) and can’t be of much help. Marlowe gets her out of the way before the police find her and in doing so, thinks he’s done with the Sternwoods. Then he gets a call from LAPD cop Bernie Ohls, who tells Marlowe that the Sternwoods’ Buick, and the body of their chauffeur, have been dredged from the water off the Lido pier. It looks on the surface like a case of suicide, but soon enough it’s proven to be murder. Now, each in a different way, Ohls and Marlowe work to link that death to Geiger’s death and to other events in the story.

Robert Colby’s novella No Experience Necessary introduces readers to Glenn Hadlock. He’s recently been released from San Quentin and is looking for work. It’s not easy, as you can imagine, because of his record. But he finds one opening that seems right: chauffeur/bodyguard for Eileen Scofield. Her very wealthy husband Victor is disabled and cannot leave his room. But, as he tells Hadlock, he doesn’t want his wife to be trapped in the house; hence, the need for an escort/chauffeur. The pay is excellent, the working conditions quite good, and Eileen Scofield is pleasant company, so Hadlock eagerly accepts the position when it’s offered. The only stipulation is that Hadlock’s relationship with his employer’s wife must be strictly professional. Anything else will have dire consequences. Hadlock has no problem with that job requirement, so at first, all goes well. But slowly, he learns that this position will be a lot more dangerous than he thought.

One of the ‘Charles Todd’ writing duo’s series features World War I nurse Bess Crawford. Unlike many fictional sleuths, she has a loving family whom she visits when she can. The Crawfords’ driver Simon Brandon is virtually a member of the family, although he is an employee. He served with Bess’ father in the military, and has remained loyal. Besides being the family chauffeur, he also conducts certain family business and travels on behalf of the Crawfords at times. Although it’s not really a job requirement, he also looks out for Bess, and does his best to keep her safe (not that that’s a particularly easy job…).

And then there’s Handbrake, whom we first meet in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant. He serves as the driver for Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri (hence, his nickname). Handbrake is highly skilled at negotiating Delhi traffic, which is no mean feat. And although Puri treats him professionally and respects him, Handbrake also serves as a kind of status symbol. Here’s what Puri thinks about it (from The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing). In this scene, he’s waiting for a client who’s very late for a ‘sting’ operation they’re conducting:

‘He cursed under his breath for not having anticipated his client’s poor driving skills. But then what sort of fellow didn’t employ a driver?’

Among members of Puri’s class and culture, a driver is a ‘minimum requirement.’

And then there’s George Pelecanos’ The Night Gardener. In that novel, Washington D.C. police detective Gus Ramone is faced with a particularly difficult case. The body of a teenage boy Asa Johnson has been found in a local community garden. This case eerily resembles a case Ramone worked with his former partner Don ‘Doc’ Holiday twenty years earlier: a series of unsolved murders. Holiday has since left the force and now works as a chauffeur/bodyguard. He’s drawn back into working with Ramone and with retired detective T.C. Cook by this new case, which brings back an old case that haunts all of them.

Fans of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series will know that she often gets help in her cases from wharfie taxi drivers Bert and Cec. Technically speaking, of course, they are not her employees. But more than once, they put aside their own business concerns to lend a hand in an investigation.

There’s also an Agatha Christie novel in which a driver plays an important role in a case. Nope – no more details. Never let it be said that I spoil novels for those who haven’t read them. But fans who have read this one will know which story I mean.

There are, of course, many other crime plots that are at least partly driven by chauffeurs.  Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Drive My Car.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Charles Todd, George Pelecanos, Kerry Greenwood, Raymond Chandler, Robert Colby, Tarquin Hall

Thank You For Opening Your Door*

HouseguestsOne of many things people have to prepare for at this time of year is house guests. People often take time to visit friends and relatives, and those visits can be wonderful. But they also involve lots of logistics, from food, to where everyone will sleep, to things such as extra towels and bedding, and many other details. And then there’s the dynamics of people sharing a home when they’re not accustomed to it. With all of that going on, it’s no surprise that house guests can make a terrific backdrop/context for a murder mystery.

You’ll notice in this post that there won’t be a mention of the traditional ‘country house murder,’ where a group of people are gathered and one of them becomes a victim – too easy! And there are lots of other ‘house guest’ contexts. Here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, detective fiction writer Ariadne Oliver accepts an invitation to visit Judith Butler, a woman she met on a cruise of the Greek islands. During her stay, she helps out at a local children’s Hallwe’en party at another home. On the afternoon of the party, one of the guests Joyce Reynolds boasts that she’s seen a murder. Everyone hushes her up and no-one believes her. But that night at the party, Joyce is murdered. It’s certainly clear to Mrs. Oliver that there probably was a murder and that the killer overheard Joyce’s comments. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to travel to Woodleigh Common, where Judith Butler lives, and investigate. Poirot agrees and looks into the case. He finds that this murder and another that occurs are linked to the town’s history. At one point, Poirot asks Mrs. Oliver if there is space in her London home to accommodate guests. Here is her response:

‘I never admit that there is…if you ever admit that you’ve got a free guest room in London, you’ve asked for it. All your friends, and not only your friends, your acquaintances or indeed your acquaintances’ third cousins sometimes….say would you mind just putting them up for a night? Well, I do mind. What with sheets and laundry, pillow cases and wanting early morning tea and very often expecting meals served to them, people come.’

In this case, though, Mrs. Oliver ends up making an exception.

One plot thread of Alexander McCall Smith’s Morality For Beautiful Girls concerns an important Government Man who consults Mma. Precious Ramotswe on a private matter. He believes that his new sister-in-law is poisoning his brother and plotting to kill him. He wants Mma. Ramotswe to look into the matter and stop his sister-in-law before it’s too late. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to take the case, and travels to the Government Man’s home village, where his brother and sister-in-law live. There she gets to know the various members of the household. She feels a little uncomfortable exploring her client’s suspicions and still being treated as a guest, and matters are not made easier by the tension in the household. Then one afternoon, everyone, including Mma. Ramotswe, is sickened by what turns out to be poisoned food. As soon as she recovers a bit, Mma. Ramotswe pieces together what happened. She finds out some surprising truths about the household too.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack introduces readers to Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano, a Buenos Aires police officer at a time (the late 1970s) when it’s very dangerous to live in Argentina. One day, he and his team raid a brothel. They make a few arrests, but several people get away because they have ties to people who are in power. Lescano is making a final walk-through when he discovers a young woman Eva, who’s been hiding in the house. She looks eerily like Lescano’s dead wife Marisa, so almost as a reflex action, he shelters her in his home. Eva is grateful to be rescued (we learn as the story goes on why she was hiding). But she has no reason at all to trust Lescano. He’s a police officer and in her experience, the police are brutal and sadistic. But he asks nothing of her. Lescano finds himself drawn to Eva, at first because of her resemblance to Marisa. As time goes by though, he gets to know Eva just a bit (she is not forthcoming), and finds her own personality appealing too. Eva’s stay with Lescano certainly has its awkwardness. Neither really trusts the other, especially at first. But they become allies.

In Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, fledgling psyciatrist Stephanie Anderson meets a new patient Elisabeth Clark. After several sessions, Elisabeth begins to open up just a little. She has had mental and emotional problems since the abduction of her younger sister Gracie several years earlier. Gracie was never found, and the experience still haunts the family. It also haunts Stephanie, who lost her own younger sister Gemma in a similar way seventeen years earlier. Little by little, Elisabeth starts to put her life together again, and Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out who wrought this havoc on both families. She travels from Dunedin, where she’s been living and working, to her home town of Wanaka. As one of her stops, she is invited to stay with Elisabeth’s father Andy, who is deeply grateful for his daughter’s returning mental health. In fact, he’s so grateful to Stephanie that he insists she stay as long as she wants at the lodge he owns, free of charge, as his guest. Although she doesn’t really even know Andy, Stephanie finds herself beginning to relax for the first time in a long time, and the visit prepares her to face the devastation her family suffered.

One of the ‘Charles Todd’ writing team’s series features World War I nurse Bess Crawford. More than once, Bess becomes a guest in someone’s home as she investigates mysteries. In A Duty to the Dead for instance, she is invited to visit the Graham family at Owlhurst in Kent. She nursed Arthur Graham before his death from battlefield wounds; in the process, he came to know and trust her and the feeling was mutual. So he gave her a very cryptic message, insisting that she commit it to memory and that she deliver it in person to his brother Jonathan. Bess is reluctant, but an injury of her own gives her the opportunity to pass along the message during her convalescence in England. The visit to Owlhurst is a very difficult one. For one thing, there is a great deal of tension in the family. For another, Bess learns that this family has many secrets. Having delivered Arthur’s message, Bess would actually just as soon end her visit, but she’s drawn into an emergency situation. Before she knows it, Bess is also drawn into a larger case of past murder and present death, all relating to that message.

And then there’s Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear. One afternoon, Paul Fowler and some friends are tossing a football around when he suddenly collapses. It’s soon determined that he was killed by a sniper’s bullet, and New South Wales Police Inspector Ella Marconi and her partner Murray Shakespeare investigate. They look into the lives of Fowler’s ex-wife Trina as well as the lives of his friends, and make some interesting discoveries. One of them is that Fowler had been laid off from his job, and was staying with a friend Seth Garland. When the team visits Garland’s home, they find a stark difference between the two men’s lifestyles. Garland is neat and orderly; Fowler…was not. I can say without spoiling the story that that difference isn’t the reason Fowler was killed. But it’s that sort of thing that can make being (or hosting) a house guest a challenge.

Whether you’ve been one or had them, the house guest situation can be delightful. But it’s also got lots of logistical and other challenges. I’ve only mentioned a few examples here because I’ve got to go count towels and sheets and plan food shopping. Your turn…

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Wiggly Tendrils’ Song of the Grateful House-Guests.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Charles Todd, Ernesto Mallo, Katherine Howell, Paddy Richardson

I Remember How Things Used to Be*

Crime Fiction StaplesAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about certain kinds of characters we don’t see very often any more in crime fiction. As society has changed, so have our values and the way we see social structure. And it makes sense that those changes would be reflected in crime fiction too. Here are just a few examples of the kinds of characters we used to see a lot in classic/Golden Age crime fiction, but not so much any more.


The Ne’er-Do-Well Son

You know the sort of character, I’m sure. He’s the kind who’s been shipped around to different jobs and places because he just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. He may be a pleasant enough person, but certainly causes plenty of worry to the family. There are a lot of them in crime fiction; I’ll just mention one. In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder), we are introduced to the Lee family. Patriarch Simeon Lee is an unpleasant tyrant, but he’s very wealthy. So when he invites the members of his family to gather at the family home Gorston Hall for Christmas, no-one dares refuse. One of his sons is Harry Lee, who’s been all over the world and managed to run out of money wherever he is. He can be charming, but he’s irresponsible. So when word comes that he’ll be at the family gathering, his brother Albert takes real issue with it. But all thoughts of that feud are pushed aside when Simeon Lee is brutally murdered. Hercule Poirot is in the area spending the Christmas holiday with a friend, so he is persuaded to help in the investigation. It proves to be an interesting case of history catching up with the victim…


The Ward/Protector Dynamic

In the years before women were free to own property and so on, they were often hard-put to survive on their own. But sometimes, a young woman was left orphaned; or, for some reason, her parents were unable to care for her. In these situations, one solution was to be taken in by a well-off family as a ward. The idea was that the young woman’s ‘protector’ would see to her being taken care of until she found a husband. There are lots of instances of wards throughout literature in general and in crime fiction too. One of them is Esther Summerson, whom we meet in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Esther is an orphan who’s been raised thus far by a very unpleasant woman she refers to as her godmother. Wealthy John Jarndyce takes an interest in the girl and wants to help her. So he takes her into his home, nominally to serve as companion to a distant relative Ada Clare. Really, though, she’s his ward. All three are connected to a very old Jarndyce family dispute over a will that’s been going round the Court of Chancery for generations. Even though the feud is a holdover from a very long time ago, it still impacts the family, with murder and intrigue being the result.


The Devoted Factotum

The factotum may have a title such as butler, driver or something similar. But really, that person does all sorts of jobs. He (it usually is a ‘he’) has his employer’s complete trust, and is usually intensely loyal to that employer and the employer’s family. There are dozens of crime-fictional characters like that. One of them is Simon Brandon, who figures in the Charles Todd writing duo’s Bess Crawford series. Crawford is a WWI nurse whose family is well-served by Brandon. Brandon is nominally the family’s driver, but he is much, much more as well. He takes care of business, he travels on behalf of the family, and so on. He served with Crawford’s father in the military, and is devoted to the family’s well-being. He takes it upon himself to look after Crawford as best he can, and she trusts him. He’s no toady, but at the same time, he has a strong loyalty to the Crawfords. I know, I know, fans of Dorothy Sayers’ Mervyn Bunter and Kerry Greenwood’s Dot Williams …


The ‘Maiden Aunt’

There are a lot of women who don’t marry and have children – there always have been. They used to be placed in the category of ‘spinster’ or ‘maiden aunt,’ and we see them all throughout crime fiction. Perhaps the most famous is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, who has neither husband nor children, but does have plenty of nephews, nieces and other relatives. There are other crime-fictional ‘maiden aunts’ as well. For example, in Earl Der Biggs’ The House Without a Key, we are introduced to Miss Minerva Winterslip, who comes from a ‘blueblood’ Boston family. She travels to Hawai’i for a six-week visit to some cousins, and ten months later, she’s still there. Her nephew John Quincy Winterslip goes to Hawai’i to try to convince his aunt to come back to Boston and pick up her life again there, but instead, he gets drawn into a case of murder. When a family cousin Dan Winterslip is murdered, John Quincy works with the police, including Detective Charlie Chan, to find out who the killer is. Throughout this novel, Minerva Winterslip is portrayed as unusually independent and quite content to chart her own course as the saying goes. She may be just a bit eccentric, but she’s certainly not bizarre.


The Paid Companion

Paid companions are arguably a fixture in classic and Golden Age crime fiction. They’re usually women, and quite often they’re from modest backgrounds, or from ‘good’ birth but modest economic means. They’re hired by wealthy employers to take care of some light tasks (such as correspondence, some errands, light housework and so on). They also accompany their employers to certain events and in general, serve as, well, companions. Sometimes they’re treated well; sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re terrific people; sometimes they’re not. But they’re woven into the fabric of that era. One fictional companion is Violet ‘Vi’ Day, whom we meet in Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth. As the novel begins, she’s sharing rooms with Kerrie Shawn, who dreams of Hollywood stardom but so far, hasn’t had much success. The two are scraping by when they learn to their shock that Kerrie has inherited a fortune. Elderly shipping/industrial magnate Cadmus Cole has died at sea, and Kerrie is one of only two living relatives. Cole’s will specifies that Kerrie and the other heiress Margo Cole must share Cole’s home on the Hudson for a year before they can inherit. Kerrie insists that Vi share her fortune and become her secretary/companion. Everyone moves into the Cole house, and as you can imagine, there’s discord between Kerrie and Margo. When Margo is shot, Kerrie becomes the prime suspect. Since Ellery Queen and his new PI partner Beau Rummell were the firm Cole hired to find his relatives, they investigate the murder and find out who really killed Margo and why. Vi believes in her friend and employer and stays loyal to her throughout. I know, I know, fans of Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral.

There are of course other ‘staple characters’ in classic/Golden Age crime fiction. Which ones have resonated with you?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration! Folks, do go visit Moira’s excellent blog on clothes, popular culture, and what it all says about us in literature. You’ll be inspired too.

ps.  I took the ‘photo above, but it’s really a ‘photo of a ‘photo. Credit really goes to Alana Newhouse’s beautifully illustrated A Living Lens, where I found the original. It just seemed to fit the topic…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lou Reed’s I Remember You.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, Charles Todd, Dorothy Sayers, Earl Der Biggs, Ellery Queen, Kerry Greenwood

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