A Duty to the Dead-Popcorn from World War I

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Take a soldier's dying wish, an independent battlefield nurse, a decades old secret, and a madman in an asylum, put them together into a deliciously engaging story, and you have A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd.

Here's what Goodreads has to say about the plot:

           England, 1916. Independent-minded Bess Crawford's upbringing is far different from that of the usual upper-middle-class British gentlewoman. Growing up in India, she learned the importance of responsibility, honor, and duty from her offi­cer father. At the outbreak of World War I, she followed in his footsteps and volunteered for the nursing corps, serving from the battlefields of France to the doomed hospital ship Britannic.
         On one voyage, Bess grows fond of the young, gravely wounded Lieutenant Arthur Graham. Something rests heavily on his conscience, and to give him a little peace as he dies, she promises to deliver a message to his brother. It is some months before she can carry out this duty, and when she's next in England, she herself is recovering from a wound.
        When Bess arrives at the Graham house in Kent, Jonathan Graham listens to his brother's last wishes with surprising indifference. Neither his mother nor his brother Timothy seems to think it has any significance. Unsettled by this, Bess is about to take her leave when sudden tragedy envelops her. She quickly discovers that fulfilling this duty to the dead has thrust her into a maelstrom of intrigue and murder that will endanger her own life and test her courage as not even war has.

I loved the character of Bess.  She was independent and strong-willed, traits I especially like in my heroines.  But what really made the book for me was the very British-ness of is all.  You've got the references to serving in India that always remind me of The Secret Garden, family estates, the whole upstairs/downstairs vibe, the country rectory, and the whole asylum thing.  Plus lots and lots of tea.  Todd brought a Victorian sensibility to the Edwardian era-change the war they are fighting and the reference to motor-cars and this book could have taken place 50 years earlier.

One of the things that drew me into the novel was the examination of the family dynamics that led to the tragic events that unfold.  So much of British upper class life was kept under wraps out of propriety's sake that figuring out exactly what is going on in any given family is a bit like opening one of those gifts within a gift-you know, where someone wraps a small box inside a larger box and so on-except usually what is discovered when you get to the final layer of these family dramas is not nearly as nice as a present.

This is the first of a new series by Todd with Bess as the main character, and I look forward to following her on many more mysteries.


  1. This is a wonderful series... I believe there are two, with a third coming soon.
    I agree with your assessment. As much as I enjoy Bess, though... I still enjoy Maisie Dobbs just a little more :o)

  2. This sounds like something I would enjoy. Thanks for posting.


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