A Bitter Truth, by Charles Todd

Friday, January 10, 2014

Charles Todd, the mother-son writing team of Caroline Todd and Charles Todd, first introduced nurse and accidental detective Bess Crawford in A Duty to the Dead.  Ms. Crawford's world is World War I England. The daughter of a British colonel who grew up in India, Bess felt compelled to do her duty to her country by becoming a nursing sister in France.  During her leaves, she often comes home to England, where she shares a flat in London with some other nursing sisters.  When not in London, she visits her parents in the English countryside.  Given the diverse places she find herself (battlefield, gritty London street, or bucolic English field), she has plenty of opportunity to get drawn into drama and mystery.

In this particular story, Bess is home on leave during the winter of 1917.  Struggling from the train station to her flat in London through a frigid rain, she discovers a bruised young woman shivering on her doorstep. Being incapable of ignoring the suffering of any poor soul, she invites the woman into her flat to warm up and dry off.  She learns that the woman is the wife of a wealthy landowner from Sussex, who has run away from her husband after he struck her during an argument.  She wants to return home, but it afraid of what her husband will do.  She asks Bess to accompany her to Vixen Hill, the family's country estate.  Bess, who desperately wants to see her own family, cannot refuse the terrified woman's request.

Vixen Hill proves to be a brooding manor house, surrounded by harsh, windswept countryside.  Bess is grudgingly welcomed by the family, who are mourning the loss of the oldest son in the war.  When a guest at the memorial service is found murdered, Bess and everyone in the house become suspects, and family secrets begin to come out.  Bess' quest to identify the murderer and help the family takes her from England to the devastated villages of France.

I enjoy the Bess Crawford novels for a variety of reasons, from the setting to the strong-willed main character to the rather intricate plots.  Of course, I like all things British, and the fact that the setting of this series closely resembles Downton Abbey doesn't hurt.  I have to say that for the most part I didn't really like any of the characters in this book, other than Bess and the other recurring characters in the series.  But that strangely didn't make it any less enjoyable to read.  Despite their rather selfish behavior, and downright snobbery, I couldn't help but be drawn in emotionally, and found myself empathizing with the grief and sadness that was just below the surface of their family life.  I did feel as though the middle section dragged a bit, but the ending was dramatic enough to make up for it.  If you are a fan of period mysteries a la Agatha Christie, then I think that you would enjoy Bess Crawford's investigatory capers!

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