Title: A Duty to the Dead
Author: Charles Todd
Genre: Historical fiction, mystery
Publisher: William Morrow
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Audiobook from the public library
Audiobook reader: Rosalyn Landor
First line: Tuesday, 21 November, 1916. 8:00 A.M. At sea…This morning the sun is lovely and warm.
Bess Crawford is a British nurse serving on a hospital ship during the First World War. When her ship is sunk by a mine and she is sent home to recover from a broken arm, she has more on her mind than simply physical rehabilitation. She has a duty to the dead, a duty she is determined to perform. While nursing Lieutenant Arthur Graham, Bess comes to care for the young man. As his last wish, he asks her to take a message home to his brother Jonathan: “Tell Jonathan that I lied. I did it for Mother?s sake. But it has to be set right.”
Bess travels to the village of Owlhurst in Kent and gives Jonathan Graham his brother’s dying message. Strangely, both Jonathan and his mother deny any knowledge of what Arthur might have been referring to. Then Beth learns that there is another Graham brother, Peregrine, who has lived in an asylum since he was 14 years old, when he was accused of the brutal murder of a housemaid. Bess becomes convinced that Arthur’s message has something to do with Peregrine, and since the family is unwilling to pursue the matter, Bess launches her own investigation.
My sister Marni has been a wonderful source of book recommendations for me. Last year, she recommended Anne Perry’s World War I mystery series, which I adored on audio. At the end of last year, she told me about the Bess Crawford mysteries by Charles Todd, another series set during World War I, and I was thrilled to discover that my library had the first two, also on audio. With the 2012 War Through the Generations Challenge focusing on World War I, I jumped right in.
This is a perfect historical mystery. The historical details, the setting of the war, the creepy Graham family, the horrific crime and strange circumstances surrounding Peregrine Graham, Beth’s conflicted grief over the loss of Arthur – there are so many things to love about this book!
I’ll start with the character of Bess herself. When embarking on a new series, you want the character to be one that you are drawn to enough to continue past the first book. I adore Bess. She is feisty and strong, yet feminine. Her curiosity and courage get her into a bit of trouble, and help her stand out from what is typically expected from women of the time. I enjoyed the relationship between her and her father, the “Colonel Sahib,” who seems to have resolved himself to having an unconventional daughter, enjoying her originality, all the while worrying about her safety.
The setting and time period play a huge part in the book. As a nurse on a hospital ship, Bess has cared for men in horrifying condition, both physically and psychologically. While in Owlhurst, she is called into duty to help the local doctor with a young man suffering from shell shock. No matter where Beth travels during her investigation, the war is there – in the insufficient rations, the absence of young men, the damaged buildings in London.
The mystery was disturbing and chill-inducing, and left me guessing until the very end. I was convinced I knew what the solution was, and I was completely wrong, which is the best way to experience a mystery. The most exciting thing about this series is that there are two more books already waiting for me to read them!