Review

A Duty to the Dead: A Bess Crawford Mystery

by Charles Todd

“Tell Jonathan that I lied. I did it for Mother’s
sake. But it has to be set right.”

These are the dying words spoken by British soldier Arthur
Graham to army nurse Bess Crawford aboard the doomed hospital ship
Britannic during the height of World War I. Bess has begun
to have feelings for him and promises to deliver his final message
to his family in England. That is, if she gets there alive. The
Britannic has hit a mine as it approaches Greece and
begins to sink rapidly. This is “the brother” of the
Titanic --- which sunk on that fateful evening of April
14, 1912 --- and the first chapter of this engaging mystery packs
in all of the extreme panic and tension that the survivors of these
infamous ship disasters experienced.

Bess does make it safely to Greece and shortly thereafter books
passage back to England. She is an upper-middle-class British
gentlewoman who was raised mostly in India within a military family
where her father was an officer with the title of Colonel Sahib.
She followed in the family footsteps and volunteered for the
Nursing Corps at the onset of WWI. Her duty placed her on the
battlefields of France, behind the lines of the active conflict. It
was when she came to care for the mortally wounded Arthur that she
finally connected with someone in a more than professional manner,
and this caused her to feel deeply homesick.

Unfortunately, Bess herself is badly injured during the sinking
of the Britannic and suffers a compound fracture of her
arm. After several months of resting up at her parents’ home,
she takes off for the town of Kent and the manor of the Graham
family known fondly as Owlhurst. Arthur died before he could
decipher his cryptic message; all Bess knows is that she witnessed
a young man suffering from extreme guilt in his final moments, and
she has a duty to deliver his last words to his family in
person.

The Graham family consists of Arthur’s mother, Lady
Graham, as well as two brothers: Officer Jonathan Graham and
Timothy, who is unable to serve due to being born with a club foot.
Also living in the house is family friend/distant cousin Robert
Douglas. When the opportunity is right, Bess repeats Arthur’s
final words to the family and notices that they react oddly. She
soon learns the tale of another brother --- an older half-brother
from Arthur’s late father’s first marriage --- named
Peregrine Graham. Apparently, Peregrine has been locked in a local
insane asylum as a result of having murdered a young chambermaid at
Owlhurst when he was only 14 years old. Could Arthur’s final
mystery message have something to do with this shameful family
tragedy?

The ever-resourceful Bess accepts accommodations at Owlhurst and
begins to become familiar with members of the town. She is suddenly
thrust back into action when the local physician, Dr. Phillips,
solicits her aid in helping with a deranged officer named Ted
Booker, who is suffering from extreme shell shock. Ted had
witnessed the death of his twin brother during a WWI battle, and
the guilt has driven him to near-insanity. Bess is the only person
able to connect with Ted --- as she had seen many cases like this
on the front lines herself --- and gets him not only to calm down
but also to agree not to harm himself or his family. Bess, in a
foreshadowing manner, connects with Ted as she empathizes with him
that “the living must go on living, or we fail the
dead.”

The duty to the dead, as the title suggests, is a running theme
throughout the book. Ted commits suicide shortly after his meeting
with Bess, which shakes her badly. Additionally, word comes from
the asylum housing the mysterious Peregrine that he is suffering
from serious pneumonia and is not expected to live. Bess agrees to
tend to him, and Peregrine is shuttled back to Owlhurst where the
rest of the family ignores him, leaving Bess to the solitary duty
of caring for him. Miraculously, Bess is able to get Peregrine
through some rough nights --- nights that are filled with feverish
visions and talk of the long-past murder for which he was allegedly
imprisoned. Peregrine is sent back to the asylum once he is able to
get out of bed, and Bess is greatly alarmed to see the family
receive startling word from there shortly after his return. Fearing
the Grahams have learned that Peregrine has finally succumbed to
the pneumonia, Bess is quickly shuttled back to the train station
by Robert, and she elects to return to her shared flat in London
before resuming her nursing service.

Bess is not there one day when she receives an unexpected visit.
Peregrine arrives at her door, having learned of her address from a
piece of correspondence he confiscated while in his sick room with
her. Bess realizes that the startling news the family had received
was not of Peregrine’s death, but of his escape. With his
mind addled by years of drug and shock therapy and feeling quite
paranoid, Peregrine is unable to fully recall the past --- but he
feels confident that he was not the one who murdered the young
chambermaid years earlier. Was Peregrine shut away in an asylum to
protect another member of the family? As Bess takes up
Peregrine’s cause, she revisits Owlhurst and the surrounding
village to learn that there was a handful of mysterious deaths
during that time, and even the recent “suicide” of Ted
may have been a homicide.

Bess’s duty to the dead has now gone far beyond delivering
Arthur’s final message --- she feels obligated to follow
through on uncovering the truth behind the murders, including the
whereabouts of Peregrine, who is feared dead by his family. At one
point during her investigation, someone tells Bess she is merely
chasing dragons and that what had appeared to be dragons are merely
the shadows the mind creates when it wishes to avoid the bitter
truth. Is Bess putting herself in mortal danger by pursuing these
deaths, or is she merely doing the bidding of an evil murderer?

The mother/son writing team of Charles and Caroline Todd has
departed from their highly successful Inspector Rutledge series to
deliver a powerful and complex psychological mystery. As with all
their novels, the rich historical backdrop of Britain during WWI is
fully developed and extremely accurate. Bess Crawford poses a quite
resourceful protagonist for the authors, and hopefully they will
resume her story soon as she continues her valiant service to the
British army during turbulent times.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on January 21, 2011

A Duty to the Dead: A Bess Crawford Mystery
by Charles Todd

  • Publication Date: September 1, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0061791776
  • ISBN-13: 9780061791772