A Bitter Truth: A Bess Crawford Mystery
In this third installment of Charles Todd’s mystery series, the story opens in December 1917. World War I battlefield nurse Bess Crawford has returned home to England from caring for patients in France. This is a well-deserved break from constant hard work and the horrendous emotional toll of caring for injured soldiers, and Bess is looking forward to spending Christmas with her parents. As her train pulls into the London railway station, she looks for her father or for her father's right-hand man, Simon Brandon. When she sees no one she recognizes, she figures her telegram announcing her arrival may have been delayed. She must take an omnibus into the city to the flat she shares with friends through the darkening, windy evening.
"The many fans of this series should be delighted with Bess Crawford's latest adventure, while historical mystery buffs new to these novels are likely to embrace it, scrambling to read the previous two installments."
As Bess approaches her flat, she notices that all the windows are dark. The landlady must be out, and her flatmates, also nurses, are not at home. Bess feels an initial relief; she is so tired that all she wants is solitude. Then she glimpses a huddled figure in the outer doorway of the house. As Bess approaches, the woman apologizes in a tearful voice and walks away into the street, shivering in the wind. After much persuading from kind-hearted Bess, the stranger accepts her invitation to come inside to warm up.
The woman is still skittish, anxiously saying she can only stay for a few minutes. When Bess lights the lamp, she is shocked to see that the lady has been struck in the face --- her cheek is marked and her eye is swollen and blackened. Bess doesn't pry, but is appalled to hear that the woman hasn't eaten since the day before. She makes tea and serves biscuits, insisting that her guest, Lydia, stay the night in a flatmate's vacant room. In the morning, Lydia admits that her husband struck her. Afterward, she makes her way from her country home into the city, where she fears her husband will find her. She seems to believe the violence might be at least partially her own fault: "I shouldn't have brought up Juliana. It was wrong of me."
Bess doesn't feel she can ask Lydia questions, but naturally she's wondering who Juliana could be. She ponders the possibilities as silence falls between the two women. When Bess notices that her family's friend, Simon Brandon, is in the street below the flat, she joins him. After confiding in Simon about her unexpected guest, Bess tells him that she may have to take Lydia to her parents' home in Somerset, since she is expected there for Christmas. However, Lydia has a request for Bess. She's hoping her new friend will go with her to her country home, saying that she believes she can face Roger, her husband, and his family from a stronger position if Bess is by her side. Since Bess suspects that Lydia is suffering from a concussion, she doesn't believe she can let the woman travel alone. Of course, as she heads to Lydia's home in the country, she has no way to predict that she will soon be deep in a murder mystery…and that she herself will be one of the prime suspects.
The many fans of this series should be delighted with Bess Crawford's latest adventure, while historical mystery buffs new to these novels are likely to embrace it, scrambling to read the previous two installments. Readers may find some of the minor characters to be a bit under-developed (for example, Lydia's husband Roger's motivations seem hazy in the extreme), but Bess is a strong and sympathetic main character. Her personality coupled with a fascinating time in history and an intriguing mystery make for enjoyable reading.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on September 29, 2011