An Impartial Witness: A Bess Crawford Mystery
Towards the end of Charles Todd’s engaging new mystery featuring Bess Crawford, the valiant battlefield nurse recalls the series of events that have put her in the biggest dilemma of her young life. She recounts with stoic accuracy, “I stood there thinking that it had all begun here…I had been an impartial witness then. I had tried to keep that personal distance, but events had drawn me further and further into the vortex of a murder investigation. I had got too close to people and perhaps hadn’t been as objective as I could or should have been.”
"As with the first book in the series, A DUTY TO THE DEAD, Bess finds herself turning from nurse to sleuth in an attempt to solve a deadly mystery."
Sometimes, the most precarious situations occur when we least expect them. Bess is innocently on her way back to London after tending to wounded soldiers on the battlefields of France during World War I. It is early in the summer of 1917, and Bess is looking forward to a brief respite at home with her family before resuming her duties for the war effort. One of the patients she escorts home is a badly burned pilot who continues to cling to a photo of his wife. This is not anything new, but for some reason the action sparks of resonance with Bess, and this memory will prove quite meaningful in events to come.
The wounded are taken to a clinic in Hampshire, U.K. After seeing her patients settled in there, Bess begins to proceed to the railway station that will shuttle her home for a few days. However, a chance meeting in the midst of a crowd at the station changes her plans. She believes that she passes a woman who appears to be the very same “wife” she had noticed in the photo the burned soldier held in his hands. She follows the woman, only to find her consoling another soldier who is getting ready to leave for the war --- and this soldier is clearly not her husband.
After her brief stay in London, Bess returns to France only to be shocked by an article she reads in the local newspaper concerning a woman who was horribly murdered --- stabbed and thrown into the river to die --- and the photo in the article is that of the burned soldier’s wife. Bess later learns that the wounded soldier, in an apparent act of ultimate despair, takes his own life in his hospital bed upon learning of the brutal slaying. She now feels compelled to speak with the local authorities as she not only passed this woman at the train station a few days earlier, but may have seen the man who was responsible for her death --- the strange soldier she was embracing in an uncomfortably familiar manner.
As with the first book in the series, A DUTY TO THE DEAD, Bess finds herself turning from nurse to sleuth in an attempt to solve a deadly mystery. The only difference this time is that Bess, though an impartial witness unknown to any of the parties involved, may be the only key to solving the murder and suicide that have occurred. When a second woman is attacked and nearly killed, the local authorities now feel they have a serial killer on their hands. The manhunt points them in the direction of a young British soldier named Michael Hart. Bess had met Michael a few days earlier at a social gathering and found him to be quite engaging. She also recognized, as a nurse, that he could not be capable of the atrocities that have been committed against the two women as one of his arms was in a cast, and he had a severely injured eye that could be forever lost if he exerted any kind of force before it healed.
Even though Bess makes appeals on Michael’s behalf to the authorities and anyone who will listen, her pleas fall on deaf ears. For some inexplicable reason, Michael has accepted his fate and ends up being sentenced to death by hanging in a swift court judgment. Why would he condemn himself? Who is he protecting, if anyone? Or does he simply feel guilty about something else and believes that death is the only honorable punishment to ease his tormented conscience?
None of these answers will stand with Bess Crawford. However, by continuing to conduct her own investigation into the lives and families involved in the murder, suicide and attempted homicide, she unwittingly puts herself directly in the path of the true killer --- and has no idea how much danger she is in. Once again, Charles Todd does an excellent job of recreating this turbulent period in time and uses the backdrop of WWI to add further drama to the developing mystery with extreme effectiveness.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on January 22, 2011