Thursday, December 17, 2015
Review: A Duty to the Dead
By Charles Todd
HarperCollins, August 2009
About the Book
The daughter of a distinguished soldier, Bess Crawford follows in his footsteps and signs up to go overseas as a nurse during the Great War, helping to deal with the many wounded. There, while serving on a hospital ship, she makes a promise to a dying young lieutenant to take a message to his brother, Jonathan Graham: “Tell Jonathan that I lied. I did it for Mother’s sake. But it has to be set right.” Later, when her ship is sunk by a mine and she’s sidelined by a broken arm, Bess returns home to England, determined to fulfill her promise.
It’s not so easy, however. She travels to the village in Kent where the Grahams live and passes on to Jonathan his brother′s plea. Oddly, neither Jonathan, his mother, nor his younger brother admit to knowing what the message means. Then Bess learns that there’s another brother, incarcerated in a lunatic asylum since the age of 14 when he was accused of brutally murdering a housemaid.
Bess rightly guesses that the dying soldier’s last words had something to do with the fourth brother. Because the family seems unwilling to do anything, she decides that she will investigate. It’s her own duty to the dead.
This is the first book of the Bess Crawford Mystery Series. Bess is a war nurse during the Great War. One of her dying patients, Arthur Graham, asked her to give a message to his brother Jonathan. The message made little sense to her personally. Something about him being sorry for having lied, and, how it was to protect their mother. She doesn’t know for sure if he’ll understand it either, but a promise is a promise. So several months after his death, and, just a little bit after her own close call—the ship she was on sank—she sets out with her message to visit the Graham family.
I loved A Duty to the Dead for so many reasons. I think Bess Crawford is a great heroine-narrator. She’s sympathetic, patient, and observant. She has a way of seeing right into people and not jumping to conclusions in the process. She’s always one to give the benefit of the doubt. She has seen a lot, heard a lot that’s for sure.
But Bess isn’t the only reason I loved the book. Far from it. For having a good “detective” only takes you so far. What I appreciated was the depth of the characterization of the other characters—primarily members of the Graham family, but, also of others in and around that community and her own. We briefly get an idea of what her own family is like. How much she loves her father and appreciates a close friend of the family, Simon.
I loved the mystery itself. It begins, of course, with her delivering the message to the Graham family. But that is just the start. She doesn’t deliver the message and leave. No, it turns into an at times very awkward social visit. Soon Bess finds herself piecing together all the clues of a huge family secret. And she can’t leave it alone because it’s so outrageous . . .
The writing was excellent. I loved the setting and tone. I appreciated the characterization even if some of the characters were super creepy. It is a great start to a series I’m eager to read all of!