A Duty to the Dead, Charles Todd, William Morrow, $24.99.
When you think of writers who are masters of the "hook" certain names come to mind—Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Marcus Sakey, Jeffrey Deaver, Karin Slaughter—usually the name of "Charles Todd" doesn't spring forward in that context. However, the hook for his Ian Rutledge series is one of the best in the business: shell shocked vet, haunted by a completely different voice/person in his head. His latest book, the first in a new series featuring WWI nurse Bess Crawford, opens with Bess languidly writing in her journal while on board a hospital ship which has, at the moment, no wounded. She's bored, bored, bored—what a perfect time, the narrative genius that operates in the mind of Charles Todd must have thought, to have the ship hit by a torpedo.
As you follow Bess onto the life boat (she sustains a badly injured arm) Todd has thus achieved two goals: you're invested in Bess as a character, as he's made you worry about her; and you're invested in the narrative itself. What happens after the ship sinks? How will people be rescued? How will their wounds be treated? You've fallen—hook, line and sinker. And since this is a novel by Charles Todd, what's next is just as compelling as what kicks it off.
Not only has Todd set his hook into you by getting you concerned for Bess as a physical being, you also become invested in her emotional life. She feels a very nagging guilt to carry the deathbed message entrusted to her by a favorite patient—one she had fallen a little in love with—to his grieving family. When her father meets her in London (he's a soldier himself) he tells her her duty to the dead is paramount. He's lived his life according to duty to his country and the military, and Bess has been raised to do the same. So she sets out, in, it must be admitted, a reluctant fashion, to the childhood home of Arthur Graham.
While Charles Todd may get you into the door of his books through the skillful use of narrative, what keeps the reader there is both the beautiful writing and the psychological engagement and complexity of the characters he writes about. As Bess unravels the layers of what we would now call the dysfunctional Graham family, you're with her at every turn. Arthur's mother is grieving deeply for the loss of what, it becomes apparent, was her favorite child. Arthur had three brothers, only two at home: Timothy, who, with a club foot, is unable to serve, and the strangely cold Jonathan, who Arthur's message is intended for. While Mrs. Graham is more than curious about the message, she lets Bess deliver it to Jonathan in private.
Their reaction is not what Bess expects. As she stays through the weekend she helps to tend to a shell shocked vet mourning the loss of his twin on the battlefield. This earns her the respect of the local doctor, and when the third brother, Peregrine, is released from the mental hospital where he's been since age 14, needing nursing because he has a near fatal case of pneumonia, Bess steps in to help.
As Bess nurses Peregrine she begins to wonder what put him into the mental hospital in the first place, and she begins to ask questions. Her expeditions into the emotional life of the mysteriously complicated Graham family lead her far and wide, and all the while she's still attempting to do what's right. The "right thing", by the end of the novel, is a bit murky, and that may be the most modern sensibility imposed here on the un-anachronistic Bess. In the hands of a master like Charles Todd, the lucky reader gets a great new character, a wonderful story, and a believable historical background. While I love Ian Rutledge, I am already looking forward to another story about Bess Crawford.
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