- A Duty to the Dead (2009)
- An Impartial Witness (2010)
- A Bitter Truth (2011)
- An Unmarked Grave (2012)
4.5. The Walnut Tree (2012)
5. A Question of Honor (2013)
WordPress doesn’t like the idea of a “4.5” in my numerical listing, so you’ll have to forgive the wonky formatting!
Charles Todd is actually a mother/son writing team best known for their Ian Rutledge series, which I have never gotten around to reading. Bess Crawford is their newer series, which centers around a World War I nurse (Bess Crawford) and various mysteries in which she finds herself entangled. While the mystery aspect is done well in each book, the real charm of the series is in the excellent sense of setting and place. World War I often gets rather overlooked, so reading a series with it as a backdrop has been quite intriguing.
Bess grew up (an only child) in India, with her military father (whom she and her mother fondly refer to as the Colonel Sahib) and her mother. I love the fact that Bess has both of her parents, they are both kind, hardworking, loving people, and that her parents love Bess and love each other. They’re supportive without being pushy, worried without being controlling. Being a nurse is still a slightly questionable occupation for a well-brought-up young woman, but instead of following the well-worn, boring trail of having the main character rebel against her upbringing blah blah blah, here we have a refreshing scenario where Bess’s parents are thrilled – mainly because they know it’s dangerous – but recognize the need for nurses and Bess’s skill in that area, and thus support her decision.
Bess herself is a very likable character. She’s intelligent and independent without being obnoxious. She works hard and loves being a nurse, but isn’t constantly raging about the restrictions society places on females. She’s determined and can be a bit bull-headed, but isn’t constantly dashing into danger and then getting annoyed when people don’t trust her. In short, she felt realistic to me, and it was genuinely delightful to read a series where I wasn’t constantly being preached at about the patriarchy and how hard life was as a woman in the early 1900’s.
For the most part, the mysteries fit into the context of the war, and so it doesn’t feel unnatural for someone wholly unrelated to law enforcement to be stumbling across murders and suspicious circumstances. With the exception of An Unmarked Grave, which depended far too much on coincidence, the mysteries were well-plotted and engaging.
One thing I also enjoyed is how free of profanity and sex the stories are. The authors don’t pretend like these things didn’t exist at the time, but the truth is that this was an era when swearing around women was still rather taboo. And Bess is too well-brought-up, too busy, and too practical to think about sleeping around. It is such a relief to enjoy some mysteries without constantly being hammered with f-bombs and gratuitous sex.
The Walnut Tree isn’t about Bess Crawford, but instead is a side story that focuses on another nurse Bess knows, and about this girl’s journey to becoming a nurse. It was definitely the weakest of all the stories. It isn’t a mystery, but instead more of a “romance” with an incredibly boring love triangle. There was this strange side plot about smugglers that I thought was going to be somewhat central, but instead felt tacked on, as though the authors felt that even a side book in a mystery series ought to have some mystery. Also, while all the other characters became known by just their first names, every time Bess appeared it was as “Bess Crawford,” as though to emphasize the reminder that this book is connected to the Bess Crawford series. So it would be something like, “I was so happy to see Bess Crawford and Diane sit down at the table with me. Diane said she had been busy catching up on correspondence that afternoon, while Bess Crawford had gone out to do some shopping.” I was so tired of seeing BESS CRAWFORD!
Anyway, while I’ve spent some time grumbling here, the truth of the matter is that these have been thoroughly enjoyable books, with the series getting 4* so far. I have the second half of the series checked out of the library and ready to read, and I’m quite looking forward to picking up Bess’s journey.