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A Duty To The Dead by Charles Todd

Charles Todd is a pseudonym for an American mother/son writing team.  Todd writes two series, the Ian Rutledge series and the Bess Crawford series.  Bess Crawford is a British, World War I nurse, who has an inexplicable knack for getting caught up in murder mysteries.  A Duty To The Dead is the first novel in the Bess Crawford series; it is also the first Charles Todd novel that I've read.  Someone donated a paperback copy to the library recently that I borrowed and read after some initial confusion over whether it was the first or second in the series (because we all know I like to read a series in order!).  A promise made to a dying soldier is what leads to the mayhem as it were (although, really there isn't mayhem related to the mystery until a bit at the end), and when the smoke clears a family is left in shambles with hardly anyone left to pick up the pieces.

Bess promises a dying soldier named Arthur Graham that she will personally relay a message to his family: "Tell my brother Jonathan that I lied.  I did it for mother's sake.  But it has to be set right."  But Bess puts off the fulfillment of this promise until the ship she's working on is suddenly sunk by a mine on a routine voyage to pick up war wounded.  In the chaos that ensues after the initial explosion, Bess's arm is broken, and the injury is exacerbated in the evacuation of the sinking ship.  Sent home on leave while her arm heals, Bess takes the time to travel to Kent to finally deliver Arthur's message.

Upon her arrival, Bess is welcomed as a guest in the Graham family home.  When she delivers the message to Jonathan, both he and his mother claim to know not of what Arthur meant by the cryptic message.  But as Bess spends time with the family and in the nearby village, she realizes there's a skeleton in the family's closet that's related to the stepson packed off to an insane asylum.  Bess also witnesses a decidedly puzzling family dynamic between the two surviving brothers, their mother and their mother's cousin, Robert.  There is also the aforementioned third brother, Peregrine, the boys' father's eldest son and heir, who is a product of the father's first marriage, and whom his stepmother, the father's second wife, has always claimed is not right in the head.  He has been shut in a nearby asylum for over a decade following a mysterious and bloody murder.

Bess begins trying to figure out first the family relationships and history, including the dynamic between Peregrine and his brothers and their mother that despite a seemingly loving facade is rife with tension below the surface.  The family insists that Peregrine isn't right in the head, that he was not a bright child who struggled with his lessons, that he murdered a girl in cold blood, and that he remain shut in the asylum, cut off from the world and isolated from any visitors.  But what the family claims and indeed even the villagers reinforce does not square with Bess's experience of him while she nurses him through a sudden, serious bout with pneumonia at the family home after the asylum abruptly ejects him during his illness.  At the first sign of recovery, Peregrine is again packed off to the asylum.  But that is not where he stays.

After the family receives some "terrible news," Bess is pretty much unceremoniously packed off to the train station to depart back to London on the last evening train.  Upon her return to London, she soon discovers that Peregrine has escaped the asylum and taken refuge in her flat.  His escape being the unspecified "terrible news" that the Graham family had received.  Not only did he manage to abscond with Bess's London address, he also pilfered a pistol, escaped the asylum, and managed to make it to London.

Peregrine tells Bess that he doesn't deny murdering the housemaid, but he wants to remember why he did it so he can face the truth of what he is.  Using the pistol and some threats, he coerces a reluctant Bess into assisting in his quest to piece together his fragmented and fuzzy memory of the events of the night of the murder.  So Bess and Peregrine embark on a fact finding mission to dig up information on the maid's family, the police investigation, the speed with which he was packed off to the asylum on the same night as the murder, and the family secrets to which he was privy even as his slowly emerging, still fragmented memory of that night sheds light on the truth of what happened all those years ago.  Bess's instincts tell her that there is more to this mystery than meets the eye and all the circumstantial evidence they dig up seems to buoy this hunch.  As Bess gathers and analyzes the information, she begins to suspect that Peregrine was drugged, that the family separated and isolated him for fear that others might guess that what they claimed about him was not true, and that Mrs. Graham had an ulterior motive for discrediting Peregrine for fear that he might reveal some family secrets that would reflect rather poorly on her.  All of which leads Bess to suspect that the version of events disseminated by Mrs. Graham is in fact a cover for what really occurred that night.

Coupled with her own observations of the Graham family dynamics, Bess is horrified by the cold cruelty of the deliberate actions taken by Mrs. Graham to isolate and estrange Peregrine from his brothers and the outside world, to disenfranchise and divest him of his rightful inheritance, to discredit him in order to hide her own secrets, and to sacrifice him on the altar of the law and public opinion in order to save one of her own sons.  The consequences of Mrs. Graham's actions that long ago night, though long dormant in the intervening years, have come home to roost.  While justice may have been postponed and held at bay for a decade and half, it will take its price in blood upon the Graham family.

I have to admit, for me, the book was slow to start at first.  Yes, there was the action of the sinking of the ship, etc. at the beginning of the book, but the mystery didn't really get going until after Bess was finally in Kent with the Grahams.  It was the mystery of the slightly off family dynamics that subtly hint that the family hides a dark secret that drew me in initially.  And when Bess starts pursuing the mystery of the old murder in earnest because she believes an injustice was done rather than because she fears for her life is when the story really gets going.  While I enjoyed the book, I'm not sure the character of Bess really grabbed me enough to want to embark upon reading the series.  I do have the second one at home that I may or may not read.   Fans of historical fiction or historical mysteries will enjoy this book and the series.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie


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