BOOK REVIEW: ‘An Impartial Witness’

AN IMPARTIAL WITNESS
By Charles Todd
Morrow, $24.99, 352 pages

LOVE SONGS FROM A SHALLOW GRAVE
By Colin Cotterill
Soho, $25, 304 pages

Charles Todd’s “An Impartial Witness” is haunted by the horror of World War I as it affected those who fought it and tried to forget it, if they lived through it. Mr. Todd made his name with a series of mysteries about an English officer with the ghost of a dead Highlander in his head. It was an unusual and original concept and it worked until Hamish the specter began to take over the man.

So it made sense for Mr. Todd - the pen name of a versatile mother-and-son writing team - to branch out with a new series in which the chief character is a young nurse serving in France during the war and struggling to cope with the psychological as well as the physical agony of the wounded. Bess Crawford is a strong and likable character who can draw legitimately on her personal background for her understanding of the military.

It is an old Crawford family joke that such was her personality that by the time she took her first baby steps, her father, the “Colonel Sahib” who saw postings around the empire, predicted, “She’ll be running the British Army before she’s ten!” Bess‘ decision to become a nurse during the war and to serve in France was probably not what her family would have chosen for her, especially since she is prone to becoming involved in criminal cases with their roots in the war, but there is a curiosity and a questing quality about her that made it unlikely for her to accept the traditional early-20th-century role of an upper-class woman whose sole goal was marriage.

This adventure begins when she sees the face of a young woman clinging to an officer at a railway station and is shocked to recognize her from the photograph of his wife that a critically burned pilot kept pinned to his uniform. The pilot is Bess‘ patient and the brief encounter at the railway station is the beginning of a strange case that involves several murders and some dark family secrets.

The pilot’s wife is one of the victims, and to further darken the scene, she is found to have been pregnant as a result of an adulterous affair, although the name of the child’s father remains a mystery. It is characteristic of Bess that without hesitation she takes her story to Inspector Herbert at Scotland Yard while her father shakes his head over his wayward daughter.

The plot is set in the classic English villages of the World War I era, and the authors have done their homework on the manners and mores of the time. It is particularly effective in its portrayal of a ruined family and the evil that dwells within it. Bess is a rebel and ironically, in her determination, she probably most resembles her father. And when she finds herself caught up in a situation where a former officer faces hanging for a crime he did not commit, Bess is faced with a terrible choice.

The authors have captured and re-created the past in a way that illustrates the damage that war can do and has always done to any way of life. Bess is an example of how few who emerged from the bloodiness ever saw their world the same way again.

 

Death by torture almost puts an end to Dr. Siri Paiboun, the national coroner of Laos, in Colin Cotterill’s “Love Songs From a Shallow Grave,” the author’s latest hymn to macabre humor. The jolly Dr. Siri is in the midst of an investigation of the bizarre murders of three young women in Laos when he makes an official visit to Cambodia that turns into a descent into hell.

The author notes that there was nothing “inherently funny” about the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos in the 1970s when paranoia afflicted the strict socialist regime. But bureaucratic nitpicking in Laos was paradise compared with the killing fields of Cambodia where the 74-year-old Laotian coroner finds himself in the clutches of Khmer Rouge killers accusing him of spying for Vietnam.

The introspection of Dr. Siri as he awaits an agonizing death in a squalid cell is most remarkable in the way it shows his capacity to distance himself from his dreadful circumstances and to retain a capacity for mockery of his sadistic captors.

He later recalls that he occupied his mind in his imprisonment by word games, puzzles and making up country songs like “My Mama Sold the Buffalo and Bought a Rocket Launcher.”

“The therapeutic effects of dying horribly” is how the author sums up Dr. Siri’s final days of starvation, during which he eats the paper on which he is ordered to write a confession. Ironically, it is during his five weeks of imprisonment in the hands of the Khmer Rouge that there is revealed to Dr. Siri the answer to the mystery of the three epee killings in Laos.

The book moves between the real horror of the Khmer Rouge and its capacity for inflicting ghastly punishment for imaginary offenses and the relative levity of Dr. Siri’s approach to the problem of how young women died after a fencing weapon was used to impale them through the heart. His solution is as ingenious as the killings, demonstrating the author’s capacity to pose and prove the unlikely.

This is the seventh and most sardonic of Mr. Cotterill’s Dr. Siri series, and it is not easy to cope with the combination of misery and merry melancholy that he employs. His writing, as always, is skillful and smooth and his plot is artfully strung together. The book fascinates as it chills.

And, as usual, Mr. Cotterill keeps his sting for the last. Recuperating in Laos, Dr. Siri receives a communication from the minister of information that acknowledges his devoted membership in the Communist Party, but notes reprovingly that the authorities were “less than impressed” with his “poor attitude toward authority and blatant disregard for regulations.” Consequently, he was being denied “national hero status.” There is left only grim laughter, and the hope that Dr. Siri will return.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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