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BOOK REVIEW: ‘An Unmarked Grave’

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AN UNMARKED GRAVE
By Charles Todd
Morrow, $24.99, 272 pages

MIDWINTER BLOOD
By Mons Kallentoft
Atria/Emily Bestler Books, $25.99, 464 pages

This is murder in the midst of the trench warfare of World War I, exacerbated by a lethal Spanish influenza that took millions of victims in an era otherwise predominated by military and civilian death.

It is the kind of setting in which Charles Todd's inimitable Nurse Bess Crawford so frequently finds herself at risk. This time around, she is not only struck down by disease but threatened by a murderer who, among such widespread death, appears to count on another corpse simply going unnoticed.

Bess Crawford fits neatly into the scene of mindless violence, where not even the influence of her father, "Colonel Sahib," and his loyal military aide, Simon Brandon, can prevent her from taking too many risks in her pursuit of a ruthless killer. Mr. Todd evokes the horrors of the trench war that were especially familiar to nurses like Bess.

He also offers grim reminders of what the conflict in France cost families in Britain, who were destroyed by the enormous number of casualties and deaths. This is a mystery with the most dramatic of settings and plotting as complex as Nurse Crawford herself, who almost succumbs to influenza and is taken home to England. There, she is haunted by the memory of the death of a soldier in the trenches. She becomes increasingly more suspicious, and she struggles to become healthy enough to return to France to investigate what she is certain is murder.

Nurse Crawford has an invincible quality about her that even her military veteran father reluctantly admires, and she charges forth on her missions, whether of mercy or justice. The story moves rapidly between France and England as Nurse Crawford closes in on her prey and puts herself in considerable danger. Mr. Todd has a sharp eye for scene and character, and he surrounds his leading lady with a lively cast.

A tidal wave of snow and blood seems to have swept over the Scandinavian literary scene and Mons Kallentoft's "Midwinter Blood" is a chilling example of that trend. The book's prologue is a grim appeal from the dying, and after that, things get worse.

Mr. Kallentoft writes about the tormented life of police superintendent Malin Fors in the Swedish town of Linkoping, and there is nothing restrained about his prose. His characters are brutally tortured and those spared physical harm suffer psychologically. Fors is a driven and often unhappy woman with a taste for liquor and an independent streak that worries her colleagues on the police force. Often, her troubled teenage daughter seems, by comparison, better adjusted.

The book opens with the discovery of a 350-pound mutilated body of a man hanging from an oak tree, so you know what to expect in the pages to come. The task of getting the corpse down is a nightmare, with the book's only flicker of dark humor coming when the body falls on top of a screaming police officer. In case the reader needs more explanation of how the victim suffered in the life he lived before dying, the dead man speaks from the hereafter to fill in the blanks.

There is also the grim story of a young woman so brutally raped she now spends her days in a hospital room where she won't talk about it. It all ties into a terrible pattern of family violence, with a mother who appears to be the embodiment of evil. Plodding through the blood-stained snow, Fors struggles to make sure justice is done even as she seems to doubt its likelihood.

Mr. Kallentoft writes vividly and harshly. There are few moments of gentleness or warmth in the world he creates because his is a world of misery that makes Fors' frequent bouts of depression understandable. She is good at her work, but there is no suggestion that she enjoys it. When she isn't embroiled in crime, she is nostalgic about her separation from her husband.

Malin Fors' dark progress has now been tracked through several books, and the author has certainly carved for her and for himself a trail of bloody footprints in the snow.

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

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