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BOOK REVIEW: ‘A Christmas Garland’

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A CHRISTMAS GARLAND
By Anne Perry
Ballantine, $18, 208 pages

THE WALNUT TREE: A HOLIDAY TALE
By Charles Todd
HarperCollins, $16.99, 256 pages

There is no Christmas cheer in a British garrison in India in 1857. In the wake of the massacre of Cawnpore in which men, women and children were slaughtered, there is only despair. The atmosphere of the not-exactly-festive "A Christmas Garland" is made even darker by the killing of a guard and the escape of an Indian prisoner because the culprit is suspected to be John Tallis, a British medical orderly with no history of problems or violence.

It is the miserable task of young Lt. Victor Narraway to defend Tallis at what he views as a show trial that will culminate in the defendant's hanging. What troubles Narraway is that no evidence or witnesses link the defendant to the slaying of the guard. He was arrested because he was the only soldier unaccounted for when the crime was committed, and nobody thinks Tallis didn't do it.

Anne Perry is usually at her best in trial scenes, and she builds considerable tension into the military court-martial in which nobody believes in the innocence of the defendant -- except the reluctant Narraway is troubled by what he sees as a potential failure of justice. His investigation and his questioning are relentless and, in this case, the devil is indeed in the details. The author emphasizes the difficulty that Narraway faces, all of it exacerbated by the anger of senior officers who accuse him of overstepping his position. His only comfort comes from a lonely garrison widow and her children who are grateful for his company. It is the gift of a blue paper garland from her daughter that gives Narraway hope and reminds him of happier Christmases.

The author notes, "All around them was the air of danger, of hate, the bitter knowledge that fighting was going on just beyond their hearing and sight. All of northern India was in turmoil. Allies were dying to save what was left of British rule and here they were locked up in a tiny room arguing over a truth that everyone knew perfectly well."

Except it isn't the truth, and it is Narraway whose patient efforts detect the tiny discrepancy in testimony that establishes the facts of the case. Ms. Perry builds her plot skillfully, and her depiction of the unhappy garrison is sensitive. Tallis in particular emerges as a man almost resigned to being wrongfully accused and retaining a sardonic sense of humor about it. Even he cannot believe Narraway or anyone else can save him. Yet for all of them, there emerges a glimpse of the spirit of Christmas.

The horrors of World War I have always preoccupied Charles Todd's books, and with its portrayal of battlefield casualties and thousands of dead, "The Walnut Tree" is no exception. Its only difference, and one that weakens the plot, is that its chief character is the daughter of an English earl who is desperate to become a battlefield nurse despite the flat opposition of her guardian. Lady Elspeth Douglas is expected to live her happy and lavish social life and marry well, and in fact she struggles with guilt over two suitors, both suitable and both in the war, throughout most of the book.

Elspeth is a likable character, but her effort to escape her aristocratic background is not strong enough to carry a plot steeped in bloodshed and tragedy -- holiday background notwithstanding. The solution to her romantic problems seems contrived, and her triumph over those who forbid her to become a nursing sister in France seems unlikely. Unlike Mr. Todd's other books that concentrate on nursing and the psychological miseries of soldiers haunted by killing, this has little focus beyond Elspeth's determination to make herself useful in the world. It is more of a romance than a mystery and, unfortunately, too many of the other female characters lack Elspeth's desire to change their way of life.

The male characters are stereotyped, and the English village way of life seems too idyllic to be realistic, especially in a war that wracked the country. This is an unusually hackneyed piece of writing from Mr. Todd. So much for Christmas cheer.

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

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