- - Friday, September 27, 2013

A QUESTION OF HONOR
By Charles Todd
Morrow, $25.99, 320 pages

The question of whether a British officer serving in India in the early 20th century killed his parents and then disappeared is the pivot around which this mystery evolves.

In “A Question of Honor,” Charles Todd paints his usual vivid picture of the era of World War I and the life of British families inextricably linked to a regiment, in this instance one stationed in India. “Col. Sahib” Crawford comes close to a stereotype of the valiant British officer whose men become his family and whose wife is not only staunch but surprisingly shrewd. When she keeps her mouth shut, it is only because she chooses not to say anything, and when she does speak, her words command respect.

Bess Crawford, their daughter, is fortunate that her parents chose to have her grow up and be educated in India rather than send her back to England and the care of paid foster parents. The fate of other children left at the mercy of mercenary couples forms a major part of the book’s smoothly tailored plot, which swings from India to France to England.

Bess is a wartime nurse whose patients are the survivors of bloody trench warfare. She has a penchant for detective work, which adds to her parents’ concern for her welfare, especially when, in France, she announces she has seen Lt. Thomas Wade, the man whose body was allegedly found in the Khyber Pass after the slaying of his parents. The possibility that Wade, the alleged killer, has survived and assumed another identity is foreboding. Chances are, he has recognized Bess as the daughter of his former Col. Sahib. Fortunately, she has an unofficial guardian in Simon Brandon, a former regimental sergeant major who is devoted to her father, and he tries to warn and protect her from her determination to probe the mystery of the unsolved killing.

However, she is spurred on by reports that, in addition to killing his parents, Wade had also killed a couple in England while he was on leave. The story winds its complicated path through the peaceful villages of England as well as the devastated French countryside, and it is in the unlikely setting of quiet homes in England that the grim solution of the mystery finally emerges.

The more Bess investigates, the more she suspects the involvement of a couple who housed British children sent from India. It is this couple who have been killed, and Wade is the prime suspect. However, the couple may have had secrets of their own. They are alleged to have abused the foster children sent to their care, and Bess proceeds to track down these children, now grown. They have survived and made their own lives, yet they are beyond haunted by the horror of their childhood. Not only Bess but her intrepid mother join in the search for these children and for the child who grew up to take terrible revenge against his own parents.

The author injects an intriguing side plot with meetings between Bess and English author Rudyard Kipling, who was himself sent back from India to a foster family and who has bitter and angry memories of the treatment he received. What he tells her becomes a crucial clue in resolving a strange and sad case.

It is Mr. Todd’s style to make World War I an important aspect of his mysteries, and his plots are always laden with the horrors of that conflict and what it did to thousands who, even as survivors, remain forever scarred by what they have seen and suffered.

Nurses and soldiers alike live within the sound of thundering guns and beneath the shadow of death. Bess emerges as a woman of remarkable strength who in another era might have matched her father in leadership. Yet she is always mindful of the importance of her father’s regiment. Her pursuit of a killer stems in part from her concern that the reputation so cherished by Col. Sahib has been irreparably tarnished by a violent and inexplicable crime committed by one who was a respected part of the regiment.

The indefatigable Bess does what her father, now retired from the army, cannot do to relieve his mind of what remains a miserable and haunting memory of inexplicable violence. He is left to worry about the daughter of whom he is proud yet for whose safety he fears. What gives the plot an interesting twist is the role played by Bess’ mother, who is an indefatigable ally in her daughter’s quest for truth. The colonel’s wife shows herself to be a woman far ahead of her time, and Bess is her mother’s daughter.

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