- - Thursday, October 1, 2015



By Charles Todd

Morrow, $25.99, 336 pages


World War I is the real villain in this mystery in which human frailty battles the inhumanity of gruesome armed conflict in France.

Charles Todd, whose literary career is focused on the war and its terrible aftermath of casualties, makes the local disaster of a an explosion in a gunpowder mill in an English village the central point of his latest book. Ironically, those who died in the mysterious disaster become as much of a tragedy as the war in France in terms of the local reaction to the deaths and bitter suspicion that the cause lies with the indifference of a wealthy family whose roots and traditions lie deep in the past.

True to form, the author follows the pattern of his long series of mysteries, which are built around an army officer haunted by the death of a Scottish highland soldier and a young nurse who is the child of a distinguished military family with its roots in colonial times. The army is as much her life as is her devotion to her father who is still known as “Colonel Sahib.”

Sister Bess Crawford is admirably cast as a nurse struggling to save the lives of soldiers suffering through the hell that is the war in the trenches. Her work is her mission in life and not even the local disaster and helping the Ashton family resolve who was to blame for it can take her mind off her awareness that she is due to go back to the horrors of France the next week. Romance is not Mr. Todd’s strong point and although Bess has admirers, no one has succeeded in taking her mind off the war with the exception of her family, which has come to accept the fact that the daughter takes after the father. While the war continues for long and bloody years, Bess is one of the few young women who gave up her life to it. As in Mr. Todd’s other books, matters of the heart takes second place to the reality of hostilities.

The discovery that the only witness to the truth about the village catastrophe is currently at the front in France is no more than a corollary to the plight of the many men who need Bess’ care if they are to recover, let alone go home again. Nevertheless, as a friend of the Ashton family, Bess finds herself a target for the anger rife in the village, and she finds herself watching the shadows for a clever murderer who knows the truth about the day the Ashton Gunpowder Mill blew up and who is determined to destroy not only the reputation of the Ashton family but put an end to its existence. The Ashtons are well drawn, personifying the kind of upper-class British family that was considered the bedrock of many small one-industry towns in the days of the empire. In this case, Mrs. Ashton emerges as the gracious but strong-minded matriarch of the family who is capable of marching out in the middle of the night to investigate a prowler, and of complaining sharply when an antique chair is damaged. Such families, in which the sons invariably went to war, were expected to live up to their social and financial responsibilities, and disappointment was deep and bitter if they were found lacking.

The violence in the plot is chiefly confined to the war, but there is a surprisingly volatile encounter between Bess and the killer who has stalked the Ashtons and who now seeks to kill her. It is made almost comical by the intervention of the local vicar who clearly considers it — at the least — improper for a well brought up young lady like Bess to be found involved in what looked like a public brawl.

Yet Mr. Todd, as always, devotes his strongest writing to the trenches in France and the personalities of some of the men who came to see Sister Bess as their best friend. He wisely avoids sentimentality and in such a situation, there is no need to emphasize the drama.

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

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