- - Sunday, September 10, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A CASUALTY OF WAR: A BESS CRAWFORD MYSTERY

By Charles Todd

William Morrow, $26.99, 384 pages

The undying horror of war and its wounded is always a focus of the writings of Charles Todd.

His perennial topic of World War I and those who suffered physically and psychologically is where this latest book begins and ends. What is most haunting abut his books is their reality. He spares no pain in describing what it was like in the terrible trenches of France and the desperate efforts of nurses and doctors to save those who often could not be saved and sometimes did not want to be saved.

“A Casualty of War” is a basic account of one man, Capt. Travis, a British officer who is suffering from a severe head wound when he is bought into the care of nursing sister Bess Crawford. She is not only a veteran of the war, she is the daughter of a famous British officer known as Col. Sahib and a close friend of Sgt. Maj. Simon Brandon, who is virtually a member of the Crawford family.

Bess and Travis come to know each other as she copes with his wounds, and their acquaintance takes a dramatic turn when on their second encounter, he explodes into rage with charges that he had been deliberately shot by an English relative whom he recognized as the man behind the gun.

What turns the situation into a murder mystery is that the accused shooter is found to have been killed during the previous year at the hideous battle of Passchendaele. Bess, who is deeply sympathetic to her patients finds herself questioning Capt. Travis’ sanity, and she is only one of many.

The war is coming to its brutal end but the killing goes on, and Bess returns to England on leave to find Travis strapped to a bed in a clinic devoted to coping with brain injuries. She becomes convinced that he is not receiving enough treatment and not enough attention is being paid to her accusations. She believes him, but by that time, almost nobody believes her.

However, Bess is a soldier’s daughter and Brandon, who has spent his military career working in intelligence for her father, respects her opinions. Instead of going home to her family in Suffolk, Bess and Brandon head for what could have been the Travis estate.

The family has been shattered by war and personal enmity, with James Travis who would have been the heir, slain in battle, and his mother struggling with questionable legal problems resulting in part from the decision of some members to begin a new life inn Barbados.

The family uproar turns into murder and Bess finds herself at odds with a hostile police inspector who accuses her of protecting Capt. Travis who is still miserably confined in a bleak clinic where his credibility is questioned.

Once again, Bess becomes his champion, a role she has come to accept during the bleak years of war and death in France.

Shortly before she is called on to assist a doctor dealing with a suicidal nurse, Bess writes unemotionally but poignantly on the record of her patients. It is what she doesn’t write about that carries a grim message, as in how a lieutenant “died as dawn broke on that Friday morning, a casualty of war I had sat with him for the last hours of his life and stayed with him for nearly a quarter of an hour afterward I hadn’t known him except as a patient But he belonged to someone. He belonged to his men, and they had come when they could to stand silent side his bed or touch his hand.”

She notes how close they were to ending “this wretched war” and how hard it was of to watch men die when rumors of promised safety and peace were so near at hand.

The mystery at the center of the book is solved and Capt. Travis is restored to what passes for health and sanity in those days. And Bess goes back to France to help with the terrible debris of years of hostilities.

“A Casualty of War” is Mr. Todd’s strongest war book because its focus is on the helpless humanity of those who had to participate in mindless misery.

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

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