A review to mark Armistice Day, A Casualty of War is the latest book in American authors Charles Todd’s Bess Crawford series. Charles Todd novels are written jointly by Caroline and Charles Todd, who are mother and son. The series begins in 1916, immersing readers in the Great War, where Bess, a Sister in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, is posted to casualty clearing stations at the Front. A Casualty of War is the ninth title in the series.
The novel begins in the last few days of war, where the authors dwell at length on the destroyed landscape and the worn-out emotions of those trying to stem the tide of the dying. I had the impression that the authors were lingering as they came to the end of several years in their writing lives, recreating the horror and chaos of the First World War. Knowing this was their last time of conveying the enormity of it all to their readers. They do a very fine job. The depiction is almost as vivid as in Vera Brittain’s legendary Testament of Youth, memoir of her experiences as a V.A.D in France.
Bess Crawford is a highly experienced, young nursing sister, dedicated to her cause. She and her colleagues are moving from shelled villages to devastated buildings, such as the crypt of a ruined church. Anywhere they can set up temporary camp. Even the birds are gone, trees and orchards cut down, livestock slaughtered and the retreating German army have left deadly booby-traps in their wake.
The medical personnel are beyond exhausted, their weariness of course, as much mental as physical. They can hardly believe the increasing rumours from the base hospital that the war is coming to a close. As the British army advance, they are treating German prisoners as well as Allied soldiers. Men are dying, limbs shattered beyond repair. They’ve so nearly made it through but the tragedy goes on to the very last minute.
The Todds evoke the relentlessness and anguish with a superb sense of place. They write literary detective novels which sets them apart from many peers. I really liked the way they described the moment of ceasefire with its feeling of anti-climax. (My aunt was a W.A.A.F in the Second World War and she remembered V.E. Day on an R.A.F base in much the same way).
Like most series, these titles can be enjoyed in any order, though they’re deeper for knowing Bess’s back-story and regular characters. Her father Colonel Crawford plays a significant part in this one. Bess is a sympathetic character, intelligent, kind, with a strong sense of moral duty to her charges.
A Casualty Of War has a terrific plot. They all begin by Bess getting involved in a mystery involving one of her patients – of necessity, including some leave in England – but they’re not formulaic. The Todds are extremely good at thinking up intriguing scenarios, often with an unusual motive – always a bonus in detective fiction.
This time, Bess is on a fortnight’s leave after the Armistice, before returning to France. She’s desperate to help an army captain from Barbados whom she met and later treated at the Front. He’s adamant that another British officer twice tried to murder him. Claims which lead him to be detained in a clinic for shell-shock injuries, where his sanity is in jeopardy.
Bess Crawford’s determination to solve the mystery takes her and an old family friend – a resourceful Sergeant-Major – to a Suffolk village, home of the captain’s distant relatives. The Todds are very good at creating believable characters and conveying a disturbing atmosphere of suspicion and hostility. They take a lot of trouble to describe attractive English villages with their hierarchical society largely as they would have been.
This story, beyond the murder mystery, is about pain and loss. It’s a snapshot of Britain with the Great War just over and almost every village mourning their dead. They write movingly of the temporary wooden memorial on the village green with the men’s names added haphazardly as their deaths were confirmed.
I really like Caroline and Charles Todd’s writing and always enjoy their other series featuring Inspector Rutledge of Scotland Yard, set just after the Great War. My only caveat is their repeated use of American terms which jerk a British reader out of their fictional world. Their mistakes are far less frequent than many American authors writing British-set mysteries, but this means they stand out all the more. It’s very odd, for instance, when they always call a village street the High, (they’ve obviously visited Oxford) and a barkeep serves in the local pub.
I’m always surprised the Todds don’t use a British editor or friend to check their work, when they obviously care very much about their research and authentic sense of place. They don’t quite ‘get’ the subtleties of our dreadful class-system as it was at the period. Understandably, as Americans are far too sensible to care about such rubbish! The Bess Crawford novels are narrated in first-person and in A Casualty Of War, it was noticeable that the authors sometimes forgot to write in Bess’s ‘voice,’ having her think phrases such as the British when our would be natural. At times I was aware of them explaining the British perspective of the Great War to their American audience.
Despite this, A Casualty Of War is suspenseful and thought-provoking. I enjoyed it a lot and the series arc is left at an interesting place. I’ll definitely be following Bess Crawford as she adjusts to peace and am glad to read that the authors have several more novels in mind.