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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Review: 'An Unmarked Grave'

AN UNMARKED GRAVE: A Bess Crawford Mystery
By Charles Todd
Historical mystery
June 2012
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0-06-201572-3                                                                                    

Intrepid Bess Crawford is just behind the trenches in wartorn France, tending to the wounded, when the Spanish Influenza strikes in the spring of 1918. In the mdist of the chaos, an orderly notices something wrong with one of the many bodies. He didn't die of war wounds or the flu. His neck was broken.

The orderly informs Bess as someone he trusts. She promises to alert the proper people. She promises not only because she trusts the kindly older man who is the orderly and sees for herself that the dead man was murdered, but also because the victim was a family friend who served in her father's regiment.

But before she can get anywhere, the flu strikes her as well. In the near-fairytale atmosphere in which Bess Crawford exists, she is spirited out of France and convalesces back home as strings are pulled. For Bess Crawford has connections, most importantly her father, the Colonel Sahib.

This imposing figure and dearest family friend Simon are full-fledged confidants as she pieces together bits of information and visits various figures connected to the victim. These figures are representative of various strata in Britain's WWI class system, and as such provide a fascinating picture of people carrying on while the Great War goes on and on and on. Although Bess initially isn't quite believed, it's soon evident that the orderly, who died soon after she was taken ill, showed her something important.

Before long, more people connected with the investigation die. Bess knows the killer will target her, but her sense of duty demands that she continue. And if that means she has to take along with her a brash American officer recovering from his war wounds, that's what she will do. Even if he and Simon don't exactly take to each other. The killer gets closer and closer to Bess and her inner circle before the end, which is a classic case of the sleuth figuring it all out in the nick of time.

The world for Bess that the Todds have created is a genuine homage to the World War I era. The violence is off-screen, the characters do not directly express their feelings for each other (really, how thick are Bess and Simon to not have figured that out?) and duty reigns supreme, the plot unfolds in true tricky Agatha Christie style. The series also has other aspects of the historical era it depicts. There is no irony or nod to modern sensibility in Bess calling her father the Colonel Sahib. Women and lower class folk are expected to know their place. In one of the poignant stories told during the unveiling of the plot, a widower father who has lost several sons to the war doesn't understand why the widow of one of them won't come work the farm. Her son would grow up in fresh air but the workload would obviously kill her.

Downton Abbey fans would be well served by reading the Bess Crawford novels while waiting for a new season. Fans of Inspector Rutledge, the first series character brought to life by the Todds, will find a lighter version of the tone in that post-war series.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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