English Nurse Detective Novel Reviewed

This brief review by Marilyn Stasio appeared in the 6 Sept. 2009 issue of the New York Times books section:

Readers who can’t get enough of Maisie Dobbs, the intrepid World War I battlefield nurse in Jacqueline Winspear’s novels, or Hester Latterly, who saw action in the Crimean War in a series of novels by Anne Perry, are bound to be caught up in the adventures of Bess Crawford, the courageous British army nurse introduced by Charles Todd in A DUTY TO THE DEAD (Morrow/HarperCollins, $24.99). The strong-willed and self-determined daughter of a retired colonel, Bess shows her mettle when the hospital ship she’s serving on hits a German mine and goes down off the coast of Greece in the fall of 1916.

Recovering at home with a badly broken arm, Bess is reminded of the promise she made to a dying soldier named Arthur Graham, who begged her to deliver an urgent message to his brother. (“Tell Jonathan that I lied,” he instructed her. “I did it for Mother’s sake. But it has to be set right.”) Honorbound, Bess makes her way to the Kent countryside, described in precise period detail with a lovely touch of rue for its never-to-be-recovered way of life. Here the story takes on Gothic intonations as Bess discovers that the Graham family has no intention of righting any past wrongs, especially those pertaining to the eldest son, who has been locked up in an asylum for killing a maid when he was 14.

Bess is made of sterner stuff than Ian Rutledge, the shell-shocked Scotland Yard inspector in the World War I series for which the mother-and-son team who write as Charles Todd is primarily known. But while her sensibility is as crisp as her narrative voice, Bess is a compassionate nurse who responds with feeling when asked to care for a traumatized veteran who has been callously shunned as a coward and a menace by the villagers. “It isn’t madness,” she insists. “Shell shock is an affliction of the brain.” However cogently argued, her plea for the humane treatment of troubled minds seems all the more hopeless when applied to the eldest Graham son, who escapes from the madhouse and forces Bess to help him solve the mysteries of his traumatic past.

Neither as tradition-bound as Hester Latterly, her 19th-century predecessor, nor as enlightened as Maisie Dobbs, who was a student of Freudian psychology, Todd’s heroine is a new woman — and her own woman. Pragmatic in the face of danger, she takes a brave stand on behalf of the mentally wounded, their suffering worsened by the isolation imposed on them through the fear and ignorance of the people who once loved them. In the process, she becomes the champion of all those lost and forgotten in war.

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