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A DUTY TO THE DEAD by Charles Todd: Book Review

It’s always a pleasure to discover a new series by a favorite author.  Charles Todd, actually Caroline and Charles Todd, a mother and son who author the Inspector Rutledge novels, has written the first in what I hope will be a long series.  A Duty to the Dead features Elizabeth (Bess) Crawford, a nurse during the First World War, who has made a promise to a mortally wounded soldier to return to his family and tell one of his brothers to “set things right.”

Just what Arthur Graham means by that Bess isn’t sure, but her uncomfortable feeling about it leads her to postpone carrying out Graham’s last request for several weeks.  Finally she writes to the family and receives a note asking her to visit them for a weekend.  There she finds his mother, two younger brothers, and a half-brother about whom Arthur never spoke.  Peregrine, the oldest of the four sons and the only one from their father’s first marriage, has been in a mental asylum since he was fourteen, about half his life, after having killed a young female servant in London.  But did he truly commit the crime?  It’s obvious that the family wants nothing to do with this errant son and won’t allow either the village doctor or the village rector to see him; nor does any member of his own family ever visit him except for one brief visit from Arthur years before.

Bess Crawford comes from a military family; indeed, she calls her father Colonel Sahib, if only in her mind.  Her call to duty is strong, and that is what finally persuades her to go to Kent and face the Graham family, even as she believes there’s a meaning to Arthur Graham’s last request that will make her an unwelcome guest.

I didn’t find the mystery especially difficult to solve.  Naturally, once Bess gets involved with the Peregrine, the “mad” brother, the reader knows there will be more to his story than everyone has believed for years.  What I found fascinating were Bess’s beliefs; very much the proper British woman, although stubborn and courageous at a time when these were not viewed as positive attributes, she still is unable to believe that there can be anything truly wrong in this family.  Every time there’s an incident which casts the mother and brothers in a unfavorable light, Bess finds an excuse to explain it.  There’s a kind of naivete in this young woman that would be impossible to believe were this a contemporary crime story.  Our outlook today is that there is no crime so horrendous that we cannot imagine that people could commit it.  After World War II, numerous other genocides, and 911, to say nothing of individual murders, today’s heroines would not have much trouble accepting that families would commit evil acts without a backward glance or a feeling of regret.  More’s the pity, I think.

This is a very strong “first novel,” although of course Todd has written eleven mysteries featuring Rutledge, so he’s hardly a neophyte.  But A Duty to the Dead shows us a strong, believable heroine quite different from Rutledge, one I hope will go on to be the lead in a series as long and successful as his.

You can also find out more about Charles Todd at his web site.

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