A Question of Honor by Charles Todd is the fifth mystery featuring nurse Bess Crawford, which interweaves murders that took place in 1908 with the present chaos of the First World War (available August 27, 2013).
Heroine Bess Crawford was raised in India, the daughter of a British regimental officer. Bess was a young girl when the original crimes took place, but she saw her father’s involvement when one of his men, Lieutenant Wade, was accused of murder. Lieutenant Wade escaped and soon was presumed dead. Ten years later, Bess is a nurse serving on the Western front in the final year of World War One, or what the characters hope will be the final year, as the book ends before the Armistice. Unexpectedly, while in the midst of caring for the wounded, she encounters an Indian support worker whose dying words indicate that Lieutenant Wade might still be alive. Bess is driven to find out more.
What I found most interesting about the book was how the drudgery of trench warfare was contrasted with Bess’s research into past events. When back home in England on leave, she travels freely to different towns in search of information about Lieutenant Wade’s past, and in the process is reminded of her own childhood in India. Each of her visits includes small luxuries like clean clothing and good food, things she must do without while on duty. Each time her leave ends, she returns to France and is faced with the grim, never-ending work of a nurse in a war zone. Instead of investigating all the small details of people’s lives, she strives not to know anyone too well, because they could be killed at any moment. The pastoral landscape of England is in direct contrast to what she encounters on a trip through No Man’s Land to tend an injured officer.
Mud, thick with unspeakable, mercifully unidentifiable bits and pieces. I thought I saw a boot with part of a foot still inside, and the body of a dead rat in a puddle of what smelled suspiciously like fresh urine. The walls were haphazardly shored up, sloping toward the top, and above my head was the barbed wire strung all along the top several feet out. What appeared to be caves dug out of the earth with flaps of burlap over them held the effects of officers in two I glimpsed, and in a third, a man bent over a field telephone, giving coordinates. I realized that he’d had to do it as quickly as possible or our own guns would be shelling our own men.
The smell was overwhelming on this warm afternoon. I’d smelled it before on the filthy bodies of wounded men and the orderlies who brought them in. A miasma of everything from stale cigarette smoke to the sweat of fear to urine and unwashed clothes, to something that I couldn’t quite identify, the sweetness of rotting things. We came to a ladder, flat against the dirty wall. “Can you manage that, do you think, Sister? I’ll look the other way.” And before I could think about it too long, I climbed up on the firing step and scrambled up the ladder. The barbed wire was flattened, had been for the attack, and I saw a landscape that was as bleak and destroyed as anything I’d ever set eyes on. One or two tree stumps were the only things to give it any sense of reality, and I glimpsed what might have been the foundation of a farm building where a shell had blasted the earth away. There were dead men in the shell craters and littering the ground, and my guide said, “Best not to look, Sister. There’s been no time to collect them.”
Ostensibly, Bess is researching the old crime because if Lieutenant Wade was in fact guilty and remains free, it’s a stain on the regiment and on her father’s honor. Her father, though retired, is still heavily involved with not only the men he commanded, but the men who followed them into the regiment, and their families and widows as well. The past is thus still present in his life. However, Bess’s investigation also seems to be a form of escape from the other horrors she’s experiencing daily, from wounded men and overwork, to a raging epidemic of deadly influenza. The two pieces of the story wind together in unexpected ways, complicating the mystery and leaving the outcome unclear until the very end.
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