Book Review: A Cruel Deception by Charles Todd
By Angie BarryOctober 22, 2019
A Cruel Deception by Charles Todd is the 11th Bess Crawford Mystery, where nurse Bess Crawford attempts to save a troubled former soldier from a mysterious killer in the aftermath of World War I.
The First World War has been over for months, but there’s still plenty of suffering to ease—and the Paris peace talks drag on. Nurse Bess Crawford is still tending to wounded soldiers, though more and more military clinics are being shut down, the patients moved or sent home, the nurses redistributed to teaching positions or encouraged to go home themselves.
When Bess is summoned to Queen Alexandra’s, she fears she’s about to be given the same brush off. She doesn’t want to go home yet and has no desire to teach—not when so many men still require her care.
But to her surprise, she’s not given orders to transfer to a school: Matron Minton needs her particular help. The Matron’s son, Lawrence, has been in Paris working at the peace conference. A decorated officer committed to a future career in the Army, Lawrence was well-liked and worked hard.
Emphasis on “was.” Without warning, the young man’s behavior abruptly changed, and he has disappeared from the conference, perhaps Paris itself. With Bess’s nursing background and family connection to Lawrence Minton’s regiment, she’s the ideal emissary for Matron to send in search of her son.
What she finds proves that Matron had cause for concern. Lawrence has thrown himself headfirst into opium addiction. He refuses to eat. He has terrible, screaming nightmares where he reenacts something with horrific implications.
I tried to bring back the image of what I’d seen. It was oddly familiar to a nursing Sister.
The way he was struggling with the carpet, it was almost as if he was trying to manage a body, to lift it and move it, without help. As if it had been a surrogate for the way a body flailed about, the muscles relaxed and no longer in the control of the mind. Before rigor set in.
It was a chilling thought. Was that truly what I’d just witnessed?
And afterward—when he’d pulled the rug toward him, holding it fiercely as he rocked and moaned. As if he had been in the throes of grief.
God forgive me.
As Bess digs into what triggered this abrupt change in Lawrence, she’s drawn back to the early days of the War, to the Mons road in 1914 where the British forces desperately tried to keep the Germans from strangling a vital port. It was there that Lawrence suffered a terrible injury that wiped out much of his memory for many weeks.
Could his current anguish date back to that murky time? Just what actually happened to Lieutenant Minton at Mons—and, more recently, in Paris—to set off this current chain of events?
Then, Lawrence disappears again, and Bess begins a desperate search to find him before it’s too late. Shadowed by a pair of officers she’s unsure she can trust, convinced she’s seen the same man in various guises around Paris, Bess soon realizes the Lieutenant isn’t the only one in danger.
In her 11th mystery, Bess Crawford remains a durable, determined, plucky heroine. When faced with the unexpected and unconventional, she rallies as admirably as ever, handling irate patients, insistent Americans, grieving families, and bewildered young women with finesse. She’s still fortunate in her allies—the chivalric flyer Captain Jackson is a colorful new addition to the series—and knows just when to pull out her trusty revolver. And longtime fans will be pleased to see that she’s thinking of Simon Brandon, whose absence and mysterious jaunt off to Scotland looms large in Bess’s mind.
The Colonel Sahib, also working at the peace conference, puts in several appearances, and there are a couple of shocking twists and dangerous beats to break up the introspection and melancholy of a world still torn by war.
As always, there’s plenty of historic atmosphere to savor. Bess’s time at the St. Ives house in the front half of the story has a Gothic air as she struggles to learn more about her combative patient in a cold, near-empty house, while there are moments later in Paris that could have been taken from a Hammer Horror film.
A Cruel Deception isn’t quite as solid as the previous Crawford novels—things drag a little in the middle of the narrative, and the climactic revelation feels a bit too outlandish and underdeveloped. Like the world in the aftermath of WWI, floundering to regain its equilibrium and find a new normal, it feels as though the mother-and-son writing team of Charles Todd is still figuring out which new direction to shift their heroine. Without the war to ground her, what will Bess do now? It’s a question the character herself asks and that the authors haven’t tried to answer yet. Deception is a transitional story and is a little unsteady as a result; we can only hope the indomitable nurse’s next appearance is on firmer footing.