Review: The Shattered Tree by Charles Todd

The Shattered Tree by Charles Todd is the 8th Bess Crawford Mystery that sees the Great War nearing an end, but not without plenty of murder, mystery, and mayhem in its final throes.   

He crawled as far as the shattered tree and lay there, faint from the effort. But he knew he had to keep moving. When he stopped, when the sweat dried on his skin, he'd begin to shiver again, wracking his body until his teeth chattered. There wasn't enough left of his uniform to keep him warm, and his captors, God help them, had taken his boots. Good English leather. He'd stolen them himself from a corpse.

He grimaced, afraid to look at his torn feet. He'd lost too much blood from his other wounds. The one in his leg had mercifully stopped bleeding, and the cut in his hairline had clotted over, but the damage had been done. He was light-headed from lack of food, finding it hard to concentrate. A crow couldn't find enough to eat in this countryside after four years of war. He'd be dead soon if he didn't reach his own lines.

To his left the firing was heavy. Rifles and machine guns. An assault under way. But in which direction? He could see the flashes, but they told him nothing. Which way…?

In the final days of the Great War—October 1918, to be precise—Bess Crawford, a nursing Sister on the front lines, helps save the life of an unusual man. His feet are horribly lacerated from walking miles without boots and his French uniform is in tatters, but when he shouts out in pain, it isn't French he's speaking: it's German. Fluent German, in fact.

Strange for a man found on the far side of the Allied line, but the Matron in charge explains it away easily enough. Surely the man must be from Alsace-Lorraine, a province that was once French but has been held by Germany since the last war. It isn't surprising that a man from Alsace would want to fight on the side of France, given past enmities in that spot of land. 

Bess, however, isn't wholly convinced and has an odd feeling about the man who claims to be Lieutenant Philippe Moreau. When the good Sister finds herself accidentally shot by a sniper and sent to Paris to convalesce, only to catch sight of the mysterious Monsieur Moreau, Bess once again forsakes her nursing cap for a detective's hat.

Could he be a German spy? The war seems to be on death's door, at the very verge of ending, but perhaps the Germans have sent out spies in a last ditch effort to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. 

Or perhaps he's the “Paris Gun” who so recently terrorized the French capital?

The Germans' so-called Paris Gun had been the talk of the Army. Anyone returning from leave in Paris from April to August had seen the damage.

The frightening thing was that the shells didn't come screaming over. They were fired so high that they came in silently, and at first there had been fears that the city was being bombed from high-flying zeppelins. But no one had actually seen one, and it was soon realized that the Germans were using a new and very efficient weapon. It had raised the possibility of a last attempt to take Paris and change the course of the war. The shelling had kept the city on edge for weeks.

The new weapon had turned out to be a gun that was so large it had to be fixed on railway cars, and fired from them. With the Allied advances as the American engaged the enemy, it had been withdrawn to prevent its capture, and either hidden or dismantled, depending on which rumor one heard. We would have given much to get our hands on it, and failing that, on the engineering plans for it.

“Was he ever found? This spotter?”

Simon shook his head. “If he ever existed. But it would have made sense to have someone there to advise and report. Especially if the gun had been a prelude to an attack.”

Or is Moreau a desperate lieutenant escaping a court martial—or running from something far darker hidden away in his past? When Bess uncovers a mass murder more than a decade old and a nun who knew Philippe Moreau is viciously stabbed, our intrepid heroine begins to wonder if she hasn't bitten off more than she can chew this time…

The Shattered Tree is the 8th Bess Crawford mystery from Charles Todd—the handy single pseudonym for a mother-and-son writing team—and though the war that has shaped her previous mysteries is almost over, the good Sister shows no signs of stopping just yet. 

As always, Todd spares none of the gritty details of trench warfare, the physical and emotional scars veterans carry with them, and the harsh realities of a world reduced to meager rations and little hope. Paris is no city of light here, but rather a dark, foggy, and ominous place left mostly empty and forlorn by the four years of bloodshed. 

An ideal atmosphere for a murder mystery and political espionage story; in turns, this novel is both. There are any number of insalubrious and mysterious characters Bess meets along the way, and it seems everyone is hiding something.

Old friend and compatriot Captain Barkley refuses to tell Bess exactly what he's doing in Paris, and she doesn't wholly buy his claim that he's “hunting for deserters.” Fellow convalescent Major Vernon is very interested in Bess's investigation, and Philippe's half-brother Paul has a bad temper and a massive chip on his shoulder—could he be more involved in past atrocities than was previously suspected? Meanwhile, nun Marie-Luc is certain that Moreau is a bad man but won't explain just why until things have already turned bloodier.

“You should have nothing to do with this man.”

“I'm sorry?”

“He is evil. You must put him out of your mind. And you would be wise to burn this photograph. It is not worth keeping.”

“But who is he—and more to the point, what has he done?”

“Unspeakable things. I saw him in Belgium. He's a monster.”

“Was he German? In the German Army?”

“No, I refuse to look at him another moment…”

…In the end, I walked on toward the corner and eventually found a taxi.

Who was this man who called himself Philippe Moreau? And what in the name of God had he done that made a nun hate him so?

With several stabbings, a possible suicide, an unsolved mass murder, and fears of spies and traitors at every turn, Bess is kept on her toes. The pacing of the prose switches from contemplative musings to blitzkrieg action in a matter of paragraphs, which keeps us on our toes. 

Todd has once again delivered a historical whodunit that feels alive and present for all of its century-old trappings. The year may be 1918 for Bess, but even from our 2016 viewpoint, she's a helluva modern lady with her willingness to fight the good fight regardless of the personal consequences. 

Here's hoping the cessation of fighting in November of 1918 doesn't see the end of Sister Crawford's investigations. Surely there will still be plenty of mayhem, mischief, and murder for her to untangle in the aftermath of Armistice. 

 

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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.

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