Saturday, September 22, 2012

An Impartial Witness by Charles Todd

For those who enjoy World War I Britain as a backdrop to their mysteries, but grow weary of the myopic heaviness that inevitably envelops protagonists of mysteries set during the period, this installment of the Bess Crawford mysteries (the second in the series) will be a refreshing and engaging read.

Bess Crawford is bright, intelligent, close to her parents and friends and, though she feels the weight of the gruesome war she sees, is not yet totally jaded from it.

While she does border--just a bit, mind you--on being a bit of a Mary Sue, she is just overly-emotionally involved with the people in the cases she investigates and makes just enough mistakes to not get dull.

What begins as a fairly straightforward mystery soon becomes a deliciously complex Gordian knot of red herrings, complex motives, unanswered questions and the hallmark storytelling of every Todd novel.

The plot of an Impartial Witness is complex without becoming tedious, a trademark skill of Todd's.

In an Impartial Witness, Bess Crawford, a nurse during World War I who is also the daughter of a very high-ranking retired Colonel, inadvertently stumbles upon one of the lesser acts (or consequences) of war in a crowded train station: the wife of a soldier engaged in an impassioned and desperate discussion with another solder who is not her husband.

Bess recognizes the woman in the train station immediately because her picture was pinned to her husband's chest the entire way his burned body was transported from France to England, and Bess was one of the nurses who cared for him the entire time.

The woman is found brutally murdered and, a few days later, her husband commits suicide in her bed. 

The storytelling itself, in terms of period description, dialogue and character development, is phenomenal as always. With a wide array of characters, Todd creates a tapestry from many disparate threads that reveal an impressive picture of lives colliding in the end.

Yet again, I was immersed in Bess's world--exhausted on the Front while tending to shredded boys, but still with niggling questions over the murder in London, home with her family and attempting to enjoy the respite (but also attempting to leverage the time to learn more about the murdered woman's life, friends and family), and having tea with a friend in the flat the women keep.

Bess' observations about the toll war takes on marriages--but from the unfaithful women's point of view, not the typical lonely soldier's--is extremely well done in that explores the complexities of those infidelities, rather than just shrug it off as, "It's war; people are lonely; women have needs."

Yet Todd never forgets that Bess herself has never been married, and thus her opinions on the issue are formed through the observation of her friends. And while Bess acknowledges the grief and pain that can be involved, she is not automatically empathetic, a fact I found I enjoyed immensely as it made her seem more real.

Another remarkable thing so far about the Bess Crawford novels is Todd's ability to keep Crawford completely unaware of the fact that she is, indeed, investigating a murder. She sees herself as nurse who unwillingly gets embroiled in situations, which thus far have happened to involve murder.

Her motivation isn't solely justice or accountability to the law, however. Often, she merely has a compassionate interest in those around her, or the victim, and thus needs to know the truth and see justice done to settle herself as much as the victims' families or loved ones. Her deep sense of justice becomes a motivator a bit later, though its never entirely absent.

As a civilian, when Bess works with Scotland Yard, it is as a mistrusted civilian, a refreshing change from most novels of the genre.

The story doesn't click along quite as quickly as the first one did, but provided you're in the mood for a good, solid, stay-up-too-late read, it's fine.

Charles Todd, the mother-and-son writing behind the Ian Rutledge mysteries (one of my favorite series of all time), have successfully created a new series that is truly all its own.

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