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It’s A Mystery: “Men engaged in warfare are all ghosts in the making”

By (October 1, 2009) No Comment

A Duty to the Dead

By Charles Todd
William Morrow, 2009

I’ve always found it completely captivating that Charles Todd, the creator of eleven superb novels featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard, is a mother and son writing team. Even better, Charles and Caroline Todd live in different states (not altered) but get together at mom’s house to work. It’s important to note that they once shared a lizard named Schnickelfritz, because I think it more than explains why Caroline is willing to be known as Charles Todd. Like the Rutledge novels, including this year’s A Matter of Justice, this first of a new series, A Duty to the Dead is set against a World War I background. There, the resemblance ends.


The year is 1916, and the Great War is in full throttle. Bess Crawford, a British army nurse, has been doing heavy duty from the battlefields of France to the hospital ship Britannic. Sailing home on that ship, now empty of the wounded, she’s barely had time to get the mud of the Marne off her boots or the memories of the dying out of her mind, when they hit a German mine. In the ensuing mêlée, she is wounded (a badly broken arm), but manages to escape to safety.

Recuperating at home, she is haunted by a promise she made to a dying soldier, during an earlier voyage, on that same hospital ship. The sea has claimed the ship and the soldier, the promise now claims Bess’s waking hours. When the soldier, Arthur Graham, knew he wouldn’t make it, he made Bess promise to deliver an urgent message to his brother Jonathan. Bess knows better than anyone that military hospitals resonate with “urgent” last wishes. But this was different:

During training, we’d been warned about letting ourselves care too much for our patients. “They are yours to comfort, yours to heal, but not yours to dream about,” Matron had told us firmly. “Only foolish girls let themselves be drawn into romantic imaginings. See that you are not one of them.”

Good advice. But Matron hadn’t foreseen Arthur Graham. …I wasn’t foolish enough to believe it was love, but I was honest enough to admit I cared more than I should…. And truth be told…there was a promise I’d made. Freely.

Still, Bess has waited through an extra tour of duty to carry out Arthur’s request. It’s what’s tormenting her. Why has she waited? She turns, as she always has, to her mentor
and rock:

Colonel Richard Crawford, career officer in the Army that he was, had wanted a son to follow in his boots. Instead he’d got a strong-willed and determined daughter. We had battled ever since I was three…. But my father was nothing if not all-seeing.

“If you remember, when you first decided to train as a nurse, I warned you that the burden of watching men suffer and die would be a heavy one. Young Graham just brought that home in a very personal way…. As to the message. Would you like to tell me what it is, and let me judge?”

I considered his suggestion, realizing that it was exactly what I wanted to do. I took a deep breath, trying to keep my voice steady. “I had to repeat the words two or three times, to be certain I knew them by heart. ‘Tell Jonathan that I lied. I did it for Mother’s sake. But it has to be set right.’”

My father frowned. “And that’s it?’

“Yes. In a nutshell.” I was tense, waiting. Afraid he might read something in the words that I hadn’t.

“I don’t see there’s any harm done, waiting until now to pass it on to his brother,” he replied slowly. “But you have a responsibility not to put it off again. A duty to the dead is sacred, I needn’t tell you that.”

With a little low key sleuthing, she discovers that Jonathan is home on convalescent leave. She writes to him and receives an invitation to visit:

I lied. I did it for Mother’s sake. I repeated the words in my head. I couldn’t tell my father that with time those words had become sinister.

It is in this frame of mind that Bess travels to Owlhurst, part of Kent, where the Grahams reside. Todd evokes the Kentish countryside with a fine, fastidious attention to detail. He uses the calm, exquisite landscape as a metaphor for loss—a never-to-be-recovered way of life. As the poet/soldier Rupert Brooke, who died on the eve of the Dardanelles campaign, put it in “The Soldier”:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s a corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.

But it has to be set right.

The Graham household, while hardly a nest of vipers, is definitely a house of secrets. They receive Bess with a façade of hospitality, masking suspicion, almost fear.

Arthur’s mother, younger than Bess had imagined, is more vixen than victim. Jonathan, is a “paler version of Arthur” with a terrible scar across his face. Still half covered by bandages, it’s a shrapnel wound, so he tells her, sustained at Mons. There is a younger brother Timothy who isn’t serving because he was born with a club foot. He leans on his cane and talks warmly of Arthur but he has cold eyes and a creepy smile. The big skeleton in the family closet is a third brother Peregrine, confined to the local asylum for a murder he committed when he was 14. This, Bess ferrets out, is more than back stairs gossip.  

Charles and Caroline Todd

When Bess finally gets Jonathan alone, it is in the church underneath a memorial plaque to Arthur:

I tried to set the stage, so that Jonathan Graham could see what I had seen. “He had finished his medicines, and he took my hand, pulling me closer. I thought at first that he was having difficulty seeing me, but it was only to drop his voice so no one could hear him. He asked me if I’d carry a message to his brother for him. It was very brief. I had no trouble remembering it.

Jonathan was watching me, his gaze intent.

Tell Jonathan that I lied. I did it for Mother’s sake. But it has to be set right.

“Yes, exactly as he told me.”

“And what did you make of his request?”

“I don’t know, Lieutenant Graham. I’d hoped you would.”

After a time, Jonathan says: “You can rely on me to see to it that Arthur’s last wishes are treated with the greatest respect.”

…why did I have this feeling that treating Arthur’s last wishes with the greatest respect wasn’t the same as promising to carry them out?… I could almost hear the Colonel Sahib’s voice: Walk away, Bess. If Arthur had wanted more from you, he’d have told you more.

Arthur had told me he had turned away from the law as a profession. “There’s evil in goodness, and goodness in evil,” he’d said. “I’ve seen too much of the evil in the law to be comfortable with it.”

By the time it is almost too late, Bess realizes how prescient those words were. As she is about to walk away, as it were, and return home, she is caught up in a series of events that she cannot ignore. First, word of her profession and her service leads the local doctor to implore her to help with a traumatized veteran. He is suffering from what we now know is post-traumatic stress syndrome. She finds him cradling his dead twin brother in his arms, talking as though they are on the battlefield. With crisp efficiency, she play-acts him through his horrific sense memory and down to rest, almost. Talking to ghosts is a Todd tradition, as well as a wartime affliction. It has also been said by a chronicler of this war that, men engaged in brutal trench warfare are all ghosts in the making.

Walk away Bess…. But it has to be set right.

All her choices converge when the eldest Graham son, Peregrine, escapes from the madhouse. He takes Bess hostage to help him solve the mysteries of his tortuous past. In doing so, he becomes retribution for his family’s refusal to set it right. That, as much as their cloak of guilt and mendacity, turns Bess into Peregrine’s champion. Mental wounds are more her forte than she cares to admit. One thing she learns, there’s no end to war, only the enduring legacy of suffering inherited by those who survive and remember.

Again, as Rupert Brooke put it in “The Dead”:

These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy…

In the Todds’ hands, A Duty to the Dead is a delicious, old fashioned mystery, wrapped in a finely crafted portrait of England during the First World War. They owe a debt, in the best way, to Pat Barker’s acclaimed World War I trilogy, Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road. Their unique gift is to get you to expect the unexpected, and then make sense of it. Their willing accomplice is their captivating heroine, Bess. Bravo to this being the first of a series.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey. You can find her earlier “It’s a Mystery” reviews here.

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