Written by Charles Todd — In book seven in the Bess Crawford mystery series, Bess works as a World War I field hospital nurse in France, 1918. Despite the well-imagined and effectively described violence of her surroundings, it this is a cosy mystery. The action begins when, on leave and waiting for a train in Canterbury, Bess encounters a past patient, Major Mark Ashton, who invites her to stay the night with his family, as a train to London is not likely before morning. Mark’s mother had come to France to help care for him, and Bess is happy to renew her acquaintance with the older woman.
In the car, Mark tells her about the loss of the family business – a gunpowder mill – which blew up two years previously. A fire ensued, and more than a hundred workers lost their lives. Sabotage was suspected at first, but eventually the explosion, which created a shortfall in vital British armament production, was ruled an accident. Rather than rebuild on the site, the government relocated production to Scotland. The village economy was destroyed by the loss of both men and employment. Resentments run high.
Recently, a spate of vicious rumours has circulated, accusing Mark’s father of causing the catastrophe. Allegedly, he was at odds with the government over the running of the mill and its possible disposition after the war. The father dismisses these rumours as something no thinking person would take seriously. Unfortunately, evidence of the increasingly uneasy relationship between residents of the Ashton Manor and the fictional village of Cranbourne is not hard to come by, with escalating acts of vandalism against the family. A stone wall is pulled down, the family’s sheep herded out into the marshes, village tradesmen won’t sell to the estate, and there are anonymous, threatening letters. Bess sees it herself, when eggs are thrown at Mark’s car as they drive to the house.
Where these problems started – and, more ominously, where they will end up – is increasingly uncertain. Mark hopes that Bess’s arrival will help his parents take their minds off their current troubles, which local police seem loathe to investigate. But during her visit, the unthinkable happens: Mark’s father, Philip Ashton, is arrested on a charge of murder. In the ensuing weeks, the only people he’s allowed to see are his legal representatives. However, with their client facing possible conviction and death, they seem oddly unmotivated.
Bess spends much of her time on duty in France, but several short trips to England, accompanying patients who need more care than can be offered in the field, allow her to stay in touch with the Ashton family. She uses her contacts on the battlefield grapevine to find out about a witness to the tragedy, relying on an Australian sergeant – who has a quite obvious crush on our Bess – as her eyes and ears. She also has resources closer to home: her father, who had retired from the military but was called back for ‘special duty’; and his former regimental Sergeant-Major. Both of them are apparently connected with military intelligence, and willing to look into matters for Bess and provide what information they can. Bess becomes more than an interested bystander when her investigations incite an attempt on her own life.
The thoroughness with which an amateur sleuth and an outsider can inject herself into the events of a plot is always a bit tricky to handle plausibly. The mother-son writing team Charles and Caroline Todd do stretch the logic thin in a few instances, but Bess’s interventions mostly work well. A few plotlines don’t really go anywhere. Thankfully, intimations of ghosts in the nearby ruined abbey, destroyed in Henry VIII’s time, do not turn into anything, but I was hoping the persistent harassment of the ambulance convoys by a German biplane would have a stronger resolution. While the book has many strengths, in the end, the motivation behind all the trouble seemed to me rather weak.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars