Bess Crawford Mysteries

If you haven’t read any of the Charles Todd mysteries — featuring London Inspector Ian Rutledge and WWI nurse Bess Crawford (in separate series) — you should.  I’ve particularly enjoyed the historical setting of the Bess Crawford novels, focused on WWI, both in Britain and in France.  War as a character looms large in each of the books.  The mother/son duo Charles Todd paint a starkly realistic picture of life during WWI, with particular emphasis on the impact of PTSD (though not yet-named) and influenza, and how the conflict was devastating to many other than the soldiers.  Bess Crawford’s character lightens the tone just enough to take the books from a slog through death and disease to a slightly gritty (but still comfortably British) mystery.  Bess is far from flippant.  She is tough, smart, loyal (almost to a fault), stubborn, brave, but also steadfastly optimistic about humanity and the human spirit in general.

Bess’s father, a retired Colonel who used to be stationed in India, and his aide, Simon, make for an entertaining supporting cast (along with Bess’s mother, fellow nurses and her London landlord).  Charles Todd comes back to these characters throughout all of the novels, painting a vivid picture of Bess’s world and the support system that gives her the drive and confidence to continue her quest for fairness and justice (a common theme in each book).  There are seven books (so far) in the series, and I enjoyed them all.  But some more than others.

The first novel, A Duty to the Dead, is probably my favorite.

510XVc44EuL._AA160_In it, Bess is tasked with giving a message to the family of one of her patients who died in an army hospital.  She was very fond of the patient — possibly in love with him — and when she visits the family to pass on his message she discovers a dark family secret, a hidden brother and just a touch of danger.  In this book we are introduced to Bess’s compassion and doggedness.  The mystery is very compelling and heartbreaking.


Another good one is A Bitter Truth.  In this novel, Bess gets swept up into the family drama of a battered wife who she finds hiding out on her doorstep during a bad storm.  Rather than take advantage of her precious few days of leave, Bess takes the woman in and accompanies her home, to face her family and her husband.  It is probably the most “feminist” of the books.   Bess clearly would have been a bra-burning, Ms. magazine-reading young woman were she not born seventy years too early, and this gives us a taste of that side of Bess.  She fiercely protects a woman who she hardly knows and jeopardizes her own career and reputation in the process.


Another of the books I really enjoyed was An Impartial Witness.  In this book, Bess accompanies a severely burned patient, Lt. Merriweather, home to England from France.  She has nursed Merriweather in France and knows how devoted he is to his wife — her picture is literally pinned to his patient gown.  Bess feels like she knows the wife.  She delivers Merriweather to a nursing home in England and on her return to London she sees his wife at the train station, in tears and clinging to another soldier.  Within days, Merriweather’s wife is found murdered, and he dies from burn complications (or perhaps because he received news that his wife died).  Bess goes to the police with her information and by virtue of her identification becomes involved in a tightly drawn, and particularly nasty mystery.  A few more bodies turn up before the mystery is solved and the extremely high price of war becomes painfully clear.

Throughout the novels, Bess has sort of a flirtatious, “older brother” thing going on with Simon, her father’s aide.  He is a little older than Bess, always around to get her out of a jam, and clearly in love with her.  My one beef with the books is a bit of a Sam/Diane thing with a will they or won’t they get together?  I think the authors should simply wrap up that plot line, but maybe a little uncertainty isn’t a bad thing, particularly in a mystery.

Pick up a Bess Crawford and Happy Reading!



Binging Le Carre

I’ll cop to the occasional Netflix binge-fest.  When my back was out of whack last winter, I barely ate, bathed or drank — not because I was in so much pain, but because I didn’t want to stop my episodes of Dexter long enough to do any of said activities.  And I read.  A lot.  But usually I don’t find myself re-reading, or binge reading one author all the time.  I flit from book to book, savoring my favorites in between not-so-greats.  That changed late last December.

A few days before Christmas, I was surprised to see an Amazon box outside the front door.  I got my money’s worth out of AmazonPrime over the holidays, don’t get me wrong.  But all of the presents I had ordered were already opened and accounted for.  I asked my husband if he had ordered anything and he said, “No”.  The package was addressed to me, so I opened it.

51DbpDOTIBL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_And, inside, much to my surprise, I saw Adam Sisman’s biography of John le Carre.  “What a great present for myself,” I thought.  “I don’t even remember ordering it!”  Again, I asked said husband who denied knowledge or culpability of the book.  My son, a university student, couldn’t possibly have:  (a) completed an Amazon order with proper payment and address information, (b) figured out what someone other than he, himself wanted for a present, or (c ) cared what someone other than he,  himself wanted for a present.  So, he was right out.  That left my own addled memory of whether I had self-gifted it to myself (a strong contender) and my sixteen year-old daughter.  I went with her.  Later, I asked my mother who confirmed that, yes, they had come up with the idea during a shopping trip to Barnes & Noble and she had ordered the book as a Christmas present.  I’m not quite sure how they came up with the idea at Barnes & Noble if they hadn’t, in fact, seen the book — which begs the question of why they didn’t buy the book in the store — but I digress.  I didn’t let on to my daughter that I had seen the book and squealed with delight when I opened it on Christmas morning.  And, she never reads this blog, so I know she won’t figure out that I knew ahead of time.

I spent the next couple of days immersed in the life of David Cornwell, aka John le Carre.  Sisman’s biography rivals one of my favorites of all time — Simon Sebag Montefiorre’s biography of Stalin, Court of the Red Tsar.  It is direct, detailed, honest, and paints the picture of a brilliant, flawed writer and citizen.  After devouring the highs and lows of Cornwell’s life, I was gob-smacked by how autobiographical many of his books are.  I’ve been a long reader and lover of le Carre, and after learning about Cornwell’s relationship with his father, his limited time in the British secret service and his international travels, I was anxious to re-read his books.

And since late December, I’ve done little else.  I’ve sort of fallen in love with George Smiley all over again, nodded to myself at Cornwell’s inside jokes and jabs, and appreciated the context in which each of his novels was written.  51OpEdAXJ+L._SL250_

Certainly, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was what “started it all” for him and, if you haven’t read any le Carre, this book would be a great place to start.  It is a deftly woven tale, with more “mystery” than many of his thrillers.  Leamus took on a new identity for me — part Cornwell, himself;  part general malaise; part the insanity of the divided Berlin and Germany that faced the world at the time of writing.  George Smiley makes a tiny appearance, but really I had to go back to Cornwell’s earlier “murder mystery” to re-introduce myself to Smiley.

In A Murder of Quality, le Carre takes the reader to a British public school (what most of us would know as a prep school or boarding school) where a master’s wife has been killed and Smiley is brought into the scene by a former war-time colleague (the female editor of a Christian periodical who had a letter from the woman predicting her demise).  George also worked closely with the brother of the headmaster, and, thus, had an entree into the school to investigate the woman’s murder.  He encounters a soon-to-be-retired police superintendent, Mendel, who reappears in many subsequent Smiley novels.  Anyway, as english manor murder mysteries go, A Murder of Quality, is a little too predictable and contrived, but I didn’t — and don’t — care.  George Smiley was born and I’d follow that character almost anywhere.

So, I read A Call for the Dead and The Looking Glass War, and detoured to A Perfect Spy (Cornwell’s most autobiographical novel).  But then I cleared my schedule for the “Karla” trilogy again — the three books where Smiley matches wits with “Karla” (the Moscow Centre mastermind) either indirectly through Karla’s networks and moles — in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Honorouable Schoolboy – or, directly, in the last of the trio, Smiley’s People.  These three books are sweeping, cold-war epics that feed my should.  From Smiley’s quiet, melancholic brilliance, to Guillam’s rash but far more grounded actions, I can’t get enough of le Carre’s nuanced characters.  I’ve read more than my share of “classic” literature, and le Carre takes a back seat to no one with his character development and plotting.  “These people are my friends,” I tell myself.  I believe it.  In part.  I care about them, though, in reality, I know they don’t care about me. But in re-reading le Carre over this past month, it is crystal clear that he cares about me, as a reader.  He doesn’t always tie up his mysteries (or thrillers) neatly.  I know, for example,  no matter how many times I re-read it, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, won’t end any differently.  But that isn’t because le Carre is flippant about his readers.  I get the very real sense that he agonizes over every word and scene, to paint a picture for us.  To bring us into a world or an issue.  To introduce us to a character or a friend.  I can’t think of a better way to have spent the last month of my reading time binging le Carre, and I can’t think of better advice for you.

And to my daughter and Mr. Cornwell — “thank you”.  I doubt either of you will read this, but I’ll put it out there anyway.

Happy reading!