Discussion Questions & Review: An Impartial Witness

 The second in the Bess Crawford series by Charles Todd, “An Impartial Witness” and the second in the Read-a-Long hosted by BookClubGirl was a much smarter mystery in my opinion, from the first in the series “A Duty to the Dead”. Perhaps it is because we see a more matured or developed Bess or the quality of the mystery was better, but I’m going to say it’s a bit of both.

Bess’ character starts to show some of that pluck that you assume comes with a WWI nurse that becomes un unlikely sleuth, in this second novel. Little tidbits like

I’ll take you to Little Sefton, only because I feel safer with you under my eye. And then you’ll go back to Somerset and stay there. ” (Simon) “I promise.” But I crossed my fingers behind my back, just in case.

“An Impartial Witness” description:  In the early summer of 1917, Bess Crawford is charged with escorting a convoy of severely wounded soldiers from the trenches of France to England. Among them is a young pilot, burned beyond recognition, who carries a photograph of his wife pinned to his tunic. But later, in a crowded railway station, Bess sees the same woman bidding a heart-wrenching farewell to a departing officer, clearly not her husband.

Back on duty in France, Bess is shocked to discover the wife’s photograph in a newspaper accompanying a plea from Scotland Yard for information about her murder, which took place on the very day Bess witnessed that anguished farewell. Granted leave to speak with the authorities, Bess very quickly finds herself entangled in a case of secrets and deadly betrayal in which another life hangs in the balance, and her search for the truth could expose her to far graver dangers than those she faces on the battlefield.

Questions for Discussion

And okay! Even these questions are more challenging this time around, much like solving the mystery Bess finds herself trying to solve! These should have been answered on Monday, but I was away for work and i just couldn’t squeeze away! Sorry!

1) As in A Duty to the Dead, long-seated familial animosities and jealousies play a role in the crimes committed. What did you think of the Garrison and Melton families? How do they compare to Bess’ family, or to the families of soldiers and nurses created by war?

Overall, I felt that each of these families were realistically characterized. W ell, perhaps Victoria Garrison was a bit over the top in her jealous rages and intent on harm to everyone around her, but it only made for some really good reading didn’t it? For certain the Garrison’s were a crazy lot compared to the Melton’s. And again, as was mentioned in the first discussion on A Duty to the Dead, I am appreciating the storyline that is taking place right in the middle of WWI and not post-war. I am learning a great deal about these families and the nurses that were created by this war. Bess does find herself as an “impartial witness” at the train station where we see Marjorie weeping as her soldier leaves for the train back to the front. And Bess doesn’t lay any harsh judgement over Marjorie when she discovers that she is in fact the wife of the soldier she was currently treating. Reading of the emotions and actions surrounding the loss and loneliness of the women left behind was refreshing, if that is the best word to use. I’m most certain many of the men fighting the war were unfaithful to their wives and girlfriends, so the same should be expected of these women worrying at home trying to fill the empty void left by their husbands or boyfriends. Bess herself has made mention of the number of times these soldiers have wished to make a deathbed confession in order to relieve themselves of this burden or shame.

2) Simon Brandon plays a far greater role in this novel than he did in A Duty to the Dead. What do you make of that and do you think his intentions stem from his duty to Bess’ father, or from his affections for Bess herself?

I see this relationship blossoming as we continue to read-a-long with Bess. I’m not very clear as to the real age of Simon, we do know he is junior to her father, but is the age gap more like an Uncle type of relationship? Bess has mentioned Simon is like an older brother she never had in some respects, but I think that as we continue to read, we’ll find perhaps more of a romantic involvement? Perhaps? I often thought of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels where his closest confidante has just shown his love for Gamache’s daughter. I get the distinct impression that as the Bess Crawford series continues to mature, so will this relationship.

Another thing I thought when reading this one is how as Bess finds herself more involved with these murder mysteries, she also finds herself becoming closely involved with the men that are most often at the very heart of the crime. She does continue to remain standoffish in some ways, but perhaps that is to put on a good front for her inquiring family and friends and in order to hide her growing feelings for these men that may actually be the perpetrator of the crime. Turns out her feelings are always right, these men are always on the good side, but she seems to be drawn to the ones that aren’t very credible.

3) Simon strives to curtail the risks that Bess takes throughout the novel. This advice of his struck me particularly: “We have to move on. Put the living first. There are already enough monuments to the dead.” Do you think Bess’s drive to right the wrongs she sees puts her at odds with this advice, to her detriment?

Again, I think this is owing to the development of Bess’ strong character. She is not willing to let things be left alone, and in this case I think she was right to follow her instincts and keep digging to get to the truth. It goes against her nursing practices I think to just walk away and let everything be, or left up to others to figure out. She’s seen that really, there aren’t enough monuments to the dead, so many are left behind with no thought to who they are or what they leave behind.

4) Do you think there is any such thing as an “impartial witness?” Bess admits to adding her own perspective and interpretation to what she sees at the railway station. Later, Mrs. Hennessey is referred to by Bess as an “impartial witness,” presumably because she’s completely in the dark about what’s been happening. But what do you think of the phrase, and what do you think the authors mean us to to think of it?

Bess was an “impartial witness” as in the beginning she was just standing by watching a couple at the train station. She had no idea the identity of the two or their history together or any background information. She was observing the scene with impartiality and stepped forward to the police with only the pieces of information she knew of. I think perhaps the authors wished us to see things that way as well – she was not involved in the families or their history to pass judgement as to whom would be the one with the most motive to kill Marjorie and the others.

5) What did you think of the ending of the novel? Were you expecting a confrontation, or confession, that you didn’t see? And if so, why do you think it was written that way?

Loved the ending of the novel! I think it was very well ended! I was left tossing back and forth as to the real killer was really until almost the very end. Good stuff this time around!

6) Did you learn any new phrases while reading An Impartial Witness? For me it was “Well, it’s shank’s mare, then,” which Sister Benning says to Bess when they have to walk behind the ambulance of wounded soldiers on their way to safer ground. Turns out that “shanks mare” is an Irish phrase referring to having to hoof it on your own two legs.

Thanks for the definition! Now we just have to look at how that saying came to be used in referring to hoofing it on your own two legs!

I am looking forward to reading the next in the series A Bitter Truth and from reading some of the reviews quickly, it looks like it gets even better with Bess!