Review: A Duty to the Dead

A duty to the dead is a sacred matter.

The Bess Crawford series has been something that I’ve wished to read for quite some time now. Also, after reading the Maisie Dobbs series, finding another WWI nurse turned sleuth was an appealing thought. I first learned of the Maisie Dobbs series from following the Book Club Girl’s site where she did a read-along. Now, to stem our grief over the loss of weekly episodes of Downton Abbey, Book Club Girl decided to schedule another read-a-long, this time with Bess Crawford. Delightful!

In, A Duty to the Dead, Bess makes a promise to dying soldier Lieutenant Arthur Graham to deliver a cryptic message to his brother, Jonathon. Bess is wounded which delays the delivery and the longer it takes to deliver the message the more it starts to take on darker meanings. After meeting the Graham family she quickly discovers that fulfilling Arthur’s promise comes with much apprehension and danger and results in uncovering clues about a murder 14 years prior. Unable to leave without first solving this mystery, Bess’ will and her previous thoughts of the dashing Arthur will be greatly tested.

In the beginning I fear I compared too much to my beloved Maisie, trying to find flaws in Bess, if you would say. I didn’t think Bess had as much “pluck” as Maise, but as I continued to read, the the mystery & intrigue Bess becomes midst among intensifies and I was drawn right in. But still, Bess’ character is not as well developed, you don’t get a strong sense of her personality and background really, especially as this is our first introduction to Bess. I’m hoping that she grows as the series continues. But, don’t get me wrong, Bess wasn’t about to walk away from uncovering the deep family secrets the Grahams were keeping! The other personalities weren’t going to stand in the way of her perseverance.

For another take, here is what BookFan had to say about A Duty to the Dead here.

Here are the questions – and my answers – for the discussion taking place on Book Club Girl’s site. Some of the questions I’ve answered above…I did not know the questions that would be asked for the following discussion, but my answers below perhaps provide more detail.

Questions for Discussion:

1) Was this the first book that you read by Charles Todd, or, the first book set in this time period? I first encountered WWI-era-England with Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, and then, of course with the tv sensation Downton Abbey. If you have read more in this time period, what other books do you recommend?

Yes, this was my first Charles Todd. I did have it marked as to read for quite some time, but then held off when I heard there would be a read-a-long done like what was done for the Maisie Dobbs series. Book Club Girl was who introduced me to Maisie, and of course I was hooked on Downton Abbey! Lately there has been a whole slew of book lists to “cure your Downton withdrawl” and I have quite a few marked down. The House of Tyneford comes quickly to mind, and I heard that The Haunting of Maddy Clare is like Maisie Dobbs, ghosthunter. So I’m anxious to crack that one open! And I’m very anxious to get to Broken Music as well.

2) What was your first impression of Bess Crawford? Were you surprised by the independence she enjoyed as a woman in this time, and that her parents afforded her so much freedom? Did your opinion of Bess change throughout the novel?

As I mentioned above, I think I was trying to compare her to Maisie too much at first. I felt Maisie was a better developed character, her background seemed more fleshed out. But yes, she did seem to enjoy a great deal of independence for the time period. She was often unescorted and perhaps it is owing to her more privileged upbringing. But again, I didn’t think this was as fleshed out as much as it could have been. And yes, my opinion did definitely improve and change of Bess as I read further. Her determination to get to the bottom of the mystery was great.

3) Bess has an interesting back story, growing up as she did in India. How did the authors use that part of her life to help define her character, and that of her parents and their relationship?

I really didn’t think this was detailed enough to really get a firm grasp of her growing up in India. I felt it was really only noted in passing a few times, in my opinion. I didn’t think there was a lot of attention paid to the character development of her father and mother.

4) Did you know that large ocean liners, such as the Brittanic, which was a sister ship to both the Titanic and the Olympic, were called into service as hospital ships during the war? Brittanic was indeed sunk as well, just as the Todds write it in the book. Did you know that so many of the men who died on the hospital ships were buried at sea? Of course it makes sense, but I hadn’t realized the number and that those men’s families were left with no grave at home to visit, as Bess reflects, “In the sea there were no markers for the dead. No place in the deep to mourn, no place to leave flowers.”

No, I did not know that and it was very interesting to find that out. What an incredible experience it must have been working on those large ships tending to the men. I honestly had NO IDEA this occurred! I’ve only pictured or seen the hospitals on ground, when I envision the nurses and doctors tending to the wounded and dying men.  I honestly have never seen images of hospital ships. And how sad and very frustrating it would have been for those families not able to have a body to bury and mourn over properly. It would seem as though it wasn’t really real, they really weren’t dead. How very sad and heartbreaking for their families.

4) What did you think of Arthur’s message? Do you think it was fair of him to ask Bess to deliver it? Why do you think she was so committed to not only delivering it, but to making sure it was followed by the Graham family?

Arthur could have spilled a few more beans to Bess! If he honestly cared for her in the way it read that he did, or how their relationship was blossoming, you would think he would have divulged more information. However, it would seem that Bess fell in love with him, and he is characterized as a man that was very popular with the ladies, and I assumed that it was more one-sided on Bess’ part. However, when Bess examines their relationship, she really didn’t know much about Arthur and you see it as more of a one-sided relationship – Bess fell harder for him. I think her determination to ensuring its delivery is due in part to her love for him, but also because it just smacked of mystery and I think this is where Bess’ character comes to life. She simply needs to get to the bottom of this, but also I think to convince herself that she was a special part of Arthur’s life. This wasn’t something she would have done for anyone else and that is stated often in the book, she wrote plenty of letters home, but because she was in love with Arthur – she specifically went to meet his family.

5) What did you think of Mrs. Graham and her sons? I was struck by how much Bess was at their mercy and whim while staying in their house. Do you think they abused her kind nature in asking her to care for Peregrine?

Well Mrs. Graham was certainly a self-absorbed, selfish person! Although, she did what she did to protect her shameful secret from being exposed. However, her treatment of Peregrine was horrid, and well, what each of her boys had to continue to live with and hide all those years was terrible. Shameful to trade one boy’s life for another!Absolutely they did abuse Bess in asking her to care for Peregrine – by locking her in a room ensuring that no one else would be allowed to see Peregrine for fear that he would expose their secret was a terrible mistreatment! Overall, the whole treatment of Bess by the Graham’s was contemptible. From the moment Bess walked in the front door their treatment of her was bizarre. No wonder she wished to stay and uncover the dirty little secrets! Their behaviour just smacked of “we’re hiding things here!”

6) Did you guess who the real killer was before he was revealed? I confess I went back and forth a few times, wondering.

I do confess to going back and forth about it a few times as well. I did figure it was one of the brothers though, and then I thought hmmm, maybe the mother? But I believe I kept it narrowed down to the brothers?

Now it is on to the second book in the series, An Impartial Witness. Discussion of this book will take place on April 30th.