Title: An Unmarked Grave
Author: Charles Todd
Review: When I selected this book to review, it was my first introduction Charles Todd as an author. I chose this particular story for a couple of reasons: (1) it’s a mystery, and I love mysteries! and (2) the setting fascinated me. My great-grandmother Margaret was a nurse in Europe during World War I, and I wanted to know a little about what this might have been like. Todd is particularly known for a close attention to historical detail and a careful shaping of the history that surrounds the fictional story. I should note, for the record, that my great-grandmother was American instead of British, but she spent time in England as well as in continental Europe. (The silver-plated coffee service that she bought while in England is one of my most cherished possessions.)
The publisher took the time to send the previous book in the series — A Bitter Truth — so I took the opportunity to read it before starting in on An Unmarked Grave. This provided a sense of context for the characters, and I was glad that I already had some sense of who Bess Crawford was before I started reading the book I was meant to review. I’ll admit up front that I enjoyed An Unmarked Grave much more than A Bitter Truth. The latter, while interesting in places, felt far too contrived as a whole. The story never seemed to hit its stride, and I liked it all right without loving it. An Unmarked Grave, however, is another story.
For one, this is set during the Spanish influenza outbreak, as well as the war. I hadn’t really considered the fact that the influenza struck while the war was still occurring, so it puts a new spin on the challenges that a nurse at the front in France would have faced. As the story opens, Bess is dealing with the death of war, in addition to the death of disease, on a daily basis. An unexpected problem faces her in the form of a body found where a body shouldn’t be. Bess discovers that the body of a murdered man has been placed among those who died from the flu.
There are briefly shades of Ellis Peters and One Corpse Too Many in this moment, but I’m happy to say that An Unmarked Grave avoids being derivative and immediately takes another direction altogether. Bess learns about the body from the private responsible for handling the dead; he confides in her, and when he takes her to see the body she realizes that she recognizes the deceased as someone who used to serve under her father. She tells the private to keep the information to himself while she informs her own superiors. Unfortunately, illness strikes Bess down soon after, and she is unable to do anything about it.
Once she is on the path to recovery, she initially believes that the discovery of the murdered man was just a dream. This belief is reinforced by the news that the man she thought she saw among the dead supposedly died in battle some time before. But her faithful friend Simon Brandon looks into the matter further and finds out that the person who alerted Bess to the body was also found dead, supposedly a suicide. Bess refuses to believe it: this individual was not the type to commit suicide.
So she begins doing a little digging of her own, asking questions, uncovering details, and trying to piece together what proves to be a very complicated mystery. I read an interview with Charles Todd, and one of the comments made was that the writers (in this case, a mother-son writing team) often let the story develop and surprise them. Rather than starting out with a clear plan, they let the story take them where it wants to go. This approach works very well in An Unmarked Grave. The reader remains as confused as Bess about what is going on, why several people would have been murdered. Was it a personal grudge? Part of an intelligence plan gone wrong? Something else altogether?
The solution surprised me at first, but once I thought about it I really liked it. There were hints all the way through about what might really be happening, but there wasn’t the sense that a scene was being laid for the reader. Instead, there were all kinds of clues to choose from, and the solution felt like what any detective must face: heaps of evidence that makes no sense until it can be sorted out and assembled to form something logical. The only objection I have is the introduction of new characters at the end of the story. But then again, this fills in the blanks, and it’s effective in its own way.
I compared An Unmarked Grave to A Bitter Truth, and I should point out that this might not be entirely fair. For what it’s worth, reading both books gave me a much stronger appreciation for the character development of Bess Crawford, so I’m glad I had that opportunity. (See my note below.) I think An Unmarked Grave is a stronger story in the series — if I’m allowed to offer a comparison — but I also think it’s strong as a stand-alone mystery. I was interested in the characters, in the story, and in finding out what happened. I could see hints of what I know about my great-grandmother, so that was a great personal connection, but it’s obviously not essential.
All in all, I recommend An Unmarked Grave as a solid mystery with an interesting resolution. My objections to the earlier book aside, I would also recommend that readers start from the beginning of the series, which I was unable to do under the circumstances. Interested readers would be well served to look into the series as a whole to understand the larger story arc that seems to be occurring. In that context, I might very well have liked A Bitter Truth far more.
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