Readers of other "woman-centered" mysteries embedded in the two World Wars will find the opening chapters of AN IMPARTIAL WITNESS familiar ground. And of course, it will be even more so if you've read the 2009 Charles Todd volume, A Duty to the Dead, where Bess made her debut. Bess takes to nursing with courage and determination, despite her parents' awareness that their daughter is at almost as much risk as a soldier son would have been. An independent young woman whose heart is not yet captive, she shares rooms in London with other nurses (unlike the American term where "sister" would have implied being a nun, the British term "nursing sister" meant a graduate nurse). Her involvement with crime begins simply as a moment of compassion: Fatigued after a difficult transport, she's ready to spend her 36-hour leave catching up on lost sleep before returning to France. Emotionally raw from caring for a group of gas victims and a severely burned pilot, she witnesses a scene in the train station that catches her attention: a woman sobbing, and a man in uniform, surely not an unusual pairing. Yet Bess's ability to "see" clearly what's in front of her causes her to hesitate:
Her distress stopped me in my tracks for a moment. Watching them, I wondered at his reluctance to touch her and at the same time I was struck by the air of desperation about her. I'd seen this same desperation in men who had lost limbs or were blinded, a refusal to accept a bitter truth that was destroying them emotionally.The coincidence, with its emotional impact, throws Bess off balance. But she's used to such jolts, from nursing, and her sane, emotionally reliable parents have helped her learn to stay centered and go on with life. It's clear that's exactly what she would be doing next -- if only the newspaper arriving in France a few days later hadn't revealed the murder of the woman from the train station.
But there was nothing I could do. ... I felt a surge of pity, and my training was to comfort, not to ignore, as her companion was doing.
I was about to walk around them when a whistle blew and she lifted her head to cast an anguished glance at the train, as if afraid it was on the point of departing.
I had the shock of my life.
I'd seen her before. There was no doubt about it.
Hers was the face in the photograph that the pilot, Lieutenant Evanson, had kept by his side like a talisman during his treatment in France and in all the long journey home. His wife, he'd said. There was no doubt about that either.
So it is that Bess, impartial initially in her observation, is quickly swept up by an enduring sense of responsibility: to let Scotland Yard know about the scene in the station, and later, as events pick up steam and levels of complication, to uncover the facts leading to Mrs. Evanson's tragic death -- and to see justice done.
The son-and-mother writing team of Charles Todd taps a lifetime of research into England and its wartime role and burdens in writing AN IMPARTIAL WITNESS. But in several significant ways, this book differs greatly from the Inspector Rutledge series that Todd has crafted. Most obviously, the protagonist is a young woman, not a middle-aged police investigator turned wartime officer returned to peacetime police duty. Bess Crawford has not yet "loved and lost" in any deep way. Nor has she led others to death; she doesn't carry the disastrous psychological burden that Ian Rutledge does. In keeping with these differences, there is no dreaded haunting here (Rutledge carried with him the voice of a man whose death he may have caused). And, perhaps most dramatic, the Todd writing team tells this story in the first person, not third -- so we are comfortably present with Bess as she struggles to sort out facts and motives. Her emotions won't swamp us in the raw pain that Rutledge so often suffers.
Interestingly, although this makes AN IMPARTIAL WITNESS less steeped in agony than the Rutledge series, it doesn't weaken the writing at all. Todd's narrative is expertly paced, smoothly written, and offers a good challenge to the reader in terms of examining motives closely and appraising Bess's "take" on the people and situations around her. I do hope this second Bess Crawford means there will be more volumes featuring this plucky and honorable nurse and the concerned and intelligent friends and family that surround her. The book is a breath of fresh air among the newest wartime narratives -- one in which the twists and tangles are more in the plot than in the psyche. I like it very much, indeed.
Two postscripts: (A) The cover art on this book is silly -- it has no connection to the plot and I have no idea why anyone would pair it with this well-written mystery. (B) For another set of insights into the book, see today's brief review in the New York Times by Marilyn Stasio.