“A Duty to the Dead,” by Charles Todd; Morrow (336 pages, $24.99)

Charles Todd’s 11 atmospheric novels about Scotland Yard detective Ian Rutledge scrupulously detail England during the post-World War I era. The horrific battles forever haunt Ian through flashbacks and nightmares as he deals with daily life.

“A Duty to the Dead” launches a new series this time with a perceptive, compassionate heroine that should prove to be as popular as the Ian Rutledge series. While Todd still keys on the WWI motif, “A Duty to the Dead” takes place two years into the Great War when an end, let alone a victory, seemed impossible.

Bess Crawford is as fully a realized character as Ian, but with a different mission. The only child of a highly decorated military man, Bess volunteered to be an Army nurse to fulfill her duty to her country and also to her family. As with the ongoing series, Todd explores the stress of battle and how WWI forever changed Great Britain by breaking down the class system, spearheading women’s rights and introducing technology.

Todd begins “A Duty to the Dead” with the harrowing sinking of the HMHS Britannic, a real ocean liner that was used as a hospital ship before it struck a mine off the southern coast of Greece in 1916. A sister ship of the RMS Titanic, the Britannic sank, killing at least 30 people.

This incident jumpstarts “A Duty to the Dead,” adding to the realism that is so prevalent throughout each of Todd’s novels.
Bess is put on leave while she recovers from injuries suffered during the sinking. But Bess doesn’t take to idle convalescing. She uses her time off to deliver a message to the family of Arthur Graham, a soldier who died under her care.

While she was not in love with Arthur, her duty to the dead requires she make the trip to Kent to give one of his brothers a cryptic message. Bess also learns that there is a third Graham son Peregrine, who for years has been in a nearby asylum accused of murder. As Bess gets to know the family and the town’s residents, she wonders if Peregrine was guilty or was he the victim.
Todd, the pseudonym for a mother and son writing team, shapes “A Duty for the Dead” as village mystery, examining the relationships and frustrations of people who live close to each other. Bess becomes embroiled in residents’ lives, from the lonely widows to parents whose sons have died in the war to a former soldier driven close to suicide from watching his twin brother die in battle.

Todd hasn’t abandoned Ian Rutledge in the next novel in the series. “The Red Door” is scheduled to be published in December. But Bess Crawford will allow Todd to illustrate another view of WWI and the way it affected the world.

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