Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd

Source of book: Audio book borrowed from the library

I am not really a reader of genre fiction, but I do have a weakness for British murder mysteries. Naturally, I will blame my mother. Agatha Christie books lived at our house as far back as I can remember. I think my mother let me read And Then There Were None when I would have been ten or so - and it creeped me out. Not so much that I had nightmares, but it was a bit intense. Kind of like when my dad showed us Jaws around that time. So, my mom and I would discuss our Christie, and look for books we didn’t have, whenever we would go thrift shopping.

Maybe I should go even further back. My mother bought a bunch of Nancy Drew books at a yard sale, I believe, and I devoured them, as did my younger sister. And whatever Hardy Boys books we could find at the library. And Tom Swift Jr. books as well. I cut my literary teeth, so to speak, on the mystery.

Later, I would read the entire Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, Poe and Stevenson’s short stories, the complete Father Brown (G. K. Chesterton), Wilkie Collins, and some Sayers and a few minor authors on the side. Our family would also listen to the old radio shows on tape when we traveled on vacation, so I was exposed to the American tradition as well. Dragnet, Raymond Chandler, The Shadow, Tales of the Texas Rangers, and many more. Readers of my blog might note my enjoyment of Alan Bradley’s recent books.

I ended up with this book because my wife couldn’t find it in its printed version in our library system except on special order. Thus, she checked out the audio book. I had a case up in Napa County - eleven hours of driving, so it fit the bill perfectly.

I will give fair warning at this point: in order to discuss this book, I will have to give some spoilers. If you don’t wish to know some plot points, just know that I liked the book, really enjoyed the narrator, but found some plot elements to be unrealistic even for the genre.

The protagonist is Bess Crawford, a young nurse serving in World War I on the hospital ship Britannic. This part of the story is historical fiction, following the actual events closely, and including several real life persons. The Britannic was one of three sister ships, each ill-fated in its own way. The first, and most famous was the Titanic. The third was the Olympic, which collided with a warship in 1911, but was repaired and managed to survive for a long career. The Britannic never saw service as a liner, but was converted to a hospital ship in 1915. It was sunk when it either hit a mine or was hit by a torpedo - no one knows for sure - but with a minimal loss of life due to the better conditions and the changes made to equipment and procedure after the Titanic disaster.

HMHS Britannic

Historical note: believe it or not, a nurse named Violet Jessup survived all three disasters. She was on the Titanic, but was rescued. She was on the Olympic when it collided, but made it back to shore. Finally, she was a nurse on the Britannic when it was sunk. The author of this book quotes (or at least paraphrases) Jessup’s description of the final sinking:

"She dipped her head a little, then a little lower and still lower. All the deck machinery fell into the sea like a child's toys. Then she took a fearful plunge, her stern rearing hundreds of feet into the air until with a final roar, she disappeared into the depths, the noise of her going resounding through the water with undreamt-of violence...."

This part of the story was riveting, but only set the stage for the rest of the book.

In the story, Crawford cares for a dying soldier, who makes her promise to deliver a cryptic message to his brother. When she does so, she begins to stumble upon dark family secrets, and a murder from years ago. I will go no further than that, for fear of ruining a tight and intriguing plot.

As would be expected, there are plenty of interesting characters, plot twists, and a heart pounding conclusion. Pretty standard stuff for the genre, but I would say well written for the most part. Whereas Christie would always follow the rules of the British murder mystery perfectly, there are a few minor violations in this case. Some are minor, and probably enhance the author’s purposes. (I won’t reveal them - read for yourself.) One is a bigger problem, so I will discuss it later. Again, this is a big spoiler, so avoid that paragraph if you haven’t read the book but plan to do so.

There are some elements of the plot that I really loved, both as a reader, and as a lawyer. First, the central fact around which everything else revolves is that there are four children with different parentage in the family. The oldest is the child of the father and his first wife. The next three are legally from the second wife, but may or may not have another biological father.

Not only is this a venerable plot device for a novel, it makes for interesting drama in real life. I remember a particular case that I had that matches many of the details of this tale (minus the murder, thankfully!) In my case, a man had an affair, his mistress conceived a child, who was born gravely disabled. The man left his wife for his mistress, and they married. The guilt was bad enough, but the belief that the child had been born disabled as punishment for their sin tainted their dealings with his ex-wife. Torn between shame and defensiveness, and combined with the ex-wife’s justifiable anger and hurt, it was difficult to bring the parties together enough to make the situation at least less bad for the kids. It was one of the more difficult cases I have had, and yet I knew that my best plan was to grant each party their pain. Once we got beyond that, we were able to work on the practicalities that we had the power to change for the better.

In this book, the issues are never addressed, and only come to light after the family has completely destroyed itself.

Another issue raised by this book that was of personal interest was the ethical duty of a nurse. Since my wife is a nurse, she has had to face this issue directly; but I would add that attorneys have to as well. A nurse (or a lawyer) must seek to do good for those we care for (or represent) regardless of their past. Thus, my wife has given medical care to prisoners who have done unspeakably awful things. It is her duty (and in my opinion moral duty as well) to seek to heal those she can. Likewise, I must give the best legal representation to my clients, whether or not I like them, or feel they deserve punishment. (I don’t practice criminal law, but these issues arise in even small civil cases and estates, to say nothing of divorces.) The protagonist, to her credit, serves faithfully even at risk to herself, and tries to do good even to those she believes to have done horrid things.

Bess Crawford is one of the best things about this book (which is good, because this is apparently a series). She reminds me a great deal of my own amazing woman, who is also capable of determined action even working without sleep, while ill, or under less than ideal conditions. She would be at the top of my list of people I would want in charge in an emergency situation. (And I come from a family with many of this sort of people.) Crawford likewise embodies that spirit that ignores the urge to panic, and takes logical yet intuitive action in difficult situations throughout the book. One of things that used to irritate me about Nancy Drew was that she usually ended up needing to be rescued by a man in the end. (The faithful Ned, usually...) The Deus ex Homo, so to speak, the close relative of Deus ex Machina. In this book, the cavalry doesn’t ride to the rescue, at least until the danger is over, and she needs help getting multiple victims to a medical facility.

The one truly false note, though, comes in the resolution. SPOILER ALERT!

The eventual murderer turns out to be a child. In the original murder, this makes sense. I could definitely see it. However, there are multiple successive murders. The author leaves me with two possible explanations. Either a child was able to commit other murders while creating the appearance of accidents - something only an experienced - and strong - sociopath would be able to do; or, the child waited until adulthood before the next murder, doing nothing to blow his cover until then. This too me does not match my own observations, which is that a young violent murderer would not suddenly gain the craft necessary to commit stealthy murder. Rather, he would become more violent, and thus be caught much sooner.  Given the specifics of the plot, the identity of the murderer makes sense, but it would have been more realistic had the perpetrator turned out to be a clever adult, rather than a precocious child.

Finally, I want to commend Rosalyn Landor, who reads this audio book. Although I was naturally skeptical about her decision to attempt to read each characters lines in the voice he or she would use, (it’s always risky for women to attempt men’s voices and vice versa) she pulled it off. There are multiple characters, with different ages, regional dialects, social status, and nationality, and she made them stand out well. I found that as I went along, I could even distinguish between brothers in her characterization, without being told who was speaking. A highly impressive performance, in my opinion. Well done.

This was a perfect book for a long and somewhat boring drive, and would have been a good read under any circumstances.


  1. I kind of only skimmed your review because I'd probably read another Todd book and I didn't want to spoil the story.

    I read a Maisie Dobbs but didn't care for it as much.

    What I'm VERY much looking forward to is reading No Name by Collins!

  2. I've only read one Todd title (Unmarked Grave). Although I liked the writing and the heroine (Bess) I thought the ability of the murderer to kill so many people without detection was implausible.