Book Review: A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd

A Duty to the Dead (Bess Crawford, #1)

I’ve read a lot of historical mysteries, so much so in the last year I’ve cut back on how many I read, because they all start to blend together eventually. One of the main faults I see in many genres is that the authors play within the limits of certain tropes so much that the plot doesn’t feel unique and new, and instead feels bland and predictable. And no genre is more true of this than mysteries. There is a certain formula, you might say, when it comes to writing a mystery novel, especially a historical one. The plots usually go like this: introduce main character, they stumble upon a murder/mystery, feel randomly compelled to solve it, and then spend the rest of the story getting information from different characters until they figure out the mystery and reveal the culprit.

There is nothing wrong with this plotline, but after reading dozens of books which are exactly the same, each mystery gets more and more boring. I always like challenging myself when it comes to reading, so this bothers me. There are a few exceptions I find in this genre (The Alienist by Caleb Carr comes to mind), but for the most part I’m rather tired of historical mysteries. But I do have a list of mystery series I want to get through, and this one is on it.

This is the first book of the Bess Crawford series, set during World War I. For those who didn’t know, Charles Todd is actually the pen name of two people, mother and son Caroline and Charles Todd, who write this series (and the Ian Rutledge series) together. I didn’t know this fact until after I finished this book, and I found that to be fascinating.

As for this novel…it was surprising.

Release: 2009

Synopsis: Bess Crawford is an excellent nurse during WWI, and one who made a promise to a dying soldier to bring a message to his brother in England. When she returns home on leave after injuring her arm during the sinking of the Britannic, she finally completes her promise, only to discover the soldier’s family have many secrets and in order to fulfill her duty to the dead, she must put herself into danger to discover a horrible truth.


In most mysteries, it is the plot which is driving the characters. In this book, the opposite feels to be the case. Because of this, some readers might find the book to be slow-moving with little action. I, however, found it to be exceptional. If you are looking for a thrilling mystery, this book may not be for you. It spends most of the time examining the main characters, understanding their motives and pasts. How, in a sense, they were formed into who they are now. Bess is an exceptional protagonist, kind but also strong.

I won’t be getting into too much of the mystery parts, because this book was so good I could easily recommend it for anyone to read. However, I will say the mystery does not fall into the predictable plot I am used to. I have come to expect someone to be murdered within the first fifty pages, and possibly another person along the way. In this one, the murder (if you could call it that) is much more background to the complex web of lives surrounding the Graham family (the soldier’s family Bess takes the message to).

I also was rather impressed with the setting. One thing I find lacking in many wartime mysteries is the lack of awareness so many characters have of the war. This felt like the case with many of Agatha Christie’s novels, which were set during both the world wars. Often times the characters gave little care to a war happening, while in real life most people either lost a family member or had a close friend who did. There is a deep awareness of war and it’s consequences in this book, which I appreciated.

The theme of duty, as well, is woven into the story so well I enjoyed every time it popped up. Bess’s duty to the dying soldier. A soldier’s duty to fight for his country. A dying soldier’s duty to make right the lie he told in his childhood. A duty a doctor has to try to save his patients. There are so many mentions of duty in the book that I felt like duty itself was never far out of reach of the characters at any given moment.

The fact that the characters drove the plot was the best part of this book for me. I never felt as if something was happening just because it needed to happen, but because a certain character made a conscious decision to do something. I really appreciated that level of complexity, because it is something so many mysteries lack.

Because of the fact that the characters drove the plot, I never had any idea where the story was going. I knew certain things were a lie, or could tell certain characters were not as they were believed to be, but I had no idea what these facts meant.

I am determined to continue on in this series, though I honestly can’t believe the sequels could be possibly as good as this one was.

Have you read this series? Or heard of it? What is an example of your favorite mystery series in which the characters drive the plot? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

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