The Shattered Tree
Mysteries which aren’t police procedurals typically require an extra dose of suspended disbelief. While a caterer, hotel owner or nurse might solve a crime at some point in their career it is unlikely that they will ever close case after interesting case with a speed and efficiency which New York detectives would envy. I know that the Bess Crawford stories have moved from that realm of unlikely to a point that is flatly unbelievable. No nurse, no matter how talented or how unlucky (and you would have to be darn unlucky to stumble across that many murderers) would ever be solving this many mysteries. But once you move past that painful premise you realize that the outstanding writing, tight plotting and intriguing characters make accepting the impossible not just easy but enjoyable.
At the beginning of The Shattered Tree, a man in pretty bad shape is brought to the field hospital where Bess works. Shivering desperately, with dozens of lacerations and a head wound, it is clear he will need more than their emergency station can provide. Bess Crawford, full time WWI nurse and part-time super sleuth, does the best she can to warm him up and make him comfortable. It is her turn to accompany the patients on the ambulance to the base hospital and she is happy to be able to continue to keep an eye on this one and get him comfortably settled. The transfer to the hospital ward goes smoothly, the ambulance is packed with urgently needed supplies and Bess has even been able to recruit another nurse volunteer to accompany them back to the field when a scream suddenly breaks the peace. A scuffle ensues, started by a delirious patient, that involves Bess, two other nurses, an orderly and a doctor. They are eventually able to sedate the man but not before he attacks Bess’s transferred invalid. And amidst the flurry of that excitement their French patient utters his first words – in flawless German.
Bess reports the fact to Matron, well aware the Allies have had an infiltrator problem throughout the years of the war. Her superior, staring longingly at her steaming pot of tea, offers a simple, distracted response: It is possible, indeed likely, that the soldier is from the province of Alsace-Lorraine. In the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 the area was annexed by the Germans and many of the refugees from the territory are bi-lingual, some with a primary language of German rather than French. Bess doesn’t really buy that reasoning but she has an ambulance to catch back to the Front and she has done what protocol demands of her.
Her stay in the field is short lived. While helping to rescue a young man from a nearby communication trench Bess is shot by a sniper and receives what turns out to be a very troublesome wound. She soon finds herself in Paris and what she sees on entering the city surprises her – it is the German speaking French soldier, someone who definitely shouldn’t be waltzing about the city unattended. Bess’s efforts to determine who he is and what he is up to soon connect to a decades old case of mass murder. When the few people who know anything about that original crime become the target of a knife wielding madman, Bess knows she must solve the case before more of her friends become victims.
I found this to be a fast, engrossing, and entertaining read. I quickly became as obsessed as Bess as to the identity of the patient, finding out what happened in the past and learning just how that affected the present. The mystery has excellent pacing, giving readers just enough clues to keep us absorbed in the story while withholding sufficient information to keep us from solving it before reaching the end.
The author does an excellent job with the characterization as well. Our main character hasn’t grown much but that fits in this context. Bess is absorbed in her work as a nurse. She solves the occasional mystery, makes friends and acquaintances that might reappear later but like everyone in that situation, she is fixed in a holding pattern. Her life is not hers, it belongs to the military and the nursing she does for them consumes the bulk of her time. As a result, she doesn’t get herself deeply involved in a romance which works because it keeps the focus on the mystery. The war is coming to a close however, and I will be very interested to see how this writing duo handles that issue.
This is the eighth book in the Bess Crawford series and I would strongly suggest starting at the beginning. While this book could probably be read as a standalone, it is not as strong a story as book one, A Duty to the Dead. I also think this tale is enhanced by being familiar with the recurring characters, not just Bess but also Simon and Captain Barkley.
The Shattered Tree was a joy to read. I’ve been delighted with the consistent quality of this series and am already eagerly awaiting the next book.