Fans of historical mysteries who have not yet read the Bess Crawford series by the writing duo known as Charles Todd should do so immediately. Set during the peace accords in France following WWI, A Cruel Deception (the eleventh in the series) finds Bess stepping away from her nursing duties to do a favor for one of her superiors. Since the stories are heavily character driven and the character building takes place across all the novels, I strongly recommend reading them in order.
When Bess, who has been working with the severely wounded in England since the official end of the war, is called into Matron’s office, she is concerned. Not so much that she has made some kind of error but more that she will be forced to make some kind of decision. With the fighting over, the need for nursing sisters has decreased significantly but the number of nurses has not. Bess fears she will be asked to take a teaching position, as many of her friends have, or worse yet, be drummed out of The Queen Alexandra’s service altogether. She is surprised to find herself instead asked to carry out a personal mission. One of the matrons is concerned about her son, Lieutenant Lawrence Minton, who is meant to be serving as a translator for the peace talks in Paris but who has not been seen by any of his colleagues recently. Bess has a reputation for being “capable, discreet and able to act independently” in such matters and Matron would like her to find the young man and report back to her as to what is happening.
Locating him takes a bit of doing. His friends have been covering for him, concerned that he will be dismissed from the army for his failure to perform his duty and anxious to help him avoid that fate. Fortunately, Lawrence’s landlady is able to give Bess the address of a young woman who had been caring for him during a recent illness. It turns out that Lt. Minton is still there, being cared for by the lovely Marina Angeline duBois Lascelles. However, it is not a sickness she is nursing him through but an addiction; Lawrence has recently become an opium addict. Bess, familiar with the battlefield horrors that have driven men to drink and drugs for escape, has compassion for the weary, nightmare-haunted young man. She is nevertheless firm in her conviction that this is not the solution. He may tell her that he doesn’t care if he lives or dies, just so long as he can find some peace from the horrors that haunt him, but she knows that there are many who do care and who would deeply mourn this senseless loss. She sets out to help him battle his addiction but quickly discovers there is a bit more to this particular case than meets the eye. Lawrence had been coping very well with his memories of the war until one night in Paris. Who or what did he see that evening that changed everything for the worse? To prevent the recent conflict from claiming yet another victim, Bess must discover what happened to drive the young man to such despair, even if it means putting herself in harm’s way.
Fans of the series will be familiar with Bess’ compassionate nature drawing her into exactly these kind of scrapes. Since this is a mystery series it should be no surprise that murder follows her around like a devoted puppy and that solving crimes and/or puzzles is a well-established characteristic of hers. She sees it as an outreach of her care-giving; she can hardly leave a murderer running around, stealing the health or happiness of a patient she’s helped cure!
To be quite honest, I felt a bit differently than she did in this case. While I had a lot of empathy for the mother who asked Bess to find her son, I felt almost no sympathy for the lieutenant himself. He was surly and difficult, making aiding him almost impossible for both Marina and Bess. He bullied Marina into doing as he demanded, with no concern that he was impoverishing her and, by forcing her to take off work to care for him, imperiling her career. Nor did he give a thought to her reputation, which might have been ruined if it was found out that she was living alone with a man who wasn’t a family member. He places Bess in the unfortunate position of having to mislead his mother, his friends in Paris and his superiors regarding the cause of his absence. As the killer drew ever closer, I found myself very concerned for everyone’s safety but Lawrence’s. He seemed unwilling, especially at first, to do anything helpful to resolve the issue and was more than happy to have the two women, whose problem it wasn’t, do everything necessary to clear things up on their own. I received the impression, perhaps erroneously, that he lived his life expecting the women in it to deal with whatever difficulties might occur which kept him from enjoying it to the fullest.
Fortunately Bess is nothing if not resourceful, and with a bit of aid from her father and a few others she is able to successfully conclude this case. Unfortunately Simon, the man whom I am increasingly convinced will be Bess’ future husband, doesn’t make an appearance here. We do get to meet an interesting new character in Captain Clifford Jackson, who has a connection to Bess that she is unaware of until the very end of the novel. A brash but charming American, Captain Jackson proves to be a true friend to our plucky heroine.
We also learn about some of the issues surrounding the peace talks and how the individual nations felt about handling them and why they felt that way. For those unfamiliar with that era, these little tidbits are fascinating pieces of history which (in part) explains why Winston Churchill called WWII “the Unnecessary War.”
I wasn’t wowed with the conundrum here, which I felt was driven more by stupidity and incompetence on many people’s part more than anything else, but thanks to the charm of the heroine and the skill of the writers, A Cruel Deception is a solid addition to this series of mysteries. While it lacked the brilliance of last years A Forgotten Place, I would still recommend it to the authors’ legion of fans, and (again) I would recommend the series as a whole to anyone who loves historical mysteries.
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