Desert Isle Keeper
A Forgotten Place
A Forgotten Place is the pivotal tenth novel of the Bess Crawford series. Set in the months immediately following WWI, this book places army nurse Bess in one of her most chilling adventures yet. Because these mysteries are heavily character driven and the character building takes place across all the novels, I strongly recommend reading them in order.
The war is over but the suffering – and dying – are not. It is December of 1918 and Bess is working at a base hospital in France. The patients are primarily amputees, whom they are watching for signs of infection and depression. The latter is as much a killer as the former, for many of the men will be going home with no way to make a living. Worried about being a financial drain upon their families, they often commit suicide in an effort to eliminate the problem. Bess is especially concerned about their Welsh patients, many of them coal miners with limited education and no other skills who are now unable to perform the grueling, physical labor required in the pits. A few of them manage to kill themselves while still in the hospital and Bess is certain several more will be successful once they leave the watchful eye of the nurses.
After they are dismissed, she receives a note from Captain Hugh Williams, the officer who had been in charge of the Welsh unit. The men are deeply despairing and he himself is suffering from desperation and despondency at both his own life as an amputee and his failed efforts to help his men. Bess, profoundly moved by the note, takes leave. Hiring a car and driver she visits the bleak Welsh mining village the men are from but upon arrival learns all of them are dead but one. He has strong support from his mother and will likely be fine. The Captain himself has left the valley to help his sister-in-law Rachel, his brother Tom’s widow, with her sheep farm on a remote, storm-battered peninsula. According to his sister, the Captain doesn’t know about the most recent deaths, so Bess determines to bring him that news and see if there is anything she can do for his own situation. Upon arrival she discovers the extremely isolated hamlet – a place with no shops, restaurants, hotels or even phones or telegraphs – peopled by a harsh, secretive group of villagers. Bad weather forces Bess to spend the night with Captain Williams and Rachel but when morning comes she finds her driver has deserted her and she has literally no way to reach or contact the outside world until travelers come in the spring. During her stay, as she desperately tries to figure out a way home, she discovers the secret the villagers are hiding. A secret they have killed to keep before – something they are doubtless willing to do again.
Fans of the series will be familiar with Bess’s compassionate nature drawing her into exactly these kind of scrapes. It might not be standard procedure for a nurse to check up on her patients after they’ve been released from her care, but it is perfectly in keeping with Bess’s personality. Since this is a mystery series it should be no surprise that murder follows her around like a devoted puppy. Again, solving 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!
What I thought was done especially well in this particular volume was the set-up of the sinister village. The location, with its stormy weather, harsh, unforgiving landscape, and unfriendly, baleful denizens adds a level of menace to the tale that I found deliciously fearsome. I was thoroughly convinced that a band of rather selfish, greedy people, determined to protect their way of life, could blithely convince themselves that the deaths of outsiders were acceptable if it insured their own survival. I felt the authors perfectly captured the insular thinking that small town living can create.
Equally well done is the characterization of Rachel and Captain Hugh Williams. They are drawn in such a way that we can see how they are more moral, civilized and sophisticated than the other villagers but are still tied sufficiently to the area to be tolerant of the villagers’ violent antics. Both Rachel and Hugh are in dire straits financially. Rachel is not likely to raise much money from the sale of the sheep farm, and the comfortable home she inherited and adequate living she makes by staying there is preferable to anything she is likely to experience by moving. Hugh, having lost a leg during the war, is all but unemployable. His education qualifies him for an office job, but a prevalent lack of decency has kept many companies from hiring those severely wounded in service to king and country. I loved how this story highlighted the need for affirmative action laws and showed the very real consequences of not having safety nets such as unemployment or disability insurance in effect. Those factors kept otherwise decent people from standing up to bullies in fear for their own security, life and safety.
The string of crimes that begin soon after Bess’ arrival are sufficiently sinister and mysterious to keep the reader glued to the page. I was riveted by what was happening and loved the eerie, atmospheric, frightening nature created by the malevolent residents and their rather spooky location.
A Forgotten Place is a wonderful addition to this series of mysteries and has shown us an intriguing glimpse of what life will be like for Bess when (if) she finally leaves the military. I would recommend it to the authors’ legion of fans, and I would recommend the series as a whole to anyone who loves historical mysteries but newcomers should begin with the first book, A Duty to the Dead.
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