The Great War has finally come to an end, but that doesn’t mean Bess Crawford’s days of fighting crime are finished. In The Cliff’s Edge, the thirteenth volume in the Bess Crawford series, Bess travels to Yorkshire to sit beside a family friend as she recovers from surgery, only to stumble upon an intriguing and dangerous mystery.
This saga is sequential in nature, with each book building upon the last. This volume, especially, which references a pivotal secondary character who has appeared in the majority of the previous books, will make more sense if the reader is familiar with that character’s background.
Since returning from Ireland, Bess and Simon have been estranged. Bess isn’t exactly sure what has caused the estrangement or why such close friends can’t simply talk about the matter, but the issue weighs heavily upon her mind. When she receives a request to be a nurse for Lady Beatrice, an older woman who will need home care after surgery, Bess demures. Lady Beatrice is a friend of a close relative, not an acquaintance of Bess herself, and Bess gave up nursing after the war ended. Besides, she isn’t sure that leaving while things are unresolved with Simon is the best move to make. However, when her mother sweetens the deal by agreeing to come along and combining it with a visit to another friend in the area, Bess is talked into going.
As Robert Burns said, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. That’s the case here when Bess’s mum suddenly finds herself unable to go on the trip, leaving Bess to travel alone to the remote village where Lady Beatrice lives. She finds herself getting along very well with the charming septuagenarian and everything is going along swimmingly when the second disruption to Bess’s plans occurs. Lady Beatrice receives a telegram saying that her beloved godson Gordon has been injured and asking her to come to the isolated sheep farm upon which he lives. Since the older woman can’t travel due to her recent surgery, she sends Bess in her stead, hoping Bess can be of help. Once Bess arrives at the Neville family’s estate, she realizes things are not quite as simple as the telegram led them to believe. There has indeed been an accident, and Gordon is indeed injured and in need of nursing care. But it isn’t just that. The friend who was with him when the incident happened was killed, and the events around the death are mysterious enough that the police are making things quite difficult for the family. Bess has always been a full-service nurse, not just tending to her patient’s physical problems but helping them tackle all their other difficulties as well. Determined to aid Gordon in clearing his name, she begins subtly sleuthing, trying to determine just what happened when two men left the house - and only one returned alive.
Bess soon finds herself in the crosshairs between two warring families whose pasts have exploded into the present. Little does she know that at the true heart of all this is someone she cares about, whose own murky past is inexplicably intertwined with all that is happening.
As always, I have to praise the superb historical setting of these novels. I have seen few novels that capture so perfectly the little details which separate the early nineteen hundreds from life in the twenty-first century. Here, Bess is in the countryside where there are no phones, you have to drive to a larger town to send a telegram, gas lamps are still being used in even the finest homes, and everyone is practicing austerity due to the war years. Heavy in the hearts of folks like Bess are the soldiers who have returned to difficult situations. Whether it is being unable to hold their previous positions due to injuries or simply coming back to farms that their families were unable to maintain without them, these men are facing hard struggles after fighting for a country that no longer seems to care about them.
The novel shows the class struggle that underlies some of these problems. Gordon’s family live in relative wealth while many in the village struggle to survive. There is a growing resentment toward that dichotomy that was enhanced when the two sons of the manor came home whole and healthy, and many men of the village didn’t make it home at all. The author does a great job of capturing how the upper classes would have seen this whole issue, but a small flaw in the story is that they haven’t done as good a job capturing the other side. I got the sense that we should simply know what the villagers were feeling and understand it, but it would have been nice to have had their points more directly expressed and addressed in the text.
Especially since this unseen struggle underlies the mystery. That portion of the story is excellent by the way. It has a locked room aspect since the police require everyone to stay in the house until the inquiry is over and that foreboding, chilling sense that the characters may well be trapped with a murderer is perfectly handled. I just loved the atmosphere, which so excellently conveyes the stress everyone is under and the eerie aura of bewilderment and fear as folks wonder just who among them is capable of killing.
Bess, for her part, seems to be in a state of bemusement. She is not sure what her place in the world is now that she is no longer a working nurse. She is used to being active and useful, but careers for ladies like herself aren’t exactly in plentiful supply. Bess does have the option to marry but none of the men who have proposed appeal to her. This leads to my second quibble: we have been playing a game of will they/won’t they with Simon and Bess for twelve books now. She’s been slow in coming to an awareness of whom she loves, and he hasn’t exactly been helpful by saying nothing of his own feelings. In the last novel, we took a baby step forward, but in this one, we move backward, with the two characters not even interacting. The end does make it clear we have reached a point where they will be forced to act, so I suppose readers will have to continue to hope for an eventual resolution.
The Cliff’s Edge ends on a cliffhanger, a fact that will frustrate and fascinate fans. I closed the book feeling like we are very much at the point where something big is about to occur, and I was sorry not to be able to continue to the next volume right away. Regardless, this is an excellent mystery, a wonderful addition to a terrific series that has retained its quality throughout its run. I strongly recommend it to fans of the saga and would encourage those who haven’t read the books but enjoy historical mysteries to give the Bess Crawford series a try.
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