“A Casualty Of War” by Charles Todd is a winner. This Bess Crawford mystery takes place toward the end of World War I, and explores the impact the war had on all who witnessed it: officers, soldiers, doctors and battlefield nurses.
Fans of Bess will not be disappointed, as she is still as independent, steadfast, intelligent and resilient as ever. Per usual, she seeks justice and works within societal norms where readers are able to absorb events that are researched and steeped in time and place.
In this novel, Bess becomes the champion of Capt. Alan Travis. She meets him near the front lines in France at a forward aid station after he suffered a head wound. He confides in her that he thinks his cousin, Lt. James Travis, shot him. To make matters worse, after going back to the frontlines he is shot again, this time in the back. Because no one believes him and thinks his rage is due to shell shock, they incarcerate him in a ward for the mentally ill.
Being from Barbados without any family support, he begs Bess to help him. Although she is not sure his accusations are true, she is sure that the medical diagnosis of shell shock is wrong. With the help of her friend and her father’s former aide, Sgt. Maj. Simon Brandon, she journeys to James’ home in Suffolk to learn more about the cousins’ relationship and to hopefully enlist the support of the relatives. It is here that the mystery takes off.
Elise Cooper: Is seems shellshock is another word for PTSD, or as it is referred to during WWI, War Neurosis. Please explain.
The Todds: We’ve had to learn quite a bit about wounds in the Great War for the Bess Crawford mysteries. And we’ve seen photos of some of them that were unbelievably horrific. You realize, doing this sort of research, what the cost of war really is. But we have to know what Bess has seen and dealt with.
The problem was, doctors were often learning as they worked, especially with head wounds. Today we know more about brain injuries, most particularly concussions from shells exploding too close, and wounds to the head. Amazing surgeries save men who would have died in Bess’s day.
EC: But it was not just the soldiers that suffered, but Bess as a nurse as well?
The Todds: Bess, like many combat veterans, suffers from PTSD, even if it wasn’t called that then. Her experiences, many of them horrific, will be with her for the rest of her life. This is why we wrote the scene where Simon comes to Bess’s aid after she had a nightmare, explaining to her, “The wounded and dead, their faces will stay with you for a very long time. All those you tried to save. They’ll come back in dreams … The dead are gone, except in your memory. There they are still young and whole and safe.”
EC: You explore what happens when someone tells the truth and no one believes them.
The Todds: Bess realizes the captain is a man in torment. She is not willing to just walk away. We wanted to have the readers understand the frustration and how it could lead to suicide. He felt so isolated, which is why we had him from Barbados where it was hard to get messages or send them. It is similar to a man or woman who is sent to prison, even though they know they are innocent.
EC: You also show the atrocities of the Germans: I guess it is in their DNA?
The Todds: We wrote this book quote, “But now we were seeing what the German occupation had done to this part of France. Villages had been leveled, orchards cut down, garden walls turned to rubble, and the flowers that once had bloomed there had been churned into the earth. And often what couldn’t be taken away had been burned.”
The Germans had a scorched earth policy that was bloody vandalism. They even booby-trapped and poisoned wells. The example we put in the book is true where they booby-trapped an oven in a bakery knowing the allied soldiers were hungry and would open them.
EC: The book also explores the atrocities of those who enter the civilian life after fighting for their country.
The Todds: We talked about the burn cases, the amputees and others that are released from the hospitals and sent back home. What happens to these men? Governments invest a great deal to train soldiers, but have not done a very good job in helping them transition to civilian life.
We also explore this in our other series with Detective Ian Rutledge. In the first book, people questioned if he is capable of functioning on his own.
EC: I found it very interesting that even after the armistice was declared soldiers died.
The Todds: The war did not end until the peace treaty. When the bells rung, it was not this magical hour where the pace let up. There were still patients and casualties. Peace is coming, but soldiers still must carry on and do their duty, even if it meant killing the enemy.
The last combat casualty on record was an American Marine killed in battle after the famous 11th hour. In the middle of battle, people don’t just throw down their guns and walk away.
EC: I am sure you are getting this question a lot, are you ending the Bess series now that the war is over?
The Todds: Unlike women of previous generations, Bess is used to serving, not just being useful, but also to having a profession, and the professional respect and recognition to go with it. It would be hard for her to go back and become the dutiful wife who was told what to do. Adjusting to peacetime is going to be difficult, but she will have many adventures.
She will still be the amateur sleuth who solves crimes on a personal level. There will be all kinds of things we can explore with Bess. She will have a very interesting future where she might travel to Ireland or Australia.
EC: World War I marked societal transitions?
The Todds: Yes. It was a period where British society went from Victorian to modern day England. Because the men fought, on the home front many women took over their roles. Also, the great amount of deaths had women filling in the vocational roles, as well as assuming responsibilities for families and households.
EC: The theme is greed mixed with grief?
The Todds: Relatives had to face such losses. Since they were not there when their loved one died, they always held out some hope. We used this to show how people preyed on them. They were considered easy pickings because many women were not able to manage their estates or handle any financial aspects.
James’ mother was one of those who clung to the belief they might possibly be wrong. She never possessed compassion, which led her to become a victim. Remember, there were no grief counselors to help women cope.
EC: Can you give a shout out about your next book(s)?
The Todds: The next book is an Ian Rutledge story titled “The Gate Keeper.” It has a murder happen almost in front of Inspector Ian. It is more of a thriller than a mystery.
Next fall the next Bess book has the war end but not the suffering. Men are in hospitals and do not suddenly heal. Bess realizes she must have a personal investment in her career.