Review: A Question of Honor by Charles Todd

A Question of Honor by Bess CrawfordFormat read: ebook provided by Edelweiss
Formats available: ebook, hardcover, large print paperback, audiobook
Genre: Historical mystery
Series: Bess Crawford, #5
Length: 322 pages
Publisher: William Morrow
Date Released: August 27, 2013
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

In the latest mystery from New York Times bestselling author Charles Todd, World War I nurse and amateur sleuth Bess Crawford investigates an old murder that occurred during her childhood in India, a search for the truth that will transform her and leave her pondering a troubling question: How can facts lie?

Bess Crawford enjoyed a wondrous childhood in India, where her father, a colonel in the British Army, was stationed on the Northwest Frontier. But an unforgettable incident darkened that happy time. In 1908, Colonel Crawford’s regiment discovered that it had a murderer in its ranks, an officer who killed five people in India and England yet was never brought to trial. In the eyes of many of these soldiers, men defined by honor and duty, the crime was a stain on the regiment’s reputation and on the good name of Bess’s father, the Colonel Sahib, who had trained the killer.

A decade later, tending to the wounded on the battlefields of France during World War I, Bess learns from a dying Indian sergeant that the supposed murderer, Lieutenant Wade, is alive—and serving at the Front. Bess cannot believe the shocking news. According to reliable reports, Wade’s body had been seen deep in the Khyber Pass, where he had died trying to reach Afghanistan. Soon, though, her mind is racing. How had he escaped from India? What had driven a good man to murder in cold blood?

Wanting answers, she uses her leave to investigate. In the village where the first three killings took place, she discovers that the locals are certain that the British soldier was innocent. Yet the present owner of the house where the crime was committed believes otherwise, and is convinced that Bess’s father helped Wade flee. To settle the matter once and for all, Bess sets out to find Wade and let the courts decide.

But when she stumbles on the horrific truth, something that even the famous writer Rudyard Kipling had kept secret all his life, she is shaken to her very core. The facts will damn Wade even as they reveal a brutal reality, a reality that could have been her own fate.

My Review:

The “honor” that is questioned in this story is the honor of the regiment that Bess Crawford’s father, Colonel Richard Crawford, commanded in India in 1908, even though that is now 10 years in the past and England is fighting the Great War in Europe instead of defending the Raj in India. The events of 1908 still cast a pall over the Crawfords and Simon Brandon, the Colonel’s loyal Regimental Sergeant-Major and right-hand man.

In 1908, Lieutenant Thomas Wade was accused of murdering 3 people in England while on leave, then murdering his own parents after returning to India. He was never convicted because he ran away from the military police before he could be bound over for court martial. His body was never recovered, but was reported found over the Afghan border.

It was a disgrace for the Regiment. It was also bewildering in the extreme. Neither the “Colonel Sahib” nor Sergeant-Major Brandon could remember anything about the man they had trained and trusted that marked him as a murderer. But Wade was convicted by his own actions. And there it ended. The British Army did not believe it worth risking lives going into the “no man’s land” to retrieve the corpse of a presumed killer.

Until 1918, when an Indian soldier found Nurse Bess Crawford at an aid station in France and told her that he’d seen Lieutenant Wade serving in the British Army. Then the Indian soldier died, having raked the ashes of the dead past into life again.

Bess, being Bess (if you haven’t read her previous adventures, start with A Duty to the Dead) can’t let it go. But she doesn’t want to worry her parents with it unless it can be proved to actually be something, so she starts with Brandon, as usual. And she uses her home leaves to start investigating the original crime back home.

What Bess discovers is that absolutely nothing is as she originally thought it was. At the heart of this case is an unspeakable crime, and that there, but for the grace of God, went she. And lastly, that the so-called “correct” thing to do and the honorable thing to do may not be the same thing, after all.

Escape Rating A-: Bess is interesting because she does things rather than sitting around and waiting for things to happen to her; she is particularly compelling to watch because she chose a life of doing things at a time when many women of her class did not so choose; she is a trained nurse at a time when most upper middle class women went to parties and waited to get married.

Although it may seem that her mother is a professional spouse, it becomes obvious over the course of the series that there is a whole lot of profession in that spousing. Mrs. Crawford “followed the drum” and went where her husband was posted. She didn’t sit idly about either, she seems to have kept the English colony running on an even keel wherever they went, and she continues to keep track of the families of all the men who served in the Regiment.

There is a mystery, but this story (and the series) isn’t about the mystery. It’s about the experience. Bess’ perspective as a battlefield nurse in World War I is absolutely fascinating, and the descriptions of conditions in the hospitals both in France and the rehabilitation hospitals back home are intensely detailed. You are there to the point of stomach-churning. War is hell.

It’s ironic that the mystery isn’t about the war, it’s about the peace before the war. Lots of people took advantage of Lieutenant Wade, and no one did a proper investigation. Cui bono? Who benefits? Who benefitted then, and who benefits in 1918?

The answers are a surprise. What makes the story so compelling is that Bess always learns something about herself when she looks into things for someone else. And even when she doesn’t like the answers, she keeps right on looking, no matter what she finds or what trouble she turns up.

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