Review: A Hanging at Dawn by Charles Todd

Review: A Hanging at Dawn by Charles ToddA Hanging at Dawn by Charles Todd
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Bess Crawford #11.5
Pages: 176
Published by Witness Impulse on December 15, 2020
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Years before the Great War summoned Bess Crawford to serve as a battlefield nurse, the indomitable heroine spent her childhood in India under the watchful eye of her friend and confidant, the young soldier Simon Brandon. The two formed an inseparable bond on the dangerous Northwest Frontier where her father’s Regiment held the Khyber Pass against all intruders. It was Simon who taught Bess to ride and shoot, escorted her to the bazaars and the Maharani’s Palace, and did his best to keep her out of trouble, after the Crawford family took an interest in the tall, angry boy with a mysterious past.
But the Crawfords have long guarded secrets for Simon and he owes them a debt that runs deeper than Bess could ever know. Told through the eyes of Melinda, Richard, Clarissa, and Bess, A Hanging at Dawn pieces together a mystery at the center of Bess’s family that will irrevocably change the course of her future.

My Review:

A Duty to the Dead by Charles ToddFor those of us who are long-time fans of the Bess Crawford series (beginning with A Duty to the Dead), this story serves as an “origin story” for one of the series’ favorite characters, Sergeant-Major Simon Brandon. Through the course of the series, which details Bess Crawford’s service as a battlefield nurse in World War I as well as her outings as an amateur detective both at the front and back home, Brandon has been a familiar if more frequently talked about than seen character.

Brandon has often been the person to get Bess out of trouble that turns out to be too deep for her. Alternatively, he has just as often been the person getting her into that trouble by helping her to ferret out information that she shouldn’t have in pursuit of her unofficial cases.

But Brandon has also been a bit of an enigma throughout the series. From hints that are dropped within the series, while Brandon is older than Bess, it’s clear that he isn’t quite as much older as his rank and time in uniform would indicate. He’s been a part of Bess’ life as well as the life of her parents and her father’s regiment for much longer than he should have been.

This short story dives a bit into those mysteries. We still don’t know exactly who Simon’s people are by the end, but we do know how and why he managed to get into the Army at 14 and serve in India in the years before the Great War, as well as more than a bit about why he’s so attached to the Crawfords.

While this story does go into as much of Brandon’s background as has ever been shared, the heart of this story is a singular incident in India with dramatic repercussions for Brandon, for the Crawfords, and for everything that comes after.

Because that “hanging at dawn” of the title was very nearly Brandon’s. And for once, but certainly not the last time, he was saved from death by Bess Crawford, even though in this particular case she was over 4,000 miles away.

Escape Rating A-: For readers of the series, this story is fascinating and provides more than a bit of much needed background for the character. And we also get to understand why Brandon has been so reticent about the few details that we have had so far.

And I’ll confess that I wonder why anyone who is not already a fan of the series would be reading this story. Not that it’s not good, because it is, but because it’s not enough. It teases and and it torments, and it feels like it’s written with the assumption that most readers will already be familiar with the characters and find this bit of backstory fascinating – as I certainly did.

One of the things that gets more-or-less nailed down is the origin of the relationship between Brandon and the Crawford family, and it does answer a question that has been in the back of my mind from fairly early on. I’ve always wondered about the age difference between Bess and Brandon, because there’s always been a bit of romantic tension about their relationship. The answer seems to be “under a decade” making them well outside squicky territory for any possible romance after the war ends – not that any such ending has ever been hinted at by the author.

But still, one can hope.

In addition to the illumination about just how Brandon came to be part of the Crawfords, there is also a mystery, the mystery that nearly results in that hanging at dawn. I found myself of two minds about the whole thing.

On the one hand, readers of the series already know Simon Brandon as one of the “good guys”. That means we are predisposed to believe that he is innocent of the crime he’s accused of, making the Prince’s – or at least his representative’s – rush to judgment and execution seem immediately dodgy in the extreme – at best – and villainous at worst.

Very much on that other hand, it’s made very clear that the British Raj had subjugated the traditional ruling class in India and taken away nearly all of their traditional rights. And that, as a consequence, there have to have been entirely too many cases where a British soldier would have been whisked away by British authorities in order to avoid justice that was absolutely due for committing crimes against anyone Indian, including members of those same Princely Houses. Not that members of those Princely Houses didn’t also most likely get away with crimes against those they considered their inferiors back when they held all the power. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely and that’s one of the ways it inevitably corrupts.

But as this story goes, we’re meant to be on Simon’s side from the very beginning, therefore there must be something dodgy about the accusation or at least the rush to judgement. But it feels impossible not to acknowledge that the Prince could have been trying to prevent a miscarriage of justice, even though he imposes that desire on the wrong party in this particular instance.

And even though, or perhaps especially because, in this particular case it’s the threat of the power of the Raj that brings justice for Simon, it’s also true that the same threat would have worked just as well if he’d been guilty. The only difference is that if he had been guilty the Crawfords would never have raised the threat in the first place.

So, an interesting case, a moral conundrum, and oodles of background information for a beloved character. A lot to pack in a relatively short story – but excellently done. And just enough to make my anticipation for the next Bess Crawford novel, An Irish Hostage, feel all that much keener.

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