Starting a Series Out Right

With several active series of detective fiction set in post-World War I Britain it’s impressive that any author would want to launch a new one, especially when the author in question already has one successful series ongoing. The writing team that comprises Charles Todd has gone as far afield from guilt-ridden Inspector Rutledge as imaginable while still staying in familiar territory. I admit my first reaction to the news of this new series was something along the lines of “why bother?” so I’m happy to report that it’s a very good thing that Todd did bother.

A Duty to the Dead handles the business of launching a series with minimal fuss. The introduction of heroine (and military nurse) Bess Crawford - a smart, resourceful heroine without being a screaming anachronism – involves a minimum of exposition and background. Todd’s choice of making Bess being the only child of a Colonel who was raised in colonial India presents many opportunities for the character to comment on a society that she both participates in and observes. It's easy to see that this will serve the series well.

The central plot sees Bess going to visit the family of a man who died under her care to deliver his last message to them. There’s plenty of English cozy-genre trappings complete with addled vicar, misunderstood town doctor and family secrets. Bess can’t so much as take a walk without someone in the town needing immediate nursing assistance or wanting to confide in her. And yet the clichés and the creaks didn’t bother me because Todd kept the story going at a good pace. The mystery itself is satisfying without being too convoluted.

This isn’t a perfect book but it is enjoyable. Some will compare it to Todd’s Inspector Rutledge books – for me this stacks up well against the first entry in that series A Test of Wills. Others may compare it to Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs – I’ll take Bess Crawford over Maisie any day. Where Maisie is a humorless paragon of perfection, Bess is no nonsense and human. To each there own. If you’re a fan of either series or Rennie Airth’s fine DI Madden series, A Duty to the Dead is a sure bet.

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