Friday, November 1, 2019

Long Shadows

I’ve talked before about how World War I was, for almost a century, the “forgotten war.” The combination of sheer bloody-mindedness and posturing that landed the great powers of Europe in the conflict; the horrific loss of life, limbs, and sanity among those who fought; and the sense of pointlessness heightened by the even greater explosion twenty years later left little sense of triumph among survivors. If World War II was perceived as an epic struggle to defeat evil, its predecessor seemed more like a colossal act of miscalculation and folly.

The centennial of 2014–18 has gone a long way to restoring the balance of interest between the great wars, and in fiction many good works have appeared in the last five years. I’ve covered several of them on this blog, including Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye, Cat Winters’ The Uninvited, the story collection Fall of Poppies, Hazel Gaynor’s Dancing at the Savoy,  Gaynor's and Heather Webb's Last Christmas in Paris, and Joan Schweighardt’s Gifts for the Dead. Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel, A Single Thread, also examines the aftermath of the war.

Charles Todd, however, occupies a special place in this literary arena. Long before most people paid much attention to the Great War, as it was then known, this mother/son team decided to focus on the experience and effects of the war in two beautifully written mystery series (and a pair of related stand-alone novels). One, featuring Ian Rutledge, examines the long-term effects on the combatants, most notably shell shock. You can find out more about these novels in my post, “The Black Ascot.” I’ll be revisiting Ian in his next adventure when A Divided Loyalty releases in February 2020.

The other set of books, through the persona of Bess Crawford, looks at the ways in which women’s lives and positions were fundamentally altered by the combat. Just as in World War II, women poured into factories, served as nurses, supported the troops in every way open to them—only to be thrown back into lives constricted by marriage, motherhood, and dependency when the fighting ended. As a result, women’s perceptions—and eventually men’s as well—about the capacities of the “fair sex” changed. The loss of an entire generation of young men only accelerated the trend. It’s not easy to stuff the genie back into the bottle, and that was as true in 1918 as it is now. Modern women owe a great deal to their intrepid great-grandmothers, of whom Bess Crawford offers such a good example.

Charles Todd and I talk about all these things and more—including the challenges of collaborating on thirty or more novels—in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction. And as usual, the rest of this post comes from there.


Writing novels—never mind entire series—takes determination, persistence, imagination, and craft. Charles Todd has added to those natural challenges the joys and complications of creating a single persona from a mother/son team. In A Cruel Deception (William Morrow, 2019), the eleventh in their beloved Bess Crawford series, the strengths of their long collaboration are on full display.

Bess, a British nurse, worked with the wounded throughout the First World War. In A Cruel Deception, the war has ended, and Bess faces the future with some trepidation. So it comes almost as a relief when her former matron requests help finding Lawrence Minton, the matron’s son, missing from the peace talks in Paris.

The search goes well, and Bess tracks Minton to a rural farmhouse, where she confronts him with his addiction to laudanum. He wants nothing to do with her efforts to cure him. Despite his refusal to heal, she soldiers on, aided by a young Frenchwoman who loves him. Bess soon realizes that the root of Minton’s troubles lies in the past, but where?

Only then does it become clear that Minton has an enemy, one who will stop at nothing to settle old scores.

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