I can think of a handful of authors who use the years surrounding WWI as a backdrop for their mysteries. Each puts their own spin on the story, and quite often the sleuth is a woman. If you visit here regularly you already know I have a great interest in this era (and am fond of strong women protagonists), so I'm always on the lookout for a new series to join the ranks. My most recent find is Charles Todd's A Duty to the Dead featuring WWI nurse Bess Crawford. Todd is already author of nearly a dozen Inspector Rutledge mysteries and at least one standalone novel. All are set during or just after the Great War. Ian Rutledge is an interesting study as he's a former soldier battling the effects of shell shock while back at his job at Scotland Yard, and he often hears the voice of a soldier he was forced to execute on the battlefield. It sounds quirky, but from what I recall (admittedly it's been a few years since I've read any of that series) it works.
Bess Crawford, on the other hand, reminds me a little of Maisie Dobbs, at least superficially. Both are strong, independent and intelligent women who served, or in the case of Bess serves, as nurses in France. But from there I think the two series diverge in both the greater outlook and smaller trivialities. Bess is quite practical minded thanks to her upbringing, which is unusual for an upper-middle class young woman. Raised and educated in India rather than returning to England, she's the only daughter of long standing military man, a Colonel (who she affectionately refers to as the Colonel Sahib). Bess has had the concept of "duty" ingrained on her conscious since birth. It's that sense of duty that causes her to become a nurse at the outbreak of the war, and that sense of duty that compels her to carry a private message to the family of a dying soldier.
The novels opens with the sinking of the Britannic off the coast of Greece. The ship had been refitted as a hospital ship where Bess has been serving, though at the time there were no wounded soldiers aboard. After an action packed beginning with the sinking of the ship, which sees Bess end up with a nasty broken arm, the story moves along at a nice clip. Nurses are meant only to tend to their patients not become emotionally involved with them. Sometimes the lines become blurred, however, especially when the patient is a charming and agreeable young man who appears on the mend but takes a sudden turn for the worse. It's not so much that Bess fell for him romantically than the pair simply clicked and given time there might have been potential for a relationship.
Instead she finds herself making a promise to a dying soldier that she knows she really shouldn't. It's a simple yet cryptic message that she's entreated to carry to the Graham family. "I lied. I did it for mother's sake." She promises to travel to Kent and give this message to one of the remaining three Graham bothers. It's a promise she finds she's reluctant to carry out even as she is recuperating back at home with her parents, yet her sense of duty means she must travel to Owlhurst and carry out this last wish whatever the consequences for the family.
The Grahams are a distinguished and wealthy family living in the great house known as Owlhurst. Arthur was the favored son, so his death has been particularly difficult for Mrs. Graham, a widow. Although welcoming to Bess, the Graham family is cold and the brothers somewhat dismissive of the message Bess brings with her. Whatever the meaning of the message she believes that Arthur's desire to make peace with his family and fix any prior wrongdoings is going to be ignored, though she's at a loss of what to do to set things to rights so Arthur can rest in peace.
Owlhurst is a sleepy little village veiled in secrets and lies, many of them swirling around the Graham family. Because of her training as a nurse Bess becomes involved in a few medical emergencies in the village that call for her expertise and means she becomes privy to a few things the family would rather she not know. And small towns always have their gossips. So, to sound totally clichéd Bess is soon to become caught up in a web of intrigue and deception that will end in murder. The unraveling of the mystery does become a little complicated. It's not so much who the culprit is rather how things are resolved. I have a feeling that some readers might be critical of this aspect of the story. Frankly I liked Bess enough to overlook any wrinkles in the plotting.
I really enjoyed this book. She's not Maisie (which is actually a good thing as I'd hate to think the author was simply trying to play off an already established character), but Bess Crawford is someone I'd like to know more about, and I have a feeling there is going to be lots more to learn. This story was set smack dab in the middle of the war, so it will be interesting to see where the author takes it from here. In a weird way being a nurse is a little like being a detective in that the character has access to private information and is often in the middle of the action. It helps that she's from a military family with a lot of good connections, too. She's not a formal detective by any means, but I suspect she's going to find herself in the middle of just a few scrapes. So I am adding Bess to my list of sleuths to watch and will be looking forward to her next adventure.