I like a story where you feel like you're inhabiting the same world as the characters. You find it hard to draw yourself away and look forward to getting back into it as soon as you can. It's an added bonus when the book is one in a series of mysteries revolving around a set of characters that can be revisited, and in the hands of a talented author the characters grow and mature and the world takes on more details with each new instalment. Aside from the puzzle aspect, I think that is a large part of the attraction for me of mystery novels.
If there is a heroine/sleuth to rival my favorite, Maisie Dobbs, it's Bess Crawford. There are similarities between the two, yet each is quite distinct. Mainly the two share experiences of being WWI nurses, but really the two women are different in personality, temperament and background. Bess Crawford is right in the thick of things still, as An Impartial Witness, the second book in the series takes place in the summer of 1917. In this case the impartial witness is Bess herself. Unlike Maisie who has become an inquiry agent after the end of the war, Bess tends to get snared in some sort of mischief making or other, though her natural curiosity and a sense of duty means she's compelled to see a problem (or in this case, a mystery) through to the end.
After transporting a convoy of wounded soldiers back to England Bess sees a distraught woman speaking to a soldier in a London train station. It's not an unusual scene, but this one is particularly memorable as the soldier offers the woman no comfort. He simply boards the train and doesn't look back. Once back in France Bess reads in a newspaper article that the same woman was murdered later that day, and the police are asking for any information about the woman or witnesses to the crime to come forward. It's pure chance that Bess sees the newspaper and recalls her. It's the same face she saw in a photo that one of her patients, a badly burned soldier, had carried with him back from France in that same London convey she just returned from. Already in fragile health physically, his mental health was equally precarious. He clung to the photo during his journey.
Bess is allowed to return to London to answer questions at Scotland Yard and discovers her patient committed suicide after learning of the death of his wife. Not surprising considering the seriousness of his wounds. Bess begins asking questions of her own after she meets the sister of the dead soldier at a country house party. Perhaps it's the way the murdered woman is seemingly abandoned by everyone that causes Bess to pursue the truth so tenaciously. It appears that prior to her murder the woman had been caught in an indiscretion, unknown to her husband away at war. But the indiscretion is bitterly resented by her family, and too many questions means Bess ends up in danger as well.
Bess is an interesting character, one I wouldn't mind knowing more about, and perhaps over time other aspects of her personal life will be revealed (as this is only the second book of four so far published). She was raised in India, the daughter of a well-regarded and high ranking military man. She and her mother refer to him fondly as the Colonel Sahib. Although he's now retired he is often called in by the war office to give advice. She's close to her parents and it's out of respect for her father that she became a nurse, since there was no son to become a soldier. The Colonel's former batman in India, Simon Brandon, remains close to the family and seems to have a particular affection for Bess, though it's unclear whether it's a brotherly affection or something more. Often mysteries are as much about the personal lives of the characters as the crime, but so far the Bess Crawford mysteries fall somewhere in between. Mostly mystery with just enough detail to orient the reader to the time and place but not overwhelm them.
Not being ready to leave her world, I've already picked up A Bitter Truth, and have already settled comfortably into the story. I read the first book, A Duty to the Dead, three years ago, so it took a little refreshing at first of prior events, but now I seem to have gained momentum. I don't often read series books back to back, but I think I like it--the next book feeling simply a continuation of the one last read. I may even read An Unmarked Grave next, though I don't see another book on the horizon after that (maybe I should pace myself?). Charles Todd, by the way, is a mother and son writing team, which I find interesting (I wonder how their writing process works). They've written more than a dozen Inspector Rutledge mysteries, set just after WWI, which I really need to get back to as well.