The recently-released fifth installment of Charles Todd’s Bess Crawford series, A Question of Honor, is a more personal ordeal for our courageous heroine Bess Crawford. The year is 1918 and WWI, though drawing to a close, still seems to be an endless parade of battles, wounds, and sorrow for young Bess, a nursing sister for the English right along the front lines in France. She is taken back to her adolescence in India with her father’s regiment when a young Indian man on one of her tables tells her he has seen Captain Thomas Wade, a soldier long thought dead. Over a decade previous, Wade had been under suspicion for the murder of his parents and rather than face inquiry fled and was believed dead at the bottom of the Khyber Pass. Before Bess can get more information from the young man, he dies from the gunshot wound he’d arrived at the hospital with, and Bess is ready to chalk it up to deathbed hallucinations. That is, until she sees Captain Wade herself and determines to do everything in her power to prove one way or another what happened to Wade’s parents and clear her father’s name of any dishonorable flexibility he may have shown the young soldier.
I enjoyed this book but I will admit it felt a little drawn out for me. I’ve always liked the Bess Crawford mysteries – they have an admirable heroine, interesting supporting casts, and an early 20th-century setting, all of which appeal to me. I wasn’t as interested in the truth behind the murders, especially once you learn more about the victims. Bess discovers that his parents aren’t the only people Captain Wade is accused of murdering – three members of the Caswell family were discovered shot dead in their sitting room not long after Wade was seen leaving their grounds. Everyone believes Wade killed his own parents to prevent them from hearing such dreadful accounts of their son, since that is the only possible explanation for a young man of his character to commit parricide. The Caswells, as it turns out, were horrible people who took in children as boarders while their parents lived abroad. Many of the children suffered terrible emotional and physical abuse at the hands of the Caswells and their monster of a daughter Gwendolyn. Suffice it to say they sucked and you begin to care less and less whether Wade did indeed commit the acts.
Often with the Crawford novels, Bess has the luck to run into the exact person she needs to question just when she really needs to question them. This would be one thing if she were always in her hometown of Somerset, outside of London. She isn’t. Throughout most of the series she’s not even a mile from the front lines in a tent tending to wounded soldiers. The idea that providence would hand her such convenient subjects to question is at first easy enough to swallow. By the fifth novel now, I’m having a little more trouble buying it. It’s a small world but is it THAT small?
I found the resolution to the mystery satisfying but a bit abrupt. I thought that the question of Wade’s guilt had an obvious answer from the outset, but it was a pleasant enough journey getting there. I like the settings – it’s a British period piece after all, they had me at hello – and Todd (a mother/son writing duo with connections to my home state, NC) does a lovely job of writing vivid scenes. I can easily imagine the places and people with which Bess is surrounded. I just felt like at least three-fourths of the way through the book I wanted them to go ahead and wrap up the mystery. And get to the obvious question most Bess Crawford fans surely must want to know – Will she end up with Simon?