An Unwilling Accomplice begins in autumn 1918, just as Bess Crawford is about to obtain an audience with the king. Driving with her beloved Simon from Somerset to London, Bess has an opportunity to escort wounded Sergeant Wilkins to an engagement at the palace. Coming direct from the hospital in Shrewsbury, Wilkins is to be awarded a medal for bravery, a prize well-deserved and just one of the many that will be handed out that day.
War has raged on for four bloody years, but rumors of an end to the fighting are spreading both in France and in England. The killing and wounding are still happening, and without respite, dying men are being carried into the forward aid stations. Working for the Queen Alexandraís Imperial Nursing Service, Bess herself remains encapsulated in the endless exhausting and stressful work to save lives. Luckily for Bess, she has Simon by her side. One of the youngest Sergeant-Majors in the army, Simon has been a part of Bessís life for as long as she can remember.
Unfolding the tale in Bessís genteel first-person voice, Todd perfectly captures this time period as well as the sights, tastes, and sounds of the world that Bess inhabits, from the chaos of the Western Front to the sweeping landscapes of Warwickshire County. The author gives us an exceptional vignette into the life of a woman living in a fascinating era. Less grim and unsettling than his Inspector Rutledge series, Todd portrays England in a unique time of rapid technological and social change in an environment where so many eligible bachelors are being killed.
Sergeant Wilkins should think himself lucky to have survived the war even when heís required to return to the Front as soon as his wounds are healed. But when he goes missing the morning after his ceremony, Bess finds herself accused of negligence by a furious Army Corps. Wilkins could be anywhere; soldiers do desert. Bess was considered responsible for Wilkins welfare and his safe return to the military Hospital in Shrewsbury. She had sole charge of the man, and her inattention has given Wilkins an opportunity to escape.
Suspended from active service for a fortnight, Bess is the perfect person to cooperate with Inspector Stephens of Londonís Scotland Yard, who believes Bess was perhaps a party to whatever Wilkins has done. Desperate to avoid scandal and to clear her name, Bess travels North to Shrewsbury to learn more about Wilkins, then onto the small village of Ironbridge where Wilkins was last seen. At Lovering Hall, Bess gets short shrift from the officious matron before she learns that Wilkins found it easy to play on young Sister Hammondís openness and sympathy for the wounded in her care.
Toddís narrative skillfully takes the reader on what seems, from a cursory vantage point, to be a typical missing-personís tale. The story takes a dramatic turn, however, when Wilkins is accused of murder. Desperate to find the sergeant and exonerate herself, Bess and Simon travel to the quaint villages of Upper, Middle and Lower Dysoe and to the Neville residence. Here Bess discovers that reclusive, war-damaged Major Neville bears a fleeting resemblance to Wilkins, a resemblance that seems to have grown dimmer over time.
With Simon unable to use his military connections to find Wilkins, Bessís spirits plummet as she is pulled deeper and deeper into an increasingly violent mystery. Questions abound: the whereabouts of a draft horse, a long-distance hauling lorry, and the author of a desperate letter to Sister Hammond with a plea for rescue. Itís possible Wilkins is somewhere nearby. A handful of small hamlets connected by a single winding road, the Dysoes are isolated difficult terrain, an ideal place for a wanted man to hide. From Maddie, a gruff country doctor, to Major Neville, considered quite mad because he talks to goats, Bess pushes through her days and nights always considering the ramifications of her actions in her characteristically caring and ladylike manner.
Thereís a lot of mayhem, dark family secrets, and shadowy figures walking the streets of Dysoe at night. The foggy, pristine villages provide a perfect backdrop to the seething menace of a dead brother and the accidental shooting of a local villager. It comes as no surprise that Wilkinsís whereabouts will be solved and that Bess will return to the Front Lines, although Todd hints that his beloved character wonít be entrenched in the inevitable pain and blood for much longer. As with the other novels in this series, Todd leaves the reader wanting more, to trail in wake of this intrepid nurse whose war journey may finally be coming to a close.