A Cruel Deception
Charles Todd
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Buy *A Cruel Deception: A Bess Crawford Mystery* by Charles Todd online

A Cruel Deception: A Bess Crawford Mystery
Charles Todd
William Morrow
Hardcover
320 pages
October 2019
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Readers who have been following Todd's heroine through the years know that Sister Bess Crawford has had a remarkable career. But the War has ended, and Bess hasn't really thought of her own future--she's been too busy with the wounded who didn't get to go home at battle's end. At London's Queen Alexandra's headquarters, Bess is enlisted by Chief Matron to travel to Paris to look for her son Lawrenc. Ostensibly in the city to attend a peace conference, Lawrence was wounded last October. Rumor has it that he has a drug dependency from the medication he's had to take. Matron wants Bess to assess his condition and report back.

With Simon Brandon on a secret assignment in Scotland, Bess crosses the channel and ends up in the village of St. Ives and the house at 12 Rue des Fleurs. She's thrust into the company of a drugged, truculent Minton and a young girl called Marina who has been charged with looking after the embattled solder. Beyond the miasma of Minton's stale sweat, his unbathed body and the sickening sweet odor of opium, Bess sees a thin and haggard man, a mere shadow of his mother's son. Why is the Lieutenant here in remote St. Ives and not in his flat in Paris? With no money and the cook gone, Bess is driven by the need to protect the good name of the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Service and "somehow save the man downstairs from himself." Bess also hopes her presence might offer some protection for Marina's good name.

The story is driven by Bess's need to find out what had happened to Winton. He certainly doesn't strike Bess as shell-shocked, and according to Marina, he recovered from his wound without any problems. Yet something is driving Minton; he's not seeking relief from pain, but he seems to want oblivion. Even in the darkness of passage, Bess can see the outline of something darker: "the sleepwalker still not completely over his nightmare."

In one of the most gothic-toned outings in the series, Todd wraps his story around stalwart Bess and her values of honor as she tries desperately to assist a confused, damaged soldier haunted by what he did in the war. She must also cope with the cold and murkily claustrophobic house at Rue des Fleurs. While Bess watches over tired Marina, Lawrence is convinced he's being spied upon, though he seems to sleep "the sleep of exhaustion." Lawrence had a happy childhood, but this doesn't explain the man he's become. As the relationship between nurse and soldier unfolds, Bess quickly realizes that Minton is offering her nothing in return, nor any clues about what might have happened to him.

Bess travels to Paris to look for Minton's friend, Lieutenant Bedford. She wants to ask for his help in caring for Lawrence. Here she meets the enigmatic Harry Webb as well as Dr. Moreau and his wife. Bess begs them to care for Lawrence in their home where he can receive proper medical care, though secretly she feels that removing him forcibly from St. Ives would probably make matters worse. Are Dr. and Madame Moreau willing to cover up something sinister for the sake of their friendship with Matron? Could Lieutenant Milton have killed someone? Is this what has been haunting him all these weeks since the night he took Marina out to dinner?

Bess wanders the cobbled streets, entering into a series of violent encounters. If Lawrence did something troubling only a few weeks ago, what had the Angel at Mons to do with it? Driven to find out what sort of person Lawrence really is, Bess tries to enlist the help of her father, Colonel Sahib, still in Paris, to find out more about Minton's war. Lawrence remembers the guilt even if he doesn't remember "the deed." Why, however, has he blocked it out so completely? Bess understands how men like Lawrence refuse to face their pain in the conscious mind. Lawrence's emotionally damaged plight is central to the story, as is how Bess handles the vicissitudes of Minton's fragile, damaged heart.

Memories form a delicate balance in Minton's shattered mind as the haunting voices call to him from the battlefield. All the while, intrepid Bess proves herself the true standout. She's strong, smart, caring and always so capable. Even now that the War has ended, Bess continues to serve with honor, both her country and her patients.



Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. Michael Leonard, 2020

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