An Impartial Witness
Charles Todd
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Buy *An Impartial Witness: A Bess Crawford Mystery* by Charles Todd online

An Impartial Witness: A Bess Crawford Mystery
Charles Todd
Harper Paperbacks
368 pages
August 2011
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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The opening pages of Todd’s atmospheric novel of the Great War tie the murder of a pilot’s wife to a deep, dark love affair from which the long-held animosities of two sisters are erratically ignited by recollections of a distant past. Returning from escorting badly burned pilot Lieutenant Meriwether Evanson to a clinic in Hampshire, Bess Crawford sees a woman crying on the train station platform. The woman’s head is bent, and she’s slightly turned toward her companion with her hat brim shielding her face. Bess is struck by the woman's silent air of desperation.

The man appears to be an officer of the Wiltshire Regiment who seems not to know how to console the grieving woman. But her obvious distress stops Bess in her tracks: she has seen the woman before, in a photograph that Lieutenant Evanson kept by his bedside. Soon after, Bess learns the woman was murdered. Mrs. Marjorie Evanson, Meriwether Evanson's wife, is viciously stabbed and thrown into the Thames. Other than Marjorie's killer, Bess may have been the last person to see her alive.

Bess stops off at her flat in central London to catch up with her childhood friend Sergeant Major Simon Brandon. Here she learns of her summons to speak to Inspector Herbert at Scotland Yard. In his grim little office, Herbert tells Bess that Marjorie was three months pregnant. Recalling the details at the station, Bess is touched by Marjorie’s anguish and the sadness of the soldier’s perfunctory kiss. Still, the question remains: could the man whom Bess saw at the station be the father of Marjorie’s unborn child?

A nurse trained to observe, Bess embarks on a mission to sort out the tangled web of events leading up to Marjorie's murder. As the images of Marjorie at the train station, her despair and desolation reverberate in her mind, Bess uses all of her training to force herself not to jump to conclusions. There has to be some evidence somewhere. Bess is positive Marjorie was used; she was vulnerable and unhappy, and whoever murdered her saw this and took advantage of her.

The threads of the mystery begin to unravel when Bess is invited to a wartime birthday party hosted by Meriwether’s officious sister, Serena Melton, and her husband, Jack. To Bess, Serena and Jack are merely conducting a smokescreen to conceal their true purpose in inviting certain guests. Although Serena was never close to her sister-in-law, she proceeds to tell everyone that Marjorie had fallen in with the “wrong sort of people.” Suspicious of Serena’s desperate tales and convinced that someone at this party is carrying the burden of guilt, Bess is surprised that Jack doesn’t do more to stop his wife from revealing Marjorie’s presumed improprieties.

Helen Calder, the prized family friend, should have noticed that something was wrong with Marjorie. So should have handsome, brooding Michael Hart, recently returned from the Front with an injured shoulder. As Michael tells Bess of his passionate love for a girl he knew before the war, it's clear that the damaged Michael knows more than he's letting on. Then there's Marjorie’s sister Victoria Garrison. Evil with a deep-seated streak of cruelty, Victoria relishes her sister’s fall from grace. She remains convinced that Michael had a sinister affair with Marjorie and he used his charms to take advantage of her.

A warm English summer holds a deceptive brace over dire warnings from Simon - Bess should not tempt Marjorie's killer. But events were set in motion that rainy evening on the station platform, and Bess cannot help but be drawn into Marjorie's helpless, desperate tears, the truth and lies that Marjorie's life was a furtive mix of dark secrets. This terrific drama races along, the formidable Bess far from an impartial witness as she unfurls the collateral damage of poor Marjorie's life - at first the disgraced victim, but in reality sad and desperate, so utterly alone.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2010

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