The setting is the quaint, bustling village of Cranbourne, situated near the Swale river just outside of Canterbury. As Bess Crawford wanders through the grounds of Canterbury’s most famous cathedral, she meets Major Mark Ashton.
He tells her that there’s been a lot of trouble with his family: his wife, Eloise, has recently died in the first wave of the Spanish flu, and there’s been a campaign
of whisperings, new rumors and finger-pointing against his family. Almost overnight, Mark’s father, Philip Ashton, is being blamed for an explosion and a fire at the Ashton Powder Mill that occurred a little over two years ago. Questions still surround the fire: why it started, why it
was so intense--and whether Phillip Ashton deliberately set it. Over a hundred men where killed, yet there’s little evidence for those looking for answers to explain the deaths of their loved ones.
Charles Todd sends his protagonist, the intrepid Bess--investigator and hard working nurse--from the front lines into a world
where she has little personal experience: that of the Ashton family history and the sudden, inexplicable animosities of the villagers of Cranbourne. At first she’s the reluctant sleuth, hesitant to stay at Abbey Hall or get herself involved in the Ashton family’s affairs, but Bess
is of course made of much sterner stuff. She courageously decides to accept Mark’s invitation, first meeting his cousin, Clara, then troubled Philip Ashton as well as Philip’s white-haired wife, Helen, whom Bess remembers as having nerves of steel from the time she came to the front lines to nurse an injured Mark back to health.
Everyone at Abbey Hall is on edge from the systematic pattern of persecution, especially Mrs. Byers, the Ashton's loyal housekeeper. The local police are taking a hands-off attitude, either unwilling or averse to do anything to investigate this evolving campaign of harassment, slander, and accusation that is causing the family so much grief. Even Constable Hood seems to be a willing representative of someone intent on making life wretched for them. When Philip Ashton is arrested for murder
and locked up in Cranbourne’s gaol, Bess recognizes that the Ashtons are indeed in dire straights. She gets her first glimpse of the chasm of hate that separates the Ashtons from Cranbourne. Bess might only be a guest at the House, but Cranbourne’s animosity toward the family
soon spills over to include her. At first, everyone had accepted the Mill explosion and fire
as an appalling accident. Who could have changed the villager’s minds? Philip Ashton had an impeccable record and everyone trusted and looked up to him. Who could have started such awful rumors? Plummeting ever deeper into the investigation, Bess begins to think that it
is possible that whoever is behind this torment of the Ashton family might also want Mark out of the way.
Structuring the novel in similar fashion to the other novels in the series, Todd has Bess moving from bucolic Cranbourne to the Western Front, back to Canterbury,
then onto London, where she is able to reconnect with her father, the great Colonel Sahib, if only for a time. As in the other episodes, Todd doesn’t shy away from showing the Front’s bloody chaos: the gore of war, the stench of death, the thousands of injured soldiers with their fatal wounds, their blood flowing freely. Bess just wants the killing and maiming to stop. From the rumors circulating that Germany is in a terrible state and is losing the war to her beloved Simon Brandon, who reminds her that peace will never be quite the same with so many gone, Bess soldiers on, endearing herself to us as she presses ahead to discover whether or not she will eventually find a measure of peace for the Ashton family.
From the mystery behind Sergeant Rollins, who may have witnessed the explosion at the Mill and may be able to vindicate Phillip but has long since vanished back to France (no one had even thought to ask what else Rollins might have seen from his little boat out there on the waters on the Swale), to kindly Sergeant Lassiter, the affable Aussie whom Bess enlists to help find Rollins, to Mark, who wants to believe his father will be safe (yet is so afraid that he will lose this battle), there’s a constant sense that Bess is being lied to and lulled into accepting whatever she’s told. The fact that Helen Ashton can’t speak to her husband and can’t ask him to tell her what he thinks
leads Bess to become suspicious that Helen and Mark are being coerced into
trusting local lawyer Lucius Worley, who may or may not have Phillip’s best interests at heart.
Todd’s talent is that he can integrate Bess’s propensity for sleuthing into the wider picture of the war, allowing us glimpses--not just of the chaos of the front lines, but also of the time period in which Bess lives. With fine precision, much time is spent on describing the motor cars, accents, and entertainments that filled life in 1916, rendering the novel a finely honed, fully-realized, quite beautiful portrait of the era. With the hundred-year anniversary of the Great War upon us, the adventures of Bess have an even greater relevance than ever before, especially in its depiction of war and its aftermath as well as its
effect on the population, those fighting on the front lines, and those forced to shoulder the burdens at home.
More importantly, Bess reminds us of the great sacrifices and the courage of women and of the destruction of nearly an entire generation of young men. Bess seems to wear the scars of England with great fortitude and bravery, determined to see Philip Ashton vindicated while stiffening her upper lip to yet again courageously and persistently get the job done.