In The Shattered Tree, the Allied Forces have discovered they have the edge over the German army
in the Great War. Meanwhile, certain men find themselves participating in a kind of foolish honor. One soldier in particular is bought into Bess Crawford’s Base Hospital. No longer bleeding but severely wounded and suffering from exhaustion and also from lacerated feet, this distractingly handsome Lieutenant is at first thought to be French, until Bess overhears him speaking fluent German in his sleep. At first Bess thinks he’s a German prisoner and has somehow gotten away while trying to reach his own lines.
Bess herself longs for a week at home in Somerset, far away from the sound of the guns and the endless lines of the wounded. She almost gets her wish when she’s wounded by wounded by a sniper’s bullet. Concerned about infection and in need of an x-ray, Bess is shipped off to an Aid Station in Rouen and later to the Hotel de Belle-Ile., a convalescent clinic situated in the heart of Paris. Here she embarks on a speedy road to recovery, and it is here in Paris that she finds herself hunting for mysterious Lieutenant.
Seeing an opportunity to once again employ her considerable sleuthing skills, Bess sets about tracing the identity of the enigmatic soldier. Neither captured nor reported to his regiment, Bess is convinced that he was likely separated from his men in retreat or fell in a charge. There’s a niggling thought that keeps running through her head and refuses to be silenced. Her instinct and experience set Bess’s alarm bells ringing, and she has no idea why. With the help of Captain Barkley, an officer who deals with the records of wounded and dead, Bess is eventually able to link the elusive soldier to Pierre Moreau, a man who was suspected to have been captured in January of this year.
Outspoken, courageous, and tenacious, Bess is unwilling to bow to her injury as she sets about navigating through this male-dominated military world. She convinces Barkley to accompany her to the small French town of Petite Beauvais, the place where Moreau could very well have originated. Part of the French provinces of the Alsace and Lorraine, the inhabitants of this region of France have a command of both German and French. Bess assumes that Moreau could pass for either. Discovering nothing about him from the local priest, Father Robert, Bess is no longer even sure that Moreau had even been a prisoner of the Germans, or that he had escaped and was desperately trying to reach his own lines: “none of us who had rescued him, treated him or sent him on his way to Paris, had imagined him.” Bess’s journey to open up the past is supported by the confession from a nun Sister Marie-Luc, who swears to Bess that she has seen the soldier walking the streets of Paris.
For those who enjoy Todd’s Bess Crawford series, this novel certainly offers his trademark serpentine plot that revolves around a series of unanswered question that link Sister Marie’s sudden outburst that Moreau is “a monster” to a murder in France years before the war. Five people--four women, one man--were found dead in a house near Bios. Bess attempts to tie the identity of the killer to the present and the past, not just to the murders but also to two people connected to the violent attack
on Sister Marie in the gloomy back streets of the Left Bank.
Although Todd’s heroine is always entertaining, I couldn’t help feeling that Bess’s journey through the Great War has run its course. While The Shattered Tree gives us an exceptional history lesson and Todd does an admirable job of highlighting the enormous courage, heroism, and strong sense of duty
of the soldiers on the front lines, this plot is really just a rehash of previous outings in the series. Also, the mystery behind the murder of the Bois family and its ties to Moreau’s origins comes across as far too convoluted. The reader finally gets the point, even though Todd prolongs the ending to tie up loose ends that no longer have any punch once Bess has already figured out the truth.
Still, the settings in The Shattered Tree are well-described: cosmopolitan Paris and bucolic Petite Beauvais. Todd also does a good job of conveying how the war has taken its toll after four long years in a landscape that is no more than a dream of a distant time. Bess herself is always an appealing heroine. Injury aside, she never ceases in her determination to do the right thing, secretly delighting in outwitting the men in her life while clandestinely snooping into yet another carefully concealed mystery.