Ten years after an army officer apparently killed five people, deserted his regiment and died in Afghanistan, he’s back to bedevil nursing sister Bess Crawford, and vice versa.
Asked to accompany Lt. William Standish’s wife, Mary, home from India after the death of her 6-year-old daughter, Alice, in 1908, Lt. Thomas Wade not only agrees, but wins praise from all hands for his kindness, sensitivity and consideration. So it’s all the more shocking to hear that during his brief stay in England, he allegedly killed an entire family in Hampshire and then murdered his parents in cold blood before returning to the regiment commanded by Bess’s father, Col. Richard Crawford. What’s even more astonishing is that as the Great War limps on long after Wade’s body has been spotted deep in the Khyber Pass, Subedar Shanti Gupta tells Bess just before he dies of his wounds in France that he’s spotted Wade alive and serving in His Majesty’s troops. Bess’ mission is clear. In order to clear her father’s regiment of the stain of Wade’s desertion, she needs to find Wade under whatever false name he’s using. In order to expunge the stain of his murders, she needs to satisfy herself whether he really killed Henry and Isabella Caswell and their daughter Gwendoline. All this while Bess is still on active duty, dealing with the horrific wounds inflicted by the war. This time around, however, Todd (An Unmarked Grave, 2012, etc.) keeps the front at a greater distance than usual, passing lightly over much of Bess’ service. The war’s relation to the mystery is equally discontinuous, so that anecdotes of Bess’ nursing provide the same sort of background as the heroine’s domestic life or romantic entanglements in less-fraught whodunits.
Despite some loose threads unsatisfyingly tied up, the mystery is as strong as any Bess has confronted.