I’m one of those for whom work never really seems to end: I roam distractedly on the weekends, often coming into the office to kill an hour or two; I spent an embarrassing amount of my honeymoon attending to edits and various bookish bits and pieces. I even read whilst walking to work. But for all that, I’m rather glad that the crossover between my work and personal lives is so very banal.
You see, for Bess Crawford, the intersection of the two is a good deal more fraught. Where I come home from my airconditioned office to find a letterbox filled with books, Bess returns from working as a nurse on the front lines of WWII France to find herself facing a badly beaten woman whose home life seems to hold no few secrets. And given that this is the third in the Bess Crawford series, one can only imagine that these sorts of meetings aren’t especially unusual.
The woman in question is Lydia Ellis, who has fled her country estate after her husband has taken his fists to her. But being entirely reliant on her husband and his family, Lydia has little choice but to return home, although she submits to doing so after Bess agrees to come with her and stay as a guest at the family property. Bess’s arrival is greeted with reticence by Lydia’s family, but her presence presumably keeps Lydia’s husband, Roger, on his best behaviour; Lydia admits to Bess that the beating is due to Lydia’s having mentioned Juliana, Roger’s late sister. But whatever qualms Bess has about spending time with an abusive husband, never mind her merrily accompanying Lydia back into a possibly dangerous situation, are promptly overshadowed by a family quarrel that ends with the brutal murder of a good family friend.
The local police are promptly called in, and their questioning of the house’s residents results in Bess becoming privy to all manner of conflicting statements and new information about the family: there are extramarital affairs; possible illegitimate children; and long-held family guilt just to name a few. Indeed, it seems that everyone has his or her reasons for stooping to murder. But our murderer appears quite intent on making a hobby of this killing business, and the body count quickly rises, muddling the investigation and resulting in fingers being pointed arbitrarily here and there with nothing but circumstantial evidence to go on.
Meanwhile, Bess returns to her hospital work in France, where she spends her free time searching for an orphaned girl who bears an uncanny resemblance to Roger Ellis, and who just may be the key to identifying the murderer.
It’s an intriguing set-up, and the gloomy, gothic tone certainly help to draw in the reader. The writing is brooding and dark, and the grim, soulless setting of Vixen Hill, the Ellis estate, is a menacing, looming creation that contributes a good deal to the overall feel of the book, and is essential in helping to provide the characterisation of the wealthy but waning Ellis family. Unfortunately, though the estate helps set the moody whodunnit style of the book, it perhaps overwhelms at times: the Ellis family members are largely interchangeable, and given the plethora of different names used to refer to each family member, it can be difficult to figure out who’s who.
Still, without the creepy setting I suspect that I would have been less emotionally invested in the book as a whole: Bess is not an easy character to warm to, and I felt distanced from her throughout. To be honest, the only point where I felt at all connected with her were the scenes where she interacts with the wounded Australian soldier Larimore, a larrikin-esque chap who has a thing for impersonating kookaburras.
I’m not sure whether this is intentional, and that Bess, uncomplaining and dutiful as she is, is designed to be someone who is used as a mirror for the other characters, whose personalities become more pronounced against Bess’s more moderate one. Lydia, for example, seems impossibly demanding, thinking nothing at all of imposing on Bess to her own ends, while Roger’s self-loathing and potential for violence is highlighted against Bess’s mildness. But although I can understand why Bess is so readily pulled into these situations, there are scenes where she actively begins sleuthing about and breaking laws that seem to be out of character for her. What about the moral issues, for example, involved in kidnapping a child, even if it is to return her to a man who is likely her father?
While things progress along in a sort of mystery of manners for the most part–for a book set in WWII, everything seems very prim and safe–there are a few things that appear first as niggles, but then gradually evolve into more out and out objections. There’s the endless back and forth between train stations, houses, and countries, some of which, surely, could be dealt with with a mere phone call or two. There’s the fact that after her initial discomfort, Bess seems quite companionable with the wife-beating Roger. There’s the character of Simon whose place I wasn’t entirely able to fathom: he appears to be some sort of father figure/possible romantic interest who apparently first appeared in the first two book in the series, but in this one simply pops up every now and then to act as a chauffeur. Until, of course, he pops up to unmask the murderer’s identity by providing a key piece of information at the very end of the book that has until then been kept entirely from the reader. Given that this book feels very much in the cozy mystery vein, and that the reader expects to be attempting to solve the mystery along with the heroine, it feels like a cheat to be given this completely unrelated piece of evidence in the last forty or so pages of the book.
Though I had my reservations, I was quite enjoying A Bitter Truth until this last turn of events, at which point I felt as though the entire book had been one very large red herring: it was disappointing to see the book conclude in such a manner.
Rating: (not bad)
With thanks to Helen’s Book Blog for the review copy
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