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Book Review: A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd

 Book Review: A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd

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: star Book Review: A Bitter Truth by Charles Toddstar Book Review: A Bitter Truth by Charles Toddhalfstar Book Review: A Bitter Truth by Charles Toddblankstar Book Review: A Bitter Truth by Charles Toddblankstar Book Review: A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd (not bad)

With thanks to Helen’s Book Blog for the review copy

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7 comments

  1. Sounds like an extremely dark tale. And I too dislike when the manner of the plot reveal seems to be figuring out with the heroine of the story and then – plot twist- actually you have been missing this key piece of info.

    What is more disturbing is your little icon that says you are not reading! Has it gotten too cold to pull a book from the shelves? I am aghast. ::sighs:: ;)

    • Stephanie /

      It has a very gothic tone, definitely, but it doesn’t really have much of the grit and desperation I’d expect from something set during a wartime. It’s almost sanitised. But that plot twist just made me go, “what?!”

      Oops! I think the lack of the icon is because I had to reinstall WordPress today after my site was hacked by a lovely person who wanted to promote various performance enhancing drugs. Still a bit chilly here, but definitely not as cold as last year, and nowhere near as cold as I hear Chicago gets!

  2. Michelle d Evans /

    THanks for the review. Probably not one I’ll read . :)

    • Stephanie /

      My pleasure, Michelle. I really did enjoy the opening of this one, but it slowed down about halfway through and then really disappointed me at the end. I have the next book in the series on my shelf to review, though, and will give that a go–perhaps this was just a low point in the series.

  3. JuneA** /

    The other books by Charles Todd are better, this was not the best of effort of the team. Regarding your statement of

    “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”

    This actually takes place in WW ONE – If you thought WW TWO while you were reading, could this possibly have caused the disconnect?

    • Stephanie /

      Hi June, thanks for your comment, and for pointing out my typo. No, I didn’t mistakenly think that the book was set during WWII, but thanks for the note!

  4. Jenny /

    I was really disappointed in this. Bess came out really flat in this novel. There has been little development in her character, which is sad. I also had trouble keeping Mrs Ellis, Gran, Mrs. Matthew etc separate. Margaret and Henry added what?

    And Simon. What is up with that? Personal body guard and driver? Big brother? Potential love interest? Give the guy some character. And that plot twist? That was total crap. That was not wanting to pin it on any of the messily drawn characters (the various Ellises) because not one of them was drawn well and completely enough to sell it. In comes random Simon information, with absolutely no foreshadowing. It was a total, oops need to wrap this up and get it to print.

    Lydia? Selfish, self centered, demanding, and childish. While no one deserves to get beaten by her spouse, this character should have been bitch slapped by Bess for her petulant selfishness.

    Roger? I get that in the period a hubby hitting his wife would be embarrassing, a touch acceptable, and yet still wrong. Everyone approached his hitting her with a shrug… No big deal. Really? Oh my brother/ son/grandson hit his wife so hard that she looks beaten, but shrugs. Here’s the thing, make him a touch sympathetic by making him sorry and not a rageful violent barely controlled rude asshat! Make him more complex, with some redeeming qualities.

    But no. He was seething anger for days, nay weeks, and didn’t seem to care that his wife ran off, but for the possibility of another man. He didn’t really care about his wife, just if she cuckholded him. Disagreements about having children should not end in hitting a spouse, unless you are walking rage, which Roger is. Yet Bess becomes kind of chummy.

    And the entire family’s obsession with the pretty dead sister is just plain creepy.

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