DEBORAH CROMBIE: Two of my very favorite writers are the mother/son writing team of Charles and Caroline Todd, who write as CHARLES TODD. Their books featuring shell-shocked WW1 veteran and Scotland Yard policeman Ian Rutledge have been enormously popular and have received every critical accolade.
But a few years ago, deciding that they weren't content to write one book a year, the Todds began a second series featuring WW1 battlefield nurse Bess Crawford, and the latest Bess book, An Unmarked Grave, will be out in just a few weeks.
As the Todds and I share a publisher (William Morrow,) I've been fortunate to have done a number of book events with them these past few months, and I've been fascinated not only by the books themselves, but by listening to Caroline and Charles talk about how they work and what inspires them.
Here they share some thoughts with us at Jungle Red. (And I have to say that I just love this photo--Charles looking moodily and mysteriously into the camera, and Caroline looking so like Caroline!)
DEBS: The Rutledge books, which are set just after the Great War and which deal with the ongoing consequences of Detective Inspector Ian Rutledge's experiences in the war, particularly his shell shock, have been very successful. So what inspired you to write about Bess, a nurse and amateur sleuth, and to go back to the war itself?
CAROLINE: We’d talked about Bess for ages, but wanted to wait until we were sure that Rutledge was well established before tying up time and energy for another series. In her case, we had two goals, to show how women coped with the war, and also to give people a chance to understand why Rutledge had come home damaged, to see what he’d faced in the trenches. What surprised us about Bess is that she practically wrote herself. She's such an interesting person, and is such fun to work with. This must have come across to the reader because Bess became popular almost overnight. What’s more, we were looking forward to her second adventure before the first one even hit the bookshelves.
CHARLES: English women have always stepped up when they were needed, even running the castles during the crusades. They've also traveled widely and independently, which gave us a great background for Bess. Her father was a career army officer, and so she knows about weapons. Her childhood was spent at Army cantonments around the world, and so she has a different upbringing from that of the average Victorian woman. All this gives her an outlook on life shaped by a sense of duty and a sense of service. It's not surprising that when war broke out she wanted to serve as a nurse, just as her father's son--if he'd had one--would have served on the battlefield. Yes, it was going back to the war, but it was going forward to peace as well.
DEBS: Can you tell us a bit about the story in An Unmarked Grave?
CAROLINE and CHARLES: Bess is in France, dealing with the wounded and now the influx of patients with the Spanish flu. That’s what they called the terrible Influenza pandemic that killed so many people all over the world, including members of our own families. Among the dead awaiting burial is a body that shouldn't be there--he wasn't a victim of war wounds or of the flu. He was murdered. But before Bess can report his death, she herself succumbs to the flu and nearly dies. By the time she is fully recovered, the discovery of the body seems to be a distant troubling dream. But as she tries to convince herself of that, she finds that the only other witness to the discovery has hanged himself--or has he? As Bess delves deeper into memory and tries to pin down facts, she begins to realize that the dead man in the shed was not the first to die by an unknown hand, nor the last. And it’s likely that she’ll be next, if she doesn’t watch her back. That danger could well touch all those she loves most dearly, and now Bess must race a killer to his final target.
DEBS: One of the many things I love about the Bess books is their sense of immediacy. As a reader, I feel Bess's experiences so vividly. Some of this is due to the first-person narrative style, but I wondered about your research. Have you visited the sites of the Allied lines in France, where, as a nurse, Bess would have been stationed?
CAROLINE: We’ve made an effort to visit French museums and French battlefields, and we've got a copy of a Physician's Reference for 1908, which helps with the medical details. So the research is there. Nurses write that they respond to her sense of dedication. What we discovered was that first person really makes Bess come alive for the reader. Rutledge is definitely third person as the professional detective, but for Bess, we needed to be a part of what she was seeing and feeling and doing. Amazing, really, because characters seem to know what's best for them. From Chapter 1 in first person, she literally leapt off the page. Writers like to talk about Voice, too, and Bess found her own. She’s fresh and different and intensely involved in her life, and whether you’re twenty of sixty, you have to respond to that.
CHARLES: Much of the research we've done for the Rutledge series has given us a good feeling for the period in which Bess works. And so one series builds on the other. We'd had strong women in the Rutledge books, so we weren't surprised to find we could write a strong woman on her own. And she's as riveting to write about as she is to read. Still, a story has to come down to setting and plot, and we have a drawer full for Bess to draw on.
DEBS: I recently recommended the Bess books on 20SomethingReads, a website librarians use to find suggestions for younger readers. Bess is strong, independent, adventurous, brave--and sometimes stubborn, all traits that I'd hope contemporary young women and men would identify with. Were you thinking about the appeal to a younger audience when you conceived the series?
CAROLINE: Bess offers so much to the younger reader, male and female, because she's young too and she's trying to make a go of her choices in life. We’d seen the success of Harry Potter, who had such a broad appeal to readers, and we realized that the real wizardry here wasn’t just happening in the story, it was the way the story was told, it reached out and grabbed you and said, here’s great adventure, come and see for yourself. We try to do the same with our books, and Bess is a woman any woman can relate to. What’s more, male readers love her. I don’t quite know how we managed that, but we’re enjoying it.
CHARLES: I was told recently by a woman in her twenties, “I bought your latest for my Mom, because she’s a nurse and she loves the series. The next thing I knew, I was still reading at midnight, and couldn’t put A BITTER TRUTH down. Now I can’t wait for the next one.” Remember, Rutledge isn’t quite thirty, he’s an attractive, haunted man who has a job to do and must face it every day, just like the rest of us, even if he’s an Inspector at Scotland Yard. Bess is in her early twenties, caught up in the middle of a war and trying to do her bit. You care about these characters because they seem so real, and you want to know what’s happening next. That’s because the stories are fresh, and the plots involve you. That’s what reading is all about.
DEBS: An Unmarked Grave takes place in the spring of 1918. We know (although Bess does not) that the war will be ending soon. Can you tell us a little bit about what's in store for Bess? I feel quite sure she won't be sitting at home knitting And, the question that fans of both series always have to ask--do you envision Bess and Rutledge meeting after the war? While I don't think they would be romantically suited (and Bess already has a surfeit of interesting men in her life!) it would be interesting if their paths crossed on a case...
CAROLINE: When the war ends--as it must, Bess has to learn to live with peace. She’ll be invited to an Irish wedding, in spite of the Troubles, and she’ll find herself in a very different environment where no one dares to trust his neighbor or his friend. And Melinda Crawford wants to go back to India, where she had lived for many years. At her age, such a long journey is very arduous, and so she invites Bess to accompany her. And Colonel Crawford sends Simon with them to protect both of them. We'll learn more about Simon in this one, and about Bess's childhood. But wherever Bess is, can murder be far behind? This is just a sampling of what’s ahead. Will Rutledge and Bess ever meet? We don't know. Would she pick up on his shell shock? Interesting idea. How would he feel about that? Hmmm.
CHARLES: Bess is a battlefield nurse. This is the crucible where she learned to be an independent and engaging young woman, no longer in the shadow of her famous father. And that's where the end of the war will find her, learning to live with peace, learning to move on. It won't be easy, and as anyone who has survived a war will tell you, it will leave its mark. And so Bess must make her way into this Brave New World that isn't anything like the dreams people fought to save. That's why we will take her to Ireland, and then back to her roots in India. Bess never goes looking for trouble. It finds her. So life will never be dull for her—or her readers. Whoever they are.
DEBS: Thank you both! I've cheated a bit, having been lucky enough to read the galley of An Unmarked Grave, so now I have to join the nagging hoard WHO CAN'T WAIT FOR THE NEXT ONE!
Charles and Caroline will be dropping in today to say "hi" and answer questions. Some of our readers can get a head start on the new book, too, as William Morrow will give galleys of An Unmarked Grave to three of our lucky commenters. (And the book is available for pre-order everywhere books are sold.)
I have to warn you, though, this is a dangerous proposition--if you haven't read one of the Bess books, you will then have to read them all. And if you haven't read the Rutledge books, you'll have to read those, too. So clear the decks!