Thursday, December 20, 2012


DEBORAH CROMBIE: Missing Downton Abbey? Need the perfect Christmas book? Well, today we have a special treat for you on Jungle Red. With us are Caroline and Charles Todd, the mother and son writing team.  As Charles Todd they are the authors of two acclaimed mystery series--the Inspector Rutledge novels and the Bess Crawford novels--set during and after World War I.

But the Todds (who are among the hardest working and most prolific authors I know) have departed from suspense to give us an unexpected gift, THE WALNUT TREE, a bittersweet love story set at Christmas during the dangerous opening months of World War I.

In 1914, while visiting her friend Madeleine in Paris, Lady Elspeth Douglas's life is thrown into chaos when war breaks out and the Germans quickly overrun Belgium, threatening France. Having just agreed to marry Alain, Madeleine's dashing brother, Lady Elspeth watches him leave to join his unit, and then she sets out for England, only to find herself trapped on the French coast.
Elspeth—daughter of a Highland aristocrat whose distinguished family can trace its roots back to the court of Mary, Queen of Scots—decides to make herself useful, carrying water to weary soldiers near the Front. It is an act of charity that almost gets her killed when enemy shells begin to explode around her. To her rescue comes Captain Peter Gilchrist, who pulls her away from the battle and leads her to safety. 

Back in London, surrounded by familiar comforts, Elspeth is haunted by the horrors she witnessed in France. She enrolls in a nursing course, where she meets a fellow nurse in training, Bess Crawford. It is a daring move, made without the consent of Elspeth's guardian, her cousin Kenneth, a high-handed man with rigid notions of class and femininity.

Yet Elspeth Douglas is a woman with a mind of her own, which—as she herself says—is a blessing and a curse. She is determined to return to the battlefields of France to do her part . . . and to find the man she has no right to love. In a world full of terror and uncertainty, can the sweetness of love survive or will Elspeth's troubled heart become another casualty of this terrible war?

Now the Todds tell us more.

DEBS: With two strong suspense series--the Inspector Rutledge novels, set just after WWI, and the Bess Crawford books, set during the war, THE WALNUT TREE is quite a departure for you. Why a love story?

TODDS:  We had never tried a holiday tale, and we thought it would be an interesting thing to do.  We hadn’t tackled the first days of the war, those frantic events of late summer 1914 when the Germans marched.  So that was the time frame, and we‘d already decided on a character who was quite different from Bess Crawford.   That gave us the personal touch.  And how better to see those early battles than through the eyes of a young woman who loved two men, one in the French army and one in the British?  Some of the greatest love stories have centered around war time.  Gone with the Wind and Casablanca, just to name two.

DEBS:  The heroine, Lady Elspeth Douglas, is of the same class and background as Lady Mary Crawley of Downton Abbey. Reading about Elspeth really brought home to me just how different were the lives of aristocratic young women from not only middle and working-class women of their time, but from our modern experience.  On the one hand, they had everything done for them. But on the other, they had no freedom to make decisions about their own lives. Was this one of the things that interested you?


TODDS:   Yes, from the beginning we realized that to have a heroine from the aristocracy, we had to see the world through her eyes.  To watch her struggle with the ordinary life of someone like Bess.  Lady Elspeth had been well educated—she could converse with bishops or take dancing with the Prince of Wales in stride, almost as her due.  But title and influence couldn’t make her a Sister.  She had to train for that like everyone else, making her own bed, washing her own uniforms, scrubbing hospital floors on her hands and knees.  And she did this knowing that her family would disapprove, quite a step toward independence.  It’s a measure of her determination that she finished her training and not only that, took pride in her accomplishment.

 DEBSTHE WALNUT TREE takes place right at the beginning of the war. Why this period in particular?

TODDS:  People weren’t prepared for what lay ahead.  Most of them believed that the war would be over by Christmas, which gave us the holiday theme we were after.  Sadly, the fighting was intense from the start, and by the new year, 1915, France, Germany, and Britain had reached the stalemate that Rutledge knew so well as trench warfare.  It’s a prelude to Rutledge, in a way.  At the same time, it reflects what was happening to so many young people—hasty engagements, new relationships, the tumult of change, and meeting people who might or might not have been in one’s circle before August, 1914.  Lady Elspeth hadn’t seen Peter Gilchrist since she was a girl.  If the war hadn’t come along, she might never have known what sort of man he’d become.  Or had the chance to fall in love with him. She might have married the excellent young man her guardian chose for her and never known true happiness.   

DEBS:  Was it hard to resist the temptation to sneak a little mystery into the story (although there is the incident of the man on the train...)?

TODDS:  Not too hard, because in the chaos of war there are all sorts of things going.  We chose a mystery that we felt best showed what such upheaval  really meant.  The same thing happened in World War II, by the way, and with the Nazis, on an even grander scale.  Linda, Charles’s sister, happened to mention one day that such and such a thing interested her, and we thought, Perfect, just what we were looking for.   We won’t spoil it by saying more.

DEBS: Did you feel restricted by the novella length?

TODDS:  In the beginning we didn’t notice it.  But about halfway through, we realized that we could easily have told Lady Elspeth’s story in a full length novel.  THE WALNUT TREE is nearly two hundred and fifty pages as it is, so we came close!   There was so much to explore, both in Lady Elspeth’s background and in the lives of the two men who were so important to her.  We liked her cousins too, and could see lots of material there.  We’d decided on a novella to begin with to make it a great holiday read.  But it could be equally exciting any time of the year. 

DEBS: While I could tell there could have been more story, I really enjoyed the novella. It was a treat to have a story that could be read in a couple of evenings, and as much as I like series novels, it was refreshing to read a story that was complete in itself.  (Although maybe Bess could run across the characters in her next outing-)

TODDS:  This is one of the glories of stand-alones like THE WALNUT TREE—you can tell an entire story and see the beginning and the ending between page one and page whatever.  And that’s something we enjoy, as readers, so we like it as writers too.  At a signing recently someone mentioned that TREE  would make a lovely movie.  And we think they could be right, because it’s a whole.

DEBSOh, it would make a wonderful movie! (Thinking of casting now...) And the cover of the book is absolutely beautiful. I've kept it on my nightstand just because I've enjoyed looking at it. Did you have any input?

TODDS:  Actually we did.  The art department came up with a brilliant cover, but it didn’t really have a holiday mystery look about it.  More a regular mystery.  So we suggested some possibilities, and the art department was enthusiastic, even to inserting that tree with the bare branches, which is the walnut tree of the title.  The result was just spectacular, and every time we see it, we feel the same sense of wonder that it turned out so beautifully.  Many reviews have featured the jacket, too, and I think for the same reason. 

DEBS: And what's up next for the prolific TODDS?

TODDS:   We’re in the midst of the line edits for the next Bess, which is A QUESTION OF HONOR, and should be out in June.  The next Rutledge is coming out at the end of January, and that’s PROOF OF GUILT.   We had a short story in STRAND Magazine  this summer, another one in THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES OF 2012, edited by Robert Crais, , and we’ll be in the MWA anthology out next April.  We have three more short stories to do. And while all this is going on, we’re starting the Rutledge for 2014.  And that’s going to be exciting.  

DEBS:  So looking forward to both the Rutledge and the Bess! 

Readers, the Todds will be checking in today to say "hi" and answer questions, so be sure to post your comments.  Oh, and one more thing. Caroline, I think you recently had an adventure with an owl. Will you tell us about it?

CAROLINE: Ah, the owl  It’s name is Raleigh, it’s a barred owl, and he (we think it’s a he, with owls it’s not always easy to tell)  is a resident of The Ruth Patrick Science Center, University of South Carolina at Aiken SC.  Deborah McMurtry, who teaches teachers and schoolchildren about predators in her lab at the Center, was kind enough to allow us to visit Raleigh and let me hold him on my wrist like a falcon  and talk to him for nearly an hour.  It’s an experience I will never forget. He has an injured wing and can’t be released to the wild, but he has given hundreds of school children a chance to look at a bird they have read about but probably have never seen in real life. 

PSS: A late edition--the Todds will give away a copy of The Walnut Tree to a lucky commenter!!!



  1. Barred owls are wonderful animals, aren't they? A friend had one in his home (in a large cage) because it could not be hacked back into the wild due to injuries. My husband, a wildlife photographer, borrowed Henry for awhile, and I got to know him some. They are fascinating creatures, one of the few diurnal, or daytime active, owls.

    Love the book cover and the premise of the story, and I will look for your books from now on.

  2. Welcome Caroline and Charles, two of my favorite people in the mystery community. The Walnut Tree sounds wonderful - and a great story to read while waiting for Downton Abbey to return! In the course of searching for a link to buy it (hope this works)

    I learned about a fable concerning a woman, an ass and a walnut tree. How did you come up with your title? Anything to do with the fable?

    BTW I have two barred owls who are frequent visitor in my garden. I named them Shakespeare and Marlowe.

  3. The Walnut Tree was a true delight. The perfect read for a winter holiday evening.

    The Todds never disappoint, both it book form and in person. Two of the sweetest people you can meet. I am always happy to see their names on the list of conference attendees.

    And I completely agree that this is one of the best covers of the year. A work of art.

    As for the movie, I'm ready to buy my ticket any time now. ;-)

    Happy Holidays to you both!

  4. You guys are so prolific, it amazes me! I can't wait to try this new book. Caroline, love the owl picture.

    Ro, I'm so envious of your visiting owls. I've only ever seen one in our neighborhood--I was coming down our lane at night and there he was--close to 3 feet tall, sitting in the middle of the road. We looked at each other for several minutes before he flew away...

  5. The Todds are giving away a copy of The Walnut Tree to a commenter!!!

  6. Good writing, good story, good cover: what a holiday gift! Merry Christmas!

  7. I am stupefied (!) by how productive the Todds are. I have fallen in love with the Bess novels and look forward to the next, so I appreciate the fact that she makes an appearance in this novella. Please continue your writing partnership indefinitely!

  8. I was first introduced to the Todds with The Murder Stone two years ago and was so delighted with the storytelling and writing, I've begun working my way s-l-o-w-l-y through the Bess Crawford and Rutledge series.

    How wonderful to discover you've written a holiday tale. I look forward to reading this "stand-alone." And I agree with all, the cover is lovely.

  9. Morning!Caroline here. Karen, I loved hearing about Henry! They are such amazing creatures. We had a barred owl at home when I was little, and he often called from the tree outside my window. So it was really terrific to talk to Raleigh. Thanks for the compliments on the cover. We really love it too.

  10. What a hauntingly lovely cover for The Walnut Tree -- sounds like a perfect fit for the story. I'm still working my way through the Rutledge books -- haven't started Bess yet -- you two bring that time period so to life that it takes me a while after the last page to remember where I really am!

  11. Huge fan love Bess!!what a beautiful cover happy

  12. I haven't read any of your books yet but am adding them to my wishlist. The book cover is stunning!

  13. The Ian Rutledge series is one of my favorites and as a bookseller, one I recommend very often. I had the pleasure of meeting you both at 2012 BEA it was the highlight of the event for me.

  14. Loved the idea of The Walnut Tree and the gorgeous cover! Caroline and Charles, you are so productive. And it's a good thing because there are many of us who wait eagerly for the next book.

  15. Charles here. We are having trouble posting, but are reading the comments. We'll get it figured out shortly. Nice to hear from everyone. Rosemary, I have an answer for you when I can get this up on site.

  16. Hey, it worked as anonymous! Rosemary, happy holidays, friend. Morrow needed a title before we wrote the book. We were in England, saw a pub, an hotel, and a cottage called The Walnut Tree, so we took that as a "sign" then spent the first hundred pages of the ms wondering when it would show up. But when it did, it was magical. Charles

  17. A friend and I exchange mystery books each Christmas as gifts. One year she gave me The Murder Stone. Since then I've read all the Rutledge (I worry about that poor man!) and Bess Crawford stories. I look forward to reading The Walnut Tree. The WWI era has to be one of the most tumultous times in modern history. I am fascinated by it.
    Keep up the good work! I eagerly look forward to more stories.

  18. Caroline again. Love the owl names, Rosemary. We enjoyed THE MURDER STONE, and we enjoyed writing TREE, but our hearts belong to Rutledge and Bess. Such different people but each one intriguing in his or her own way. When you've written a stand alone,you really love doing something different, and then Ian or Bess wags a finger and we're back in the fold. :-)

  19. Caroline here. Kristopher,if they make TREE into a movie, you can come to the premier!

    Charlie, wasn't BEA something else? I'm glad you can handsell the books. Bookstores need all the help they can get from authors these days. Nice to know we are doing something right.

  20. This looks really enticing. And I must seriously seek out the other books too. WWI era has always fascinated me.

  21. This looks so enticing. WWI is such a strong historical period.

    And I must get serious about the Bess Crawford series, too

  22. oops, sorry for the double post. it was the letters and numbers game that fooled me...

  23. Caroline: It's nice to hear how many people liked THE WALNUT TREE cover art. We like to think of a book jacket as the "face" of the book, tempting you to pick it up, open it and want to take it home with you. A jacket meets far more people than we ever will,so getting it right is very important.

  24. Sounds like a book I would enjoy!

  25. Hey Lucy/Roberta! Your owl had probably just caught his dinner when you came along. They are SO silent when they fly. Going to Malice this year? I must remember to sign up--soon!


  26. I'm very tempted to go to Malice this year just so I can see Caroline and Charles!

  27. Caroline here. Sandy mentioned TREE as a gift. When we were doing a signing in SC recently, a woman bought three copies of THE WALNUT TREE. One for herself, of course, and one for her YA daughter and one for her mother. I said, "Yours won't be a surprise for you!" She smiled and said, "Yes it will--my husband will be giving me mine."

  28. Are you folks going to visit Murder by the Book in Houston soon?
    Perhaps I'll see you there again. I don't think we have any owls here in town, but if you like possums. . .

  29. Deb, do come! We'll have such a great time. And it's the big anniversary so they should have lots going on. How about the rest of you? Rosemary, Roberta, Hank? Julia? I know Rhys will be there. From Caroline

  30. Congratulations to Caroline and Todd on their new book

    The Walnut Tree sounds very intriguing, can't wait to read it!

    I always look forward to "Christmas" Mysteries that numerous authors put out each year and this sounds like a wonderful read.

    Sweet Picture of Caroline and Raleigh.

    Nice interview Debs - always enjoy the guest interviews you ladies have here


  31. Hey, Pat, yes, I'll be in Houston at Murder by the Book on Feb. 1, I think it is. You can check with the store. We are doing a bunch of things crammed into one week, so I'm sort of hazy still about actual dates. I think it's Wilmington DE on the 30th, Scottsdale and Poisoned Pen on the 31, and Houston on the 1st. Yep, just checked, and that is correct. Come and see us!

  32. Hey, Mar (Arabella is such a pretty name.) Speaking of Christmas mysteries! The Washinton Post is doing the 12 BOOKS OF CHRISTMAS,listing twelve for the holiday buyer/reader--and THE WALNUT TREE is one of them! Check out the site for the other 11.

  33. Yes, Malice is tempting me again this year as well. It's been a few years since I have been.

    With the blog active now, I think it's time to go again.

    At least, that's the excuse I'm going to use.

  34. I added to the post, too, but great news that THE WALNUT TREE is a Washington Post pick for Best Christmas Books of 2012! Here's the link:

  35. I believe The Walnut Tree sounds like it would be lovely. And I am so envious of you being able to visit with the owl. I think any bird is miraculous but birds of prey are mysteries. We have a family of red tailed hawks who live in our neighborhood and they are so beautiful.

  36. I like owls so that was a good picture to post. I'd love to win a copy of the book. Haven't read any of their books.

  37. Michelle, you'll have to find out for yourself what all the fuss is about. There are two series--the Scotland Yard Inspector, Ian Rutledge, who comes back from the trenches a changed man, and there's Bess Crawford, whose family has a long history in the military, but the only way she can serve in the Great War is as a nurse--and trouble seems to find her along the way. And of course the two stand alones, one of which is THE WALNUT TREE Charles

  38. Annette, we watched a pair of red tailed hawks train their youngster by doing all kinds of aerial stunts, showing him/her how to dive and twist and turn. So next summer, keep an eye out for your pair doing the same. Amazing how magnificently they fly. Of course the little birds in your neighborhood probably wish the hawks into the next state! Caroline

  39. Wonderful books, Bess and Rutledge are great characters.
    Have read all your books, and eagerly await the new ones.
    Have read the Walnut tree aand found it to be moving ; the cover is beautiful, also.
    please, tho' never stop writing Bess and Rutledge....

  40. I love the Rutlegde series but I've overlooked the Bess series. I can't wait to start those books.

    And I'm anxious to pick up THE WALNUT TREE. It sounds wonderful and should be a great book to take with me for the Christmas holiday.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

  41. The Walnut Tree sounds like a wonderful story. I'll be on the lookout for it! Wishing the Todds -- and all the Reds -- a very happy holiday season.

  42. Congratulations on the news from the Washington Post!

    I've read - and loved - all the Bess books,and I plan to start on the Ian books. You have the wonderful gift of making the reader feel that he or she is experiencing whatever Bess is experiencing,even more remarkable because the books are set in another era. And now I also want to read The Walnut Tree!

  43. What a rich story time it was around the start of WWI. So much changed, so quickly.

  44. It was great to talk to everyone today. Thanks for stopping by and sharing The Walnut Tree and Ian and Bess with us. Happy holidays, everyone, and happy reading in the new year.

    Caroline and Charles. And Raleigh would probably want to add HOOOO.