A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd
A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd is yet another example of a growing phenomenon, not just in fiction, but also in the cinema. To understand it properly, we have to engage in a tiny piece of semiotic theory. I’ll make it as painless as possible. We use language as a means of communication, but all the other “things” we see, hear, smell, taste or touch can be a part of the mechanism for transmitting meaning. So, for example, a book is a physical object. It comes with jacket artwork. We see its colours, touch the paper, see the typesetting, smell the binding (or note the absence of leather, real or fake), and so on. Long before we get to read the words inside, we’ve formed an opinion about the package and what it might contain. As to the text, the author can pick whichever words best convey the meaning he or she wants to transmit. They can be colloquial, catching the current rhythms of speech, or more formal. The syntax can suggest geography (British English differing from the American version), class, a particular time. . . To work effectively, a reviewer must consider every aspect of the creative process that brings the work from the mind of the author to the finished book product to be appraised.
In this case, we have what’s claimed to be a type of detective novel or, perhaps more accurately, a mystery. Ostensibly, it’s set in December, 1917 in a Britain going through the agony of the Great War (a magnificent misnomer, if ever there was one). Bess Crawford, the lead character, is a nurse. She’s broken with social convention as the daughter of a fairly senior army officer and, as such, a member of the upper middle class. She should have stayed at home, engaging only in local charitable works until she was married off. As a child, she’s been with the family in India and so comes with her view of the world coloured by her experience as part of the Raj. As you would expect, she’s independent-minded and now hardened by her work close to the battlefield where she does some of the triage and post-surgical nursing. However you want to interpret history, this was a time of human suffering on an epic scale. Although the fighting itself was fairly localised given the essentially static nature of the trench system used for defence, the ripple effect of the casualty rate was felt in every community in northern Europe and, by this time, the Commonwealth and some American households. Looking back, this was not a good time to be around.
Yet, today’s books and visual dramas have a very precise commercial purpose. Even though the majority of writers and artists still metaphorically starve in garrets, there are major corporations around the world converting entertainment into profits. They depend on a steady stream of content that can be sold to the masses. Not surprisingly, history in the raw would not sell. In our more comfortable lives, we prefer a romanticised nostalgia, sometimes tinged with a slight bittersweet element. Yes, there will be some mention of all the death and destruction, but it will be sanitised into the background. With our modern sensibilities now attuned to warfare as something other people do for us, we can stand back dispassionately and focus on the characters in the foreground. So, for example, several thousand soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan but they are other people’s children. Our lives go on and we choose not to see the pain and suffering in the families where the maimed are supported and the dead are mourned. Indeed, many of these families are ghettoised into military housing on army bases. We rarely see amputees and other victims on our streets. We have been insulated from the cruel reality of war.
Thus, the view of Britain and France as shown in A Bitter Truth is a form of fantasy, a vehicle to convey a general sense of danger and difficulty, but nothing our spunky girl can’t cope with. Indeed, it’s a quite remarkable effort to take some highly contentious themes and make them, somehow, less awful. Let’s see what we have as we start. Our nurse returns from the front and is pitched into a part of London searching for a deserter. These men were usually publicly shot pour encourager les autres. We then have a victim of spousal abuse, an accusation of infidelity by a soldier during R&R in France, a snapshot of a community relatively close to the south coast, highlights of nursing in a combat zone, and the physical consequences for the French communities close to the fighting. As to British culture, it hardly figures at all. There’s only a hint of class barriers, none of the racism and little of the prejudice against colonials, none of the growing disenchantment with the war despite the jingoism still practiced by the government, and so on.
I would forgive all this if the point of the book as a detective story was well made. There’s no good purpose served by wallowing in the reality of Britain ninety years ago. It’s enough that I lived through the destruction and rebuilding following World War II without recalling the oral history passed down to me by my parents and grandparents of life before and during the first major attempt to reduce the world’s population before global warming got out of hand. Except, this book by Charles Todd is neither fish nor fowl. What could have been a historical novel is lost with no real effort made to give us any detail of the time. What could have been an adventure or thriller is lost because there’s no real sense of danger. Yes, our heroine gets caught up in a murder investigation and later goes hunting around northern France for an orphan, but there’s little emotional involvement. What’s in the background stays firmly there and only rarely do we feel a threat to any leading character’s health. And what could have been a classic detective story in the Golden Age tradition of a country house murder is rather thrown away because, although the solution to the primary crime is firmly rooted in the time, there’s an admission our heroine did not have the means of identifying the motive and so pointing the finger at the murderer. The availability of proof depends on her family connections, followed by a car chase and some romantic hints to leave us with a smile at the end.
This is my first look at Charles Todd, this mother/son writing duo who, as Americans, have specialised in writing about the British in and around the Great War. This is their third Bess Crawford novel and it follows on some thirteen novels featuring Inspector Rutledge of Scotland Yard (another is due in 2012). I’m probably the wrong gender to enjoy it. I suspect A Bitter Truth is firmly aimed at a female readership that wants romantic fiction with an adventurous edge. Those who are not swept up into the new urban fantasies with strong women fighting off vampires and other supernatural beasties, can have a gentle vicarious thrill as our heroine emerges unscathed from the battlefield, solves a few murders as a hobby, and watches some of the unattached men around her with typical British reserve.
For a review of another book by Charles Todd, see Hunting Shadows.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.