The mother-son team writing under Charles Todd has two series going. (The mere fact of that double doubling raises lots of interesting questions . . . ) I find the longest-running set of novels -- Ian Rutledge, shell-shocked WWI vet and Scotland Yard ace -- to be initially compelling, but ultimately to sink beneath the combined weight of Rutledge's extreme depression, the Scots voice in his head, and the incongruous fact that he has little money but drives everywhere in his own "motorcar," a vehicle which never needs gas.
All that made me more than a bit nervous about this, the third in the Bess Crawford series.
Any mystery addict will at once recognize the similarities between this and the Maisie Dobbs series, but that's a good thing, not a thumbs-down. The Maisie series has the more challenging issues -- mostly of class -- since the hero morphs from a housemaid to a Cambridge grad to a successful professional investigator, but the Bess series, interestingly, has the most class-linked awkwardnesses. In both series, the young women train as nurses and serve during The Great War. Bess, daughter of an Army officer, took a step down to do this, since she is a regular nurse, not one of the many middle and upper-class bands of young ladies who did good while being seen to do good. But Maisie took a step out to nurse. Already at Cambridge, she left and trained and served and was wounded, then resumed her studies and her climb from downstairs to upstairs.
Bess generally seems oblivious of class issues (with an occasional comment about clothes) perhaps because the Charles Todd writers are Americans. Maisie is very uncomfortable about class in the early books, but in the most recent seems to have transmogrified into something seriously middle class. Both young women are smart and brave, but the Maisie books offer a wider scope for the reader. with the range of characters and a number of close friends and extremely well-researched engagement with social issues and events. Bess is more socially isolated because she grew up in India, and -- while she is always saying she must go spend her leave with her beloved parents -- she generally finds an adventurous obligation to distract her. As for the war, well, it dealt Maisie some severe blows, but has so for left Bess virtually unscathed. (Ok, a ship sank, but she didn't lose anyone close to her and her arm was broken but not lost.)
The Bess books have plots; the Maisie books have plots and themes.
The second Bess novel is quite as good as the first -- unusual in my experience of mystery reading. The third, starting once again with one of those distracting obligations, is alarmingly the same. No, not the same as in "quite good," but the same as in . . . well, the same. The biggest problem, for me, is reconciling the seemingly flighty, weak-willed, easily distracted Bess who always says she's going home to Somerset, but who goes home instead with people she just met, with the strong, determined, brave Bess who does what needs to be done at the end of the book. So far -- and especially in this 3rd book -- Bess #1 and Bess #2 aren't even kissing cousins.
Maisie Dobbs is a professional investigator, so most of the plots arise from this circumstance. In the Ian Rutledge series, the Todd team has an equally logical reason for the hero's involvement in crime-solving: he is a policeman. But even there, they fall into formula after the third or fourth book: Ian is assigned a case in a non-standard manner; he drives away from London and meets the suspects, including at least one Interesting Woman who catches his imagination; he is mocked by the Scots voice in the backseat (an increasingly irritating presence in this series); someone tries to kill him; he has a painful scene with Interesting Woman; he considers suicide because of the horror of the war (really, I'm almost rooting for it by now); he goes back to London to little praise and no personal peace. And it starts all over again in the next book.
Since the Bess novels rely on random circumstances for the whodunnit problem, you'd think they'd be less likely to fall into a pattern. But you would be wrong. In the first novel, Bess obsesses about a promise to a dying soldier and sets off, while on leave, to fulfill it, meeting a dark and dysfunctional family; in the second, she witnesses a train station farewell between a man and a woman who turns up murdered, and spends most of her leave obsessing about finding the murderer, encountering two dark and dysfunctional families; in this book, there is a woman on the doorstep and (can you guess?) Bess must spend her leave worrying about yet another dark and . . . .
Don't get me wrong. I like the Bess novels. But what a wasted opportunity these are! Bess grew up in India. How about something arising from that? Bess has a fabulous distant relative called Melinda Crawford who has had more adventures than Ian Rutledge has dark thoughts, and yet she's barely a walk-on in these books. While I often get irritated with authors who construct tension by making the hero the object of every passing villain's wrath, I do think that the Bess books would be more compelling if the detecting weren't all done pro bono publico. It's not her _business_ so some of it needs to be personal. Bess is beginning to look like a gadfly or one of those meddling spinsters who mind everyone else's business because they have none of their own.
I like Bess and I'm glad to spend a few more days in her company. I just wish the Charles Todd team took her more seriously.