On Monday 18th October, Books and Bakes Book Club met at The Institute, Grays Road, Grangefield to discuss the October Book Club Book “A Duty to the Dead” by Charles Todd. What follows contains spoilers so please do not read on if you plan on enjoying the Bess Crawford series by Charles Todd. 

Set during World War One, daughter of a distinguished soldier Bess is serving as a nursing sister on board the hospital ship Britannic where she nurses and makes a promise to a dying soldier to deliver a message to his brother. The ship is sunk and Bess heads home on leave with a broken arm and a mission to fulfil her dying promise to the lieutenant. Her duty to deliver the message sees Bess at the centre of a strange family dynamic in a very small town which hides some very dark secrets which Bess must uncover and expose in order to fulfil her duty before returning to active duty as a nursing sister.

The discussion in the group started with a brief overview of the story before the group picked up on how well the author, Charles Todd, had picked up quite well on life through the eyes of a woman in that era which prompted a further discussion of the mother-son duo who write together.

The group felt that the title was significant to the story overall yet one group member picked up on the fact that it was Bess’ duty to tend to the sick, wounded and dying without getting too close or too involved and by completing the actions that followed, she was clearly overstepping her duty as a nurse although Bess never really admits to the extent of her feelings for the dying lieutenant Arthur Graham but it was felt by the group that she cared for him a lot more than she let on. Some felt that a duty to the dead is sacred while others argued that perhaps in society a promise has much less value than it once did and that a duty to the dead and a duty to the living should be regarded equally. 

People admired Bess, not only for taking on a prominent, active and dangerous role during the war but also for taking on the role of an amateur detective to solve the riddle of Arthur’s dying message and how well she handled herself in the many varied and strange situations she found herself. Her disillusionment with Arthur and her changing opinion of him was also acknowledged.

The murder committed and response from the family at the centre of the drama was also discussed. One member sympathised with the actions of Mrs Graham to protect her birth son she could not understand how anyone could confine a child in a sanatorium and sacrifice him to protect the family secret. The family also used their wealth to help hide what had happened, buy off those around them to keep the secret and help the family of the murder victim emigrate to New Zealand, which much have been a princely sum during the first world war!

When asked why they thought the brothers all continued to feed the lie to protect the family, it was noted that the elder son knew too much and had already been outcast from the family by means of being isolated within the home and told he was difficult and unteachable. Yet, when Bess met him, his behaviour and demeanour conflicted with what she had been told about him. 

It was agreed that Bess was very brave and courageous to have stayed on her own with a character who, as far as she knew, had historically committed an unprovoked murder although her discomfort throughout was palpable. 

Group members shared their own personal stories of families who had served during the war, stories of recent losses of health professionals working in war zones and how they all wished those who had experience and stories of active service would have been able to share their stories with them. 

At the end, the members hoped for a happy ending for those key characters who safely made it to the end of the book and that perhaps those who had done wrong in the past were living to suffer the consequences of their historic actions and better late than never.

One member mentioned how she found that times of war and conflict are also times of great social change and that, even though she is not saying war is a good this, the accelerated social change following periods of conflict can be intriguing and fascinating compared to how slow social change is today.

Books and Bakes is meeting again on Monday 1st November for an author talk delivered by Liz Taylorson, followed by our discussion group on Monday 15th November where we will be discussing Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owen. The final session on Monday 29th November will be a coffee and consultation event to gather feedback from group members about the activities and discuss what you would like to happen with these groups in 2022.

This session was made possible thanks to the National Lottery Local Connections Fund.


Kathryn Hoey · October 19, 2021 at 8:25 am

This months book, A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd, was thoroughly enjoyed by the majority of our Book Club members. The book showed the horrors of World War I – the many dangers nurses faced, so close to the front line and the terrible effects soldiers suffered of both mind and body as well as a reminder of how little was done to restore them.
It had all the elements of a good mystery – lots of twists and turns, unexpected and quite shocking events, intrigue and well kept secrets.
Most of us have realised now, that being a member of this Book Club means we are reading books which ordinarily we wouldn’t have even picked up, never mind read, discussed and enjoyed. In fact most members, now after reading this book, want to read the second book in the Bess Crawford Mystery series, An Impartial Witness!
Kathryn Hoey

Lynne Amos · October 19, 2021 at 8:31 pm

The blog was a fantastic summary of the October book and the meeting. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the views on ‘Duty to the Dead’, as all but one member had enjoyed the book, even though most had said it wouldn’t normally be their choice after reading the brief description.
I think most of us were interested in reading the sequel too.
Lynne Amos

Caroline Thompson · October 19, 2021 at 9:04 pm

I’m really sorry I missed the discussion because this was a book that I wouldn’t normally pick up to read and yet I have thoroughly enjoyed it.

Joyce Beadnall · October 20, 2021 at 10:02 am

I loved reading this book from start to finish! The message Beth agreed to deliver was intriguing and bore no clue regarding its importance or the tragedy behind it . As events unfolded and characters were gradually revealed , I found I was cleverly led into making various mistaken assumptions. A Duty to the Dead was a thoroughly good read- I look forward to read more Charles Todd novels.

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