In the early summer of 1917, Bess Crawford is charged with escorting a convoy of severely wounded soldiers from the trenches of France to England. Among them is a young pilot, burned beyond recognition, who carries a photograph of his wife pinned to his tunic. But later, in a crowded railway station, Bess sees the same woman bidding a heart-wrenching farewell to a departing officer, clearly not her husband.
Back on duty in France, Bess is shocked to discover the wife’s photograph in a newspaper accompanying a plea from Scotland Yard for information about her murder, which took place on the very day Bess witnessed that anguished farewell. Granted leave to speak with the authorities, Bess very quickly finds herself entangled in a case of secrets and deadly betrayal in which another life hangs in the balance, and her search for the truth could expose her to far graver dangers than those she faces on the battlefield.
Questions for Discussion
1) As in A Duty to the Dead, long-seated familial animosities and jealousies play a role in the crimes committed. What did you think of the Garrison and Melton families? How do they compare to Bess' family, or to the families of soldiers and nurses created by war?
2) Simon Brandon plays a far greater role in this novel than he did in A Duty to the Dead. What do you make of that and do you think his intentions stem from his duty to Bess' father, or from his affections for Bess herself?
3) Simon strives to curtail the risks that Bess takes throughout the novel. This advice of his struck me particularly: "We have to move on. Put the living first. There are already enough monuments to the dead." Do you think Bess's drive to right the wrongs she sees puts her at odds with this advice, to her detriment?
4) Do you think there is any such thing as an "impartial witness?" Bess admits to adding her own perspective and interpretation to what she sees at the railway station. Later, Mrs. Hennessey is referred to by Bess as an "impartial witness," presumably because she's completely in the dark about what's been happening. But what do you think of the phrase, and what do you think the authors mean us to to think of it?
5) What did you think of the ending of the novel? Were you expecting a confrontation, or confession, that you didn't see? And if so, why do you think it was written that way?
6) Did you learn any new phrases while reading An Impartial Witness? For me it was "Well, it's shank's mare, then," which Sister Benning says to Bess when they have to walk behind the ambulance of wounded soldiers on their way to safer ground. Turns out that "shanks mare" is an Irish phrase referring to having to hoof it on your own two legs.
Join us next on Tuesday, May 29th when we'll discuss the third book in the Bess Crawford series, A Bitter Truth - which also comes out in paperback tomorrow, May 1st.
Book Time with Bess - The Bess Crawford Read-Aong continues!
May 29th – A Bitter Truth discussion
June 5th - An Unmarked Grave – the new hardcover goes on sale
June 25th – An Unmarked Grave discussion
June 28th – Book Club Girl on Air Show with Charles Todd to Discuss the Entire Series
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