'Cruel Deception' captures harsh realities of life after wartime



By Charles Todd

(Wm. Morrow, $26.99)

Grade: A

World War I is officially over, but it really isn’t, as Charles Todd persuasively shows in “A Cruel Deception,” the 11th gripping novel featuring British nurse Bess Crawford.

The fighting has stopped in 1919, but the negotiations at the Peace Conference in Paris are lagging, with each country having different demands. Once WWI ended, many hoped their lives would return to normal; instead economic problems, food shortage, coal rationing and unemployment linger. “When the fighting stopped, we realized that nothing would ever be the same again,” says one character.

In “A Cruel Deception,” not much has changed either for Bess, who is still tending the wounded in a British surgical clinic. Bess thrives on the work — helping heal the wounded, comforting the dying. She wonders what her future holds now that the war is over, and if she will be able to continue using her nursing skills.

The war also is still active in the minds of those soldiers — and nurses — who witnessed atrocities and bear guilt about their own actions that will prey on their minds for years. One of those who still carries the war may be Lt. Lawrence Minton, the son of the chief of nursing where Bess works.

In “A Cruel Deception,” his mother wants Bess to travel to France to try to find Lawrence, who is part of the British delegation at the peace conference, but who hasn’t been attending. His mother fears for his safety and his military career. Bess finds Lawrence in the small “shabby” village of St. Ives, where a young woman has brought him to take care of him in gratitude for having saved her father’s life.

The Lawrence Bess meets is not the kind of man she expected — he’s addicted to the opiate laudanum, bitter to the young woman who is trying to help him and refuses to communicate with Bess. He also is also given to yelling in the middle of the night and sleepwalking. Bess knows Lawrence’s mental state echoes back to the war but she is unsure how to help him while being discreet and keeping confidences.

Caroline and Charles Todd, the mother and son writing team who publish under the name Charles Todd, are experts at showing how The Great War affected people and how the problems of other generations reverberate through the years. Laudanum addiction compares to today’s opioid epidemic. The guilt-wracked Lawrence is obviously suffering from PTSD, but in the early 1900s this was not discussed and could be a career ender.

Bess is among the most compassionate and intelligent characters whose observations on life and people are advanced for the era in which she lives. Bess knows many have an antiquated view of women, but she embodies the emerging modern approach as she worries about her career, rather than if she will marry. Her experiences on the battlefields have taught her that sometimes she must be tough with her patients, but her concern for their care is without question.

In “A Cruel Deception,” Todd again delivers a sensitive look at how people survive war.

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