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Interview: August 21, 2015

The mother-son writing team of Caroline and Charles Todd, collectively known as Charles Todd, is back with another thrilling entry in their Bess Crawford mystery series. In A PATTERN OF LIES, a horrific explosion at a gunpowder mill sends the sleuthing nurse to war-torn France to keep a deadly pattern of lies from leading to more deaths. In this interview, the Todds discuss with The Book Report Network’s Ray Palen why they began telling Bess’ story in the first place, as well as what makes her so popular among readers. They also explain why they feel comfortable writing from the perspectives of both male and female protagonists (“human nature is human nature”) and where they see Bess going next.

The Book Report Network: Did you plan for the Bess Crawford series to continue through seven novels? How is it to step away from the Ian Rutledge mysteries into something completely different?

Caroline: We had no idea that Bess would be so popular, but we saw something in her that we liked very much. When we launched A DUTY TO THE DEAD, to tell the women’s side of the Great War, we hoped others might find her just as appealing as we did. Surprisingly, planning stories for her series has been very easy, because so much was happening in France and England --- and with the war --- that there always seems to be something exciting to say.

Charles:  We made sure we were well grounded with the Rutledge books before adding another series. We didn’t want to be distracted and not do either series justice. And oddly enough, rather than distract, Bess has served to reinforce the Rutledge books in our thinking. Now, when one is finished, we look forward to starting the next book because it’s a change of pace, refreshing and challenging at the same time.

TBRN: Bess has a strong moral center, as does Ian Rutledge. Are there stories you are only able to tell in the Crawford series that you are unable to tell with Inspector Rutledge?

Caroline: The funny thing is, from the very start, when we came up with an idea that turned out not to be quite right for Rutledge, we always shoved it in the file drawer “just in case” it might work later for a short story. When we were considering how to approach the Bess books, we discovered that many of the stories in the file drawer were well suited to a woman, to a sleuth, and to battlefield situations.

Charles: There was a strong moral center in Britain in 1914. When we began the Rutledge books, we realized that bringing that to the center of the story made the character and the books far more realistic, far more a part of their times --- and, oddly enough, part of our own times. We think this has been an important reason for the success of both the Rutledge and the Bess books. “Downton Abbey” has come along since then and reinforced that view of England. The Earl knew his duty, he knew his place in Society, and he understood that he was not just an aristocrat, he was steward of his house and his land. His greatest disappointment was in not serving in the Great War --- he’d fought in the Boer War. So many men --- and women --- felt strongly about what they owed their country in this time of peril.

TBRN: What is it about writing in this era (WWI Europe) that is so appealing to you?

Caroline and Charles: For one thing, no one was writing about it and hadn’t for a long while, and yet it had so much potential as a backdrop. It was probably the most important event in the 20th century, and much that we’re dealing with politically in the world right now has roots in the war or the treaty that followed. It’s a modern timeframe --- and yet it wasn’t very advanced forensically, which meant that a Scotland Yard inspector had to make his own judgments in his search for a killer…he didn’t have CSI to help him. And we liked that; we liked the idea that he could be tested as a man and as a policeman.

The same held true for Bess --- she, too, could be tested by the war and the mystery she is involved with. And, quite simply, the more we learned about the period, the more we loved it. We’d have set the books in America, but for the fact that the US didn’t enter the war until April 1917, and didn’t have troops on the ground until June 1918, almost at war’s end. It was Britain that bore the brunt of the fighting in Europe, and so we chose Scotland Yard for Rutledge and the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service for Bess.

TBRN: Do you think Bess could accomplish more if she were a man, or do you welcome the limitations she faces?

Caroline: Actually, I think the fact that she is a woman and must overcome these limitations in her own fashion makes the books far more interesting to write and to read. Rutledge had to be a man --- the Yard didn’t have female detectives in 1914, and he also served in the trenches. Bess, on the other hand, shows us the aftermath of the fighting, the suffering there was, and how nurses and doctors fought to save men. She’s just right for the part.

Charles: In detecting, there are questions a woman can ask or places she can go that a male detective from Scotland Yard can’t. And so, in a way, Bess is better able to get at the heart of the story and see it from the inside, while the Yard must see it from the outside. And this gives us a wide variety of stories reflecting that difference. It’s what makes writing both a male and a female series so attractive. And we think the reader enjoys watching Bess cope. 

TBRN: As collaborators, how do you split the historical research for these novels?

Caroline and Charles: Actually we can’t split it. What one of us knows, the other must know, too, or we aren’t able to bring the same tools and facts to the story as we write it together. This doesn’t mean that Caroline can’t find something intriguing in the Imperial War Museum or Charles can’t discover a dusty old memoir in a bookshop --- or vice versa! --- and bring that to the table. But Caroline must read that book and Charles must look at the pictures from the museum before it can be used in our own work. There is so much material out there, particularly with the War’s Centennial, that it really does take two of us to find it all. But we both have to absorb it personally, or we can’t draw on it while writing.

TBRN: What inspired you to choose a nurse as the protagonist in this series, and what flexibility does it provide?

Caroline and Charles: When war was declared in 1914, British women offered their services in droves. They helped grow crops where there had only been parks and lawns before, they worked in dangerous munitions factories, they drove buses and found other occupations that released men to fight. But of all the opportunities suddenly opening up to women --- and this was important to write about --- it was nursing that offered the greatest advantages. Bess could be in England, she could be at the Front, she was a part of the war and had access to information that women at home didn’t. It was an ideal arrangement for investigating; it just clicked. And it suited Bess’ background, her father’s career, and a long line of Crawfords before him who had served their country well. Bess could do that, too, even though she wasn’t his son and destined to join the regiment. 

TBRN: Is overcoming adversity a common theme in the Bess Crawford series? How has she grown as a character over seven novels?

Caroline:  Real life is filled with adversity. If everything went smoothly, we’d all be happier, but instead of that we’re often tested in ways that seem unbearable. Still, somehow we find the strength to endure. Look at Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. How do you ever find the courage and the fortitude to go on? Bess, if she were a real person, would have had to deal with what life brought to her, and so the character must as well. And you get to see her coping with a variety of unexpected events and find out how she goes about it. I think she has grown as a woman, as a nurse and as a person. And the more I see of her, the more I like her as a character.

Charles: We have made a point never to have Bess take on a problem that doesn’t affect her personally or emotionally. She isn’t driven by avid curiosity, and she doesn’t go looking for trouble or callously meddle. It seems to find her in the course of her duties. In A DUTY TO THE DEAD, Bess had made a promise to a dying man, and she felt obligated to keep that promise, wherever it led her. And in each book since then, something has drawn her into the story. In A PATTERN OF LIES, it’s a delayed train and the chance to visit a woman she likes and admires --- Mrs. Ashton, Mark Ashton’s mother. She has no idea that this visit will involve her in the persecution they’re facing, no idea that this will lead her to search for a soldier in the middle of the war. And so she has to draw on her own resources to deal with events as they build up and seem insurmountable. That’s a good test for a character, I think.  

TBRN: What WWI storylines are you interested in pursuing in successive Bess Crawford novels?

Caroline and Charles: The war hasn’t ended yet, so there’s more to come in France and England. But we’d also like to see Bess go to Ireland soon, to attend the wedding of the nurse who was so badly injured in the sinking of the Britannic, in the first Bess mystery. She’s grateful to Bess for saving her life and her legs, and she wants Bess to stand up with her. But Ireland is in turmoil still from the Easter Rebellion, and what is going on in Ireland did affect the war effort in France. And Bess is English…. Could be an exciting decision on Bess’ part to go.

TBRN: As a male/female writing team, do you find it easier to write about a female protagonist or a male one?

Caroline: You know, as a writer, you learn to write strong females and strong males. You don’t sit there and ask yourself if you can look into the heart of someone of the opposite sex. Your experiences in life should be able to guide you when the moment comes. This isn’t to say that you don’t try to understand the opposite sex just as well as you do your own. I had a father, a husband, a son, male cousins and male friendships. And these have helped tremendously. But it goes even deeper than that. Human nature is human nature, and a writer has to study it. 

Charles: Caroline is right. You deal with people of the opposite sex every day, and if you pay attention to people, and that includes women and men and children, you are going to learn what makes them tick. It never occurred to me to ask Caroline if she was comfortable writing about a male protagonist, and I think she sees Rutledge as clearly as I do. When it came time to write the Bess Crawford series, we just did it. In the Rutledge books, there are a lot of strong women, and we just built on what we already knew how to do.

TBRN: Are there any plans for more crossover storylines between Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford?

Caroline and Charles: We never intended for Bess to marry Rutledge. That wasn’t her future. That said, you never know when stories will intersect. That’s what makes writing so exciting and challenging --- finding out what happens next. 

TBRN: In the Author's Note, you refer to the quote: "When you can't blame God, what can you do?" What is the impetus of this quote and its progression as an inspiration for A PATTERN OF LIES?

Caroline and Charles: There are said to be five stages of grief, and certainly people do ask “why me?” when something awful happens. As human beings, we seem to have a need to put things in perspective, to know where we stand. Loss is one of the hardest things to face. Sometimes it’s easy to blame God, and sometimes you desperately want to find someone to blame, if only to ease your own pain. This is one reason why conspiracy theories are so popular --- we want to settle the blame on a believable source because the truth is too hard to accept. So the question we asked ourselves as we prepared to write A PATTERN OF LIES was this: If the pain is too much to bear, when the losses are shockingly high, and they can’t blame the Germans, will people turn on someone closer at hand in the hope that somehow that will make it better? But it never really does, does it?