November Mysteries

November Mysteries

A truth universally acknowledged: War is hell.

But peace doesn’t necessarily produce a picnic, as Bess Crawford learns in “A Cruel Deception” (320 pages, William Morrow, $26.99), the 11th installment in Charles Todd’s series starring the British World War I nurse.

In 1919, Bess is back in England nursing wounded soldiers while peace talks are underway in Paris. Helena Minton, the head of the nursing organization for which Bess works, asks her to return to France for a special mission: Check on Helena’s son, Lawrence, a veteran who has been assigned as an attaché to the talks.

But when Bess arrives in Paris, Lawrence is gone, and she must trace him to St. Ives, where she finds him addicted to laudanum and being cared for by a young teacher, Marina Lascelles. Touchy and rude, troubled and reclusive, he shows signs of stress — and memory impairment caused by a recent concussion.

Fearing that whatever war-related event haunts Lawrence might drive him to suicide, Bess determines to unearth the cause of his despair. And as she investigates, more than one life is imperiled.

Todd — the pen name of a mother-and-son writing team — specializes in World War I fiction, with this series, another that features Scotland Yard detective Ian Rutledge (a WWI vet recovering from shell shock), and two stand-alone novels. Each glows with an intelligent storyline, skillfully forged characters, satin prose and immense humanity.

Appealing to heart and mind, evoking honest emotion while eschewing cheap sentiment, “A Cruel Deception” offers another superb example of Todd’s mastery of multiple talents.

***

The departure of a loved one can throw a young child’s existence into turmoil, as Jocelyn “Jo” Holt learns in Gilly Macmillan’s fourth thriller, “The Nanny” (William Morrow, $26.99, 400 pages).

The only child of aristocratic Brits Alexander and Virginia Holt, 7-year-old Jo suffers mightily when her beloved nanny, Hannah Burgess, vanishes in 1987.

She adores her dad, detests her mother and eventually makes a life for herself with husband Chris Black in California. But when he dies in an accident, Jo and their 10-year-old daughter, Ruby, must return — 30 years after Hannah’s disappearance — to her parents’ stately Lake Hall in England to live with the now-widowed Virginia.

Not long after her arrival, she’s shocked by the discovery of a human skull in the lake from which the home takes its name. But a greater stunner ensues. A woman claiming to be Hannah arrives at Lake Hall.

A consummate storyteller, Macmillan spins this clever and creepy yarn until the reader, although beginning to see light among shadows, cannot be certain of who’s a villain and who’s a victim. So well-envisaged and well-executed are her characters that numerous possibilities exist.

Macmillan escalates the menace steadily — and with numerous twists. A story of memory and identity, “The Nanny” vividly explores the darkness of families.

***

The isolated island setting holds a revered place in crime fiction — Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” is a prime example — and Julie Mayhew endows it with depth in her first adult novel, “Impossible Causes” (Bloomsbury, $26, 432 pages).

It’s set on Lark, a distant and fictional British island that Atlantic Ocean fog renders unreachable from September through March. Most of its 253 residents practice a strict form of Christianity that’s neither Catholic nor Protestant; an undercurrent of paganism also runs through the island.

The arrival of handsome science teacher Ben Hailey, grieving mother Deborah Kendrick and her daughter, Viola disrupts Lark’s insularity.

Ben’s presence resonates with fellow teacher Leah Cedars, especially when a tarot-card reading from elderly neighbor Margaritte Carruthers leads Leah to consider him her King of Cups, her true love.

Meanwhile, Viola takes an interest in the Eldest Girls, 16-year-olds Jade-Marie Ahern, Britta Sayers and Anna Duchamp, who some on Lark suspect practice witchcraft. And when a body is found at a site the trio frequents, rumors run rampant and unruly passions prevail.

As long-held secrets are revealed, Mayhew tells a tale of sin and retribution, delivered with breathtaking shocks.

Mayhew, also the author of four young-adult novels, creates an uncommon plot, fills “Impossible Causes” with a galaxy of intriguing characters and employs age-old fears as she explores the unhealthy aspects of isolation — whether wrought by geography, psychology or tribalism.

Call her novel strange. Call it unsettling. But also call it mesmerizing.

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Jay Strafford, a retired Richmond Times-Dispatch editor and writer, now lives in Florida.

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