Q&A: Mystery’s Busiest Duo

The mother-son team, known as Charles Todd, pen two bestselling series–one featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard, and the other combat nurse Bess Crawford. They’ve also written two stand-alone novels. Although they write one book at a time, they may also be promoting another and copyediting yet a third. Both series are set in the World War I era but have striking differences. Just like their characters, the mother-son team leads their own lives, but when it comes to solving murder, they’re on the same page.

Currents: The first, and most obvious, difference in the two series is the protagonists’ genders. Inspector Rutledge debuted first (A Test of Wills), followed by Bess Crawford (A Duty to the Dead). How were each of the characters formed, and what was your inspiration for creating the second series?

Caroline and Charles: When we decided that the only way to create a mystery set against the backdrop of the Great War was through the experiences of the British—who were in it far longer than America was—we had to figure out several things: Whether our crimes would be local or national, and who would best represent the nightmare of the trenches. Rutledge was the perfect solution—a rising star at Scotland Yard, which made him enemies, a decorated soldier who conceals his shellshock, and a damaged survivor attempting to find a way back to the man he was. For the second series, where we wanted to explore the role women played in the war, we chose a young woman unencumbered by Victorian hang-ups, who might find herself involved in murders through her duties at home and at the Front. And so, we gave her a different upbringing, one that took her to other cultures, explained her knowledge of firearms and death, and explained why she chose to become a nurse. And she took it from there. The only surprise? Rutledge worked beautifully in third person—but Bess was more exciting in first!

Currents: Why did you choose to set both the Rutledge and Crawford series in the World War I era?

Caroline and Charles: The Great War changed history, changed the 20th century and still overshadows the 21st. Look at the Middle East, Africa, Asia, the Balkans, Russia—you see how decisions made during and after the war influenced what was to happen to every part of the world. Rutledge is the human face of that war—policeman, soldier, survivor, and he tells that story well. After writing the stand alone, The Murder Stone, which touches on how women’s lives were changed by the war and its aftermath, we realized how much there was still to tell. And once we felt that Rutledge was a stable series, that we wouldn’t affect the quality of his books—or hers—we introduced Bess Crawford. And we are so glad we did, because both turned out to be people we cared about and wanted to write about.

Currents: Inspector Rutledge has some unique challenges. He suffers from PTSD–then known as shell shock–and carries with him the presence of a man he was forced to kill, Corporal Hamish MacLeod. Adding to his burden, he’s lost his fiancé, and has a chief superintendent who doesn’t want him. You’ve created not only a damaged character, but a sympathetic one. Where does he draw his strength from, and how does this man who’s somewhat broken cope with investigating the cruel nature of murder?

Caroline and Charles: We were looking for a character who could stand on his own and do what he had to do in trying circumstances. And the best way to do that was to give him a strong family background, as well as a few firm friends who could be there for him even if they couldn’t protect him. His parents are dead in 1914, he’s responsible for his younger sister, and he’s engaged, yet he goes to war, like most of Britain’s men, because he also believes in duty to King and Country. He sends young soldiers to their deaths, and they haunt him. He faces death himself, with the courage he finds somewhere, like so many others. He makes it possible for his fiancée to break their engagement, because he recognizes that he’s broken. Someone once said that everyone breaks—it’s just a matter of whether breaking makes you stronger or shatters you completely. Rutledge has seen the worst men can do to each other—and that makes him a better policeman because he has no illusions. He looks into the character of the people he questions, searching for the truth. And victims of shell shock who struggle to cope with it have a better survival rate. We wanted Rutledge to be one of them, and so he tries to deal with Hamish. At the same time, we must remember that as he fights for his sanity; he could one day lose that battle and end it all. His life hangs in the balance from book to book.

Currents: In addition to being a caring and talented nurse, Bess Crawford isn’t what many assume women of her era were. What story is she uniquely able to tell readers about this dark time in world history and the role of women?

Caroline and Charles: We wanted Bess to be a woman of her own time—and foreshadow the modern woman to come. And we did this by choosing how she was brought up. She’s upper middle class and had a good education, but instead of growing up in stifling Victorian England, she is the daughter of a serving officer in the British Army who took his wife and daughter with him to his Empire postings. She’s exposed to religions, cultures, history, that challenge Victorian stuffiness. Bess was taught to ride and shoot for her own protection, and she saw the aftermath of skirmishes and battles, where men were wounded or killed. When the Great War began in 1914, it was natural for this soldier’s daughter to want to serve. The Army taught her the meaning of duty and honor, while nursing taught her objectivity and responsibility–ideal tools for sleuthing. At the same time, the cases she becomes involved with arise from her nursing experiences, because murder didn’t stop just because there was a war on. It’s a very different perspective from Rutledge’s, because she can explore both the home front and battlefield. She’s also inside the story, so to speak, while he’s the outsider come to solve the crime. This meant we could use very different plots for each series, and that was exciting to us.

Currents: With one series featuring a Scotland Yard inspector and the other a war nurse, you address the same era from two different worlds. Rutledge has the authority of the police, but Bess must be a bit more creative at times. With all their differences, what characteristics or circumstances do they share?

Charles and Caroline: Both had the foundation of a loved childhood, a stable home life, a good education. We wanted that bedrock for them, because the war was to bring such ugliness into both their lives. Both watched the world they knew fall to pieces. Both saw broken bodies and dealt with their own fears, lost friends, had to keep up the spirits of their men or their patients, protect the people at home from the horrors they lived with daily. Both are officers in the British Army—women like Bess were given military rank to enable them to deal with high-ranking patients—and understand discipline and honor and duty. Bess comes out of the war with a strong sense of responsibility for patients who will never fully heal, while Rutledge returns to policing with a knowledge that he too has killed, even though it was for King and Country. They share that bond of forever being changed by the war, like their countrymen and women.

Currents: Your protagonists are always on the move. The under-staffed Rutledge is forced to do a lot of his own legwork, while Bess finds herself fulfilling promises or delivering messages that prove to be more telling than they seem. What are your favorite investigations the two sleuths have taken on?

Caroline and Charles: The war left Scotland Yard shorthanded, just as it had so many other aspects of British life. And in Rutledge’s case, he prefers to work alone—it helps conceal his shell shock, and at the same time enables him to follow the threads of an inquiry, however tangled they may be, until he finds the answers he believes must be there. In Bess’ case, the mysteries come out of her daily duties because that’s how she would become involved in the first place. But what about the authors’ favorite inquiries? Well, that’s awfully hard to choose because each book has been so personal. There are memories associated with each place we’ve explored, there’s discovering some terrific fact about the period that no one else has used, there are the wonderful people we often meet doing our research, and then there’s finding a depth of in a character that stays with you long after the book is written. It makes each one special. Still—what about the first book in each series? A Test of Wills (Rutledge) and A Duty to the Dead (Bess) because each of them launched us on a career that we hadn’t known was there. We’ve loved every minute of it!

Currents: Tell us briefly about your current novels in these series and what you’re working on now.

Charles and Caroline: A Cruel Deceptioncame out in October of last year, the newest of the Bess Crawford series. It takes her to the Peace Talks in Paris, and in a way to the end of the war that began with A Duty to the Dead. Next, Bess goes to Ireland for a wedding, only to be caught up in The Troubles, and very likely to find herself either shot for being English or accused of a political murder. We’ve very excited about that, and hope she is too. That will be the summer of 2021, when we are Guests of Honor at Bouchercon. But there may be a small surprise coming out this summer, and it has to do with—well, wait and see! Notice we’re still on the subject of Bess…. As for Rutledge, A Divided Loyalty has just come out, taking him not far from Stonehenge, to Avebury, one of our favorite places—and a murder that just might be so perfectly carried out that even two of Scotland Yard’s best men can’t solve it. But the one who will take the blame for failing is Rutledge. Meanwhile, we have just turned in the 2021 Rutledge, The First Body, which takes Rutledge to Shropshire and Cheshire and northern Wales, where a single death suddenly explodes in directions that even London couldn’t have predicted.

Currents: Thank you for sharing your great talent and wonderful novels with all of us.