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Mystery author Todd to appear in Baltimore, discuss Bess Crawford novel

It started almost as a whim, the kind of offhand comment that the writer Caroline Todd tossed off without thinking. She and her adult son, Charles, both passionate history buffs, were visiting a military park in South Carolina one day in the 1990s — and discussing a puzzling death connected with the site.

"I said, half-joking and half-serious, 'As much as you and I know about history, we should write a mystery that's set on a battlefield,'" Caroline Todd says over the phone from her home in Delaware.

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Two decades later, the pair have written 26 novels. Each has been located on or near a combat zone — not during the Revolutionary or Civil Wars, but in World War I. Seventeen novels trace the career of Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge, who is suffering from shell shock and is tormented by the voice of the young Scottish soldier he executed. Another seven novels follow Bess Crawford, a nurse and amateur sleuth serving on the front lines in France. The Todds have also written two stand-alone novels.

"Bess is a much lighter character than Rutledge because she has no baggage to overcome," Caroline Todd says. "We find that the summer story balances out the winter story. Writing about Bess is a way to unwind — if you consider writing 400 pages relaxing."

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Caroline Todd is coming to Baltimore on Tuesday as the featured speaker in The Sun Book Club. She'll discuss the newest Bess Crawford mystery, "A Pattern of Lies."

The novel is loosely based on a real-life explosion in the Oare Gunpowder Works in Kent, England, that killed more than 100 people on April 2, 1916. In the novel, Bess works to clear the name of the owner of the Ashton Powder Mill after a wartime explosion triggers a vicious network of gossip and rumor that culminates in Philip Ashton's arrest for murder.

Caroline Todd will be traveling solo for the Baltimore trip; Charles Todd will be in London, meeting with editors. But that just means that she'll have the final word without fear of contradiction.

"We joke that he'll get revenge by crashing my computer," she says, "and I'll get revenge by crashing his parties."

Why World War I?

We're history buffs. If you study history, you're going to study war.

We didn't want to write a story in the modern setting where the detective sends the materials to the lab and the lab tells the answer. We wanted to go back to the old tradition, where a policeman or detective solves the crime based on what he knew.

World War I was perfect for that. It was modern enough that there were telephones and cars, and people spoke in much the same way that we speak now. People were very modern in their outlook in many ways.

How did you settle on the name "Charles Todd"?

My first name is Caroline and my son's first name is Charles, and they're both from the same Latin root: Carolus. "Todd" is my maiden name; my married name [which also is Charles' last name] is too long. When you're writing a book, you don't want your name to be printed so small on the spine that people can't spot it from across a crowded room.

Writing is hard enough when just one person is involved. How do you and your son write together without killing each other?

When we started, we didn't really know what we were doing, so we made up our own rules. The process is that we have to get the first page and first scene and first chapter right, and then the book builds on itself.

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We talk about the first scene, and then we each write something down and pass it back and forth. One of us will say, "No, I don't like this word; let's use that word."

It takes far longer to write the first scene than it does to write the rest of the book.

Usually, we don't know who has committed the crime until Rutledge or Bess does. Characters are very interesting, and it's fascinating to see where they will take you. They're so real that I dream about them sometimes.

How do you and Charles work things out when you disagree?

We have had some very interesting yelling matches. Whenever there's a real problem, it's always solved by asking "Well, what would this character have done?" We try to decide what suits the character and the story rather than what satisfies us.

This question is about style. Why do you break up sentences when you write?

It's more conversational. Many times when you're talking to somebody, you'll start a sentence but you won't finish it, or you'll change what you're going to say. Copy editors always want you to have subject, verb and object, but nobody talks like that in real life.

If you're going to write conversation, you've got to find out what the rhythm of the speech is. If you can get the rhythm of the speech right, you can cover a lot of territory without putting it in a form that American readers will struggle with.

"A Pattern of Lies" takes place in the autumn of 1918, just a few months before the war ends. Will Armistice be the end of the Bess Crawford mysteries?

There will be one more book that takes place while the war is still going on, and then we'll write the end-of-the-war book. But that doesn't mean the series will end.

Bess is a nurse. Even though the fighting ends, the war isn't going to be over for a lot of people. A lot of soldiers were badly injured, and they're going to have to get everyone back home.

Bess has a friend from the very first book who is going to get married and invite Bess to stand up with her. That could take Bess to Ireland during The Troubles. Or, she might go back to India, where she grew up.

There's a lot she can still do.

About the Book

"A Pattern of Lies: A Bess Crawford Mystery" was published Aug. 18 by William Morrow and Company. 325 pages, $25.99

If you go

Author Caroline Todd (aka half of "Charles Todd") speaks at 7 p.m. Tuesday at The Baltimore Sun, 501 N. Calvert St. Tickets cost $15; to order, go to eventbrite.com and search for "Charles Todd," or call Sun marketing director Renee Mutchnik, 410-332-6431.

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