“Most of the shell shock victims he’d seen in hospital had been docile, sitting with blank faces staring blindly into the abyss of their terrors, or pacing back and forth, hour after hour, as if bent on outdistancing the demons pursuing them. The violent cases had been locked away, out of sight. But he had heard them raving at night, the corridors echoing with screams and obscenities and cries for help. That had brought back the trenches so vividly that he had gone for nights without sleep and spent most of his days in an exhausted stupor that had made him seem as docile and unreachable as the others around him.”
Readers unfamiliar with the ground-breaking Ian Rutledge series by Charles and Caroline Todd, who write under the name Charles Todd (see Why I Write, p. 28), could easily think that this passage came from a nongenre novel about the Great War, rather than from 1996’s A Test of Wills, the first of 16 complex whodunits firmly rooted in the muddy battlefields of Europe (the latest, Hunting Shadows, was published in January by Morrow). But the Todds have, over the past 18 years, provided a gut-wrenching and uncompromising look at the butcher’s bill of the First World War, which at the time was billed, ironically, as the War to End All Wars. The post-traumatic stress that many soldiers bring home with them is devastatingly portrayed in the mental afflictions of Rutledge, a Scotland Yard inspector both before and after the war, who lost a piece of his soul in the slaughter on the Western Front.
At one point during the war, Rutledge ordered the execution of Corporal Hamish MacLeod because the latter disobeyed an order from Rutledge to lead yet another futile advance across No Man’s Land. Despite his death by firing squad, MacLeod is very much a part of Rutledge’s life when the policeman returns to duty in 1919, his spirit serving as an unwelcome chorus of one commenting on the twisty murder cases that Rutledge investigates. MacLeod represents perhaps the most original and complex variant on the detective’s sidekick tradition originated by Poe and epitomized by Conan Doyle. And while the books work superbly as fair-play whodunits that don’t sacrifice psychological depth for plot, their impact has gone way beyond those whose prime pleasure is allowing the reader to match wits with a brilliant sleuth. The Todds have a wide audience not traditionally associated with the genre, including veterans of Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the “war on terror”—men and women who find resonance in Rutledge’s daily struggle to stay sane and move forward despite the ghosts haunting him.
The Rutledge and MacLeod novels are a far cry from what was perhaps the first mystery to deal with WWI: the 1917 Holmes story “His Last Bow,” originally subtitled, “The War Service of Sherlock Holmes,” set on the eve of war. The story is most well known for its final, moving exchange between Holmes and Watson, which concludes with the passage, “Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.” A century after the start of WWI, most authors, like the Todds, have a far more nuanced view of the conflict; Conan Doyle’s patriotic—and naive—rhetoric is out. Several writers use their mystery plots as a framework for depicting the psychological scars of combat, as the Todds do.
That’s the approach Jacqueline Winspear adopted in her Maisie Dobbs series; the most recent, Leaving Everything Most Loved, was published in 2013 by Harper. Winspear’s grandfather was severely wounded and gassed at the Battle of the Somme in France in 1916, and her awareness of what he suffered fueled her interest in the First World War. Dobbs is a former WWI British nurse who becomes a psychologist and private investigator, and who, like Rutledge, grapples with the psychic impact of her battlefield experiences. She’s unable to separate her past and her present; her very first case as a PI dealt with men who suffered severe facial disfigurements during combat. Throughout the series’ 10 books, Winspear has examined other war-related issues, such as the cascading effect of shell-shock on the families of soldiers; the exploitation of the bereaved by phony mediums; the branding of civilian men not serving in the military as cowards by the White Feather movement; discrimination against families with Germanic names; the fate of boy soldiers, some of whom were as young as 12 when they enlisted; and the rise of English fascism in the 1930s. And, like the Todds’ work, Winspear’s books have touched a chord in American combat veterans afflicted with PTSD.
For Winspear, the mystery genre has been a “wonderful vehicle for exploring the great social upheaval created by the war and its aftermath.” She says, “The intense emotions are ample fodder for a compelling story concerning criminal acts and issues of guilt and innocence, at a time when an entire generation was said to have lost its innocence.” And while Rutledge’s casebook has spanned just two years thus far (1919–1920), Winspear’s lead, whose last outing was set in 1933, will soon find herself involved in mysteries related to the Second World War.
Rennie Airth’s Insp. John Madden returns in The Reckoning, due out in August from Viking. Madden has even more parallels to Rutledge: he’s a survivor of trench warfare who doesn’t transition easily back to civilian life as a Scotland Yard detective. In his first novel, 1999’s River of Darkness, a savage killer has massacred a family, and the weapon used, a bayonet, suggests that Madden’s quarry was also warped by his memories of the battlefields of France. Like Winspear’s series, Airth’s Madden books cover a wide historical arc. The Reckoning is set after WWII, but WWI casts a long shadow over the retired inspector’s life. Airth did not set out to write a mystery novel. River of Darkness was “simply the story that occurred to” him as a result of his learning about the “appalling suffering of the men who took part in the First World War.”
Other writers have placed their detectives in the midst of the mortars and bullet rounds during the war. Jonathan Hicks’s Welsh Capt. Thomas Oscendale of the Military Police debuted in 2011’s The Dead of Mametz (Y Lolfa), where he identifies a murderer in the ranks of the Welsh Division on the eve of a major offensive. Oscendale returned in 2013’s Demons Walk Among Us.
Anne Perry’s No Graves as Yet (Ballantine, 2003) was followed by four other novels featuring WWI British military chaplain Joseph Reavley as the detective. In one, he investigated the friendly fire that claimed the life of a general’s nephew. Perry was fascinated by changes the war wrought on society, and found that the cauldron of the war created moral dilemmas for her religious lead, who was forced to make “impossible choices” on the battlefield. She is planning a return to Reavley and his supporting cast in a new series set between 1933 and 1938 that will depict the “political and emotional lead up to the Second World War.” Perry, who survived the Blitz, hopes to show in these next books how the “horror of the First World War blinded people to the possibility that it could happen again”—a blindness that she believes is relevant to today’s geopolitics.
Not content with one acclaimed WWI-related mystery series, the Todds in 2009 launched a second one, with British nurse Bess Crawford as a dogged amateur investigator; her sixth outing, An Unwilling Accomplice, will be published by Morrow in August. Some of the murders she solves are committed in the heat of the action, while others occur on the home front.
The home front is also the setting for Graham Ison’s series, featuring Det. Insp. Ernest Hardcastle of London’s Metropolitan Police. The 12th, Hardcastle’s Quartet, due from Severn in November, involves the strange death of the wife of a naval commander in June 1918.
British author Alan Rustage, under the Sally Spencer pseudonym, has set his two most recent Inspector Blackstone novels during WWI. Blackstone and the Great War (Severn, 2012) centered on the murder of a British lieutenant in the trenches in France, and 2013’s Blackstone and the End Game took place in 1917 Russia, just before the fall of the czar. Like Winspear, Rustage came to the era via a family connection. His grandfather lied about his age to join the British army, although he refused to discuss what he went through with his grandson.
Coming full circle, Robert Ryan, who has written on WWII, has just begun a four-book series with Dead Man’s Land (Simon & Schuster U.K., 2013), demonstrating that nuance and Baker Street need not be strangers. His hero is none other than John Watson, who in 1880 was wounded in Afghanistan while serving with the British army. Ryan picked up on the reference in “His Last Bow” to the doctor’s rejoining the Royal Army Medical Corps as a starting point for an unusual whodunit. Watson notes a body with odd injuries, which proves to be that of the first victim (of many) of a sadistic killer. To research the series, Ryan made use of a collection of letters and diaries belonging to a woman whose grandmother was a nurse at the Battle of the Somme.
World War II
The so-called Good War also provides fertile ground for mystery writers. What may surprise is the number of authors whose detectives are German. The line between battlefield and home front is blurred in J. Robert Janes’s long-running series featuring Hermann Kohler of the Gestapo and Jean-Louis St-Cyr of the French Sûreté as unlikely partners. In his prologue to their 15th book, Carnival (due out from MysteriousPress.com in May), in which the pair probes two suspicious suicides, Janes poses the question the books try to answer: “During the Occupation of France the everyday crimes of murder, arson, and the like continued to be committed, and I merely ask by whom and how were they solved?” The irony implicit in the setup helps to make the novels successful: “Two honest cops fighting common crime in an age of officially-sanctioned crime on a horrendous scale,” as Janes himself characterizes it. The author is looking forward to the plotting challenges presented by the fact that the occupation in the Kohler/St-Cyr books is nearing its end: how will a liberated France view Kohler, an occupier, and St-Cyr, a collaborator with that occupier?
Kohler is not the only honest WWII-era German cop in contemporary mystery fiction. Ben Pastor’s A Dark Song of Blood, slated for an April release from Bitter Lemon, is set in 1944 Nazi-occupied Rome. The book will be the third outing for Baron Martin von Bora, “an officer in the Wehrmacht torn between his sense of duty and his opposition to SS policies.” Bora’s been assigned to Rome after running afoul of the Gestapo, and there he must solve three murders: those of a German embassy secretary, a Roman society matron, and a cardinal. Pastor observes that while, with the catastrophic loss of life, investigating a single death might appear “mundane, Bora considers every victim important.” He adds, “The tensions and excesses of a world war—the greatest crime of all—allow me to dig into my protagonist’s seemingly absurd desire to do the right thing, even if and when no one else does.”
Luke McCallin has one of the more interesting resumes of authors using the mystery genre to talk about WWII. He worked in Bosnia in the late ’90s as a political adviser to the United Nations mission, mandated to reform the country’s police forces and judiciary, as well as a relief worker. In July’s The Pale Horse (Berkley), his German hero, Capt. Gregor Reinhardt, is transferred to a new military police branch to maintain army discipline during the chaotic retreat from Greece, Montenegro, and Bosnia; after he witnesses a massacre of civilians in Sarajevo, Reinhardt discovers a high-level plot within his own government. McCallin says he was concerned that his book not be “misunderstood as an apology because Reinhardt was a German, a soldier, a servant—however unwilling—of a regime such as the Nazis.” He adds, “What I was trying to get at was the human aspect of one man caught between choices.” The impact of WWI on his lead with be explored in a forthcoming prequel, with a younger Reinhardt in the trenches and faced with a mystery to solve.
Bernie Gunther is probably the best known of these “good Germans”: he was a homicide detective during the interwar period in Berlin, described by creator Philip Kerr as a “decent guy, more or less, but something of an unreliable narrator.” His ninth outing, 2013’s A Man Without Breath (Putnam), centered on the Katyn Forest massacre. Kerr regards WWII and the events leading up to it as “the most important historical events since the fall of the Roman Empire,” with repercussions for today. “The Russians wouldn’t be so keen to hang on to Crimea if so many Red Army soldiers hadn’t died getting it back from the Germans.” Kerr rejects the genre-fiction label for the Gunther books, stating that he looks upon them as “more politico-historical novels that have stolen the clothes of crime writing.”
There are, of course, WWII-era mysteries featuring American sleuths. James Benn’s Billy Boyle is a Boston police detective whose family connections land him a position as personal investigator to General Eisenhower. September will see the publication of his ninth book, The Rest Is Silence (Soho Crime), in which Boyle deals with the fallout from the D-Day training disaster at Slapton Sands in Devon. Benn began the series out of a fascination with the period and the concept of “pursuing truth during a time of war.”
Sheldon Russell’s Hook Runyon, a one-armed railroad bull, works on the Santa Fe line near the end of WWII. The flow of German prisoners into the U.S., the pressure on the railways to haul soldiers and war supplies, strained relations between railroad companies and the unions, and the wounds and mental devastation of American soldiers returning home combine for a rich environment of tension and violence. In the 2009 series debut, The Yard Dog (Minotaur), Runyon’s look into the death of a man on railroad property brings him into contact with a nearby German POW camp; and in the latest, 2013’s The Hanging of Samuel Ash (Minotaur), he resolves to bring justice to a veteran and bearer of a Bronze Star who is found dead, hanging from a signal post, next to a remote stretch of track. Russell is another author shaped by memories of relatives who survived combat. He remembers his uncles’ “nightmares, alcoholism, and alienation.”
Another perspective on the U.S. home front during WWII comes in Scandal in the Secret City by Diane Fanning, due from Severn in November. This series features chemist Libby Clark’s experiences working at Secret City, the Tennessee installation where uranium is being processed for the first atomic bomb. The first installment turns Clark into a detective, when she alone investigates the murder of her roommate’s sister. Fanning, a veteran author of true-crime books who has written about the region before, felt that using the mystery genre to discuss this aspect of the war was a natural application of the dictum “write what you know.” The environment in the Secret City—where the workers were willing to participate in a mission whose larger purpose was unknown to them, putting up with mail censoring, monitored phone calls, and severe travel restrictions—seemed like a good setting for secrets and murder. And Sarah R. Shaber’s Louise Pearlie books star a young widow who ends up working for the OSS. In the most recent, Louise’s Dilemma (Severn, 2013), she helps a D.C. detective look into the odd death of an OSS analyst.
J. Sydney Jones, whose Viennese Mysteries are set before WWI, neatly summarizes the appeal of setting a murder mystery in wartime: “There is a certain irony in setting commonplace homicide amidst the slaughter of millions. Who cares about one death while millions are dying? But we do; that is part of what makes us human.”
If, as it has been said, truth is the first casualty of war, then what better protagonist for a wartime novel can there be than a character for whom detecting the truth behind a death is his or her raison d’être? And, sadly, as the number of more recent conflicts mounts, mystery writers have far too many choices when it comes to wartime settings.