Reginald Hill (1936-2012) found fame if not fortune with his series of books and TV adaptations featuring the irascible and unreconstructed chauvinist Andrew Dalziel and his ‘New Man’ assistant Peter Pascoe. Hill wrote just as many stand-alone novels, and the one which concerns us here is his sadly neglected 1985 story, No Man’s Land. Hill takes one of the enduring legends of WWI – that there were roaming bands of deserters of all nationalities who eked out a criminal existence between the front lines. There are three main characters: from the British trenches comes Josh Routledge, a naïve country boy who has witnessed his brother’s court martial and subsequent execution for cowardice; Lothar Von Seeberg is an aristocratic German who has fled the conflict for complex personal reasons; Arthur Viney is a braggadocio Australian who has assembled a mismatched collection of deserters, and named them ‘Viney’s Volunteers. The conflict is never far away, however, and there is also an interesting and tragic interaction between the brigands and a French peasant family.
No Man’s Land is available here
Anne Perry has penned several series of superb historical novels, but the ones which concern us here are grouped together as a quintet. All five have a title taken from poems by, in order, GK Chesterton, AE Housman, Siegfried Sassoon, Alan Seeger and John McCrae.
These highly enjoyable novels chart the war years as experienced through the eyes of Joseph Reavley, an army chaplain who, in each book, plays amateur detective and investigates murders. There is a sub-plot of espionage, involving people in high places, and a recurring – and malign – character named The Peacemaker looms over proceedings. The books work very well as detective stories, and Perry has years of experience at blending crime with period settings. She has been careful to put each plotline in the context of the big events of each year; No Graves As Yet, for example, sets us down in the elegaic final summer of peace, in an England which was still Edwardian in spirit despite the old King being four years gone; in Shoulder The Sky Reavley searches for the killer of a war correspondent whose honesty made him a marked man, and his quest for answers takes him from one military debacle to another, in this case from Ypres to Gallipoli. Perry writes with great conviction and, as with her other books, mixes intrigue, adventure, high drama and impeccable period detail.
The Reavley Quintet is available as a set on Kindle
The First Casualty (2005), saw stand-up comedian Ben Elton continuing a not-altogether-successful foray into the world of serious fiction. He is to be commended for placing a largely unsympathetic character at the centre of his story, but the misadventures of Douglas Kingsley, a career policeman but now a conscientious objector, tend to involve issues such as homosexuality, feminism, pacifism and the Irish Question, which were more on people’s lips at the time of Elton’s TV fame than during the period of WWI itself. Kingsley is thrown in jail because of his stance on the war, and is then abused by criminals who attribute their incarceration to his devotion to duty as a copper. The apparent murder of a rebellious soldier poet (a thinly disguised Siegfried Sassoon) and the sexual misdeeds of his wife Agnes give Kingsley plenty to think about.
The First Casualty is still available in hardback, paperback and Kindle
Rennie Airth has written a series of novels featuring a retired policeman and WWI veteran, John Madden. I am giving these an honorary mention, as Madden’s whole approach to life, his attitude towards detection, and his views on criminality are all profoundly influenced by his experience in the trenches, and when Manning is centre stage, his musings frequently recall his wartime experiences. The first of the series is River of Darkness (1999), and the events take place in 1921, when men were still dying of war wounds, and many of the country’s war memorials had still to be dedicated. Madden has returned from the war and is now a top detective with Scotland Yard. He is called down to investigate a savage multiple murder in rural Surrey, and he becomes convinced that the brutality of the killings is linked to events that happened during the war, and that the perpetrator, like Madden himself, has been left with scars that are both physical and mental. You might like to read the Fully Booked review of a later John Madden novel, The Dead of Winter.
Check here for buying options for River of Darkness
Charles Todd is actually Charles and Caroline Todd, an American mother-and-son writing team. They have a sufficient fascination with the Great War to have developed two series of novels centred around the conflict. One features a young woman called Bess Crawford, who manages to combine the grim task of being a nurse tending to the appalling violence inflicted upon the bodies of young men fighting in the trenches, with a determination to get to the bottom of various mysteries which have more to do with individual human failings than with the inexorable mincing machine of the war. Her investigations are sometimes within sound of German guns, but also nearer home, such as in An Unwilling Accomplice (2014), when she has to accompany a celebrity wounded soldier to Buckingham Palace to receive a gallantry award, only to have him escape his wheelchair and commit a savage murder. The Todds have also invested time and words to bring to life the character of Detective Inspector Ian Rutledge, a man who suspended his police career to fight for King and Country. He returns to the police force after the war, but finds that the blood-soaked years have left a bitter legacy, such as in A Lonely Death (2011), when he is called to investigate a series of killings in a Sussex village, and finds that the deaths are all connected with the wartime service of the victims.
You can find more Bess Crawford mysteries here.
I’ll conclude this first part of the feature with a quick glimpse at a trio of curiosities, where the novel gives a fleeting but significant nod to The Great War. In 1917, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published a collection of Holmes stories dating back across the first years of the century. In the concluding story His Last Bow: an epilogue of Sherlock Holmes, the great man disposes of a particularly dastardly German spy, and as the story finishes, he says,
“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. Start her up, Watson, for it’s time that we were on our way.”
Dorothy L Sayers published her classic mystery The Nine Tailors as late as 1934. This was just the latest in a series which had been running since the 1920s, but by then readers will have become used to the fact that Lord Peter Wimsey served on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918, reaching the rank of Major in the Rifle Brigade, and that he met his manservant, Bunter, in the war, and they had agreed that if they were both to survive the war, Bunter would become Wimsey’s valet. The plot of The Nine Tailors is fiendishly complex, but part of the narrative is that a body found in the churchyard is believed to be that of Arthur Cobbleigh, a British soldier listed as missing in action in 1918, but who evidently deserted and stayed in France after the war.
Anthony Price has written many spy thrillers tinged with elements of military history, and in Other Paths To Glory (1974) he uses abandoned German fortifications deep beneath the French countryside as the central feature of the novel, most of which is set in the present day world of international realpolitik. As the bunkers in the novel are set in the Somme region, it is highly likely that they are modeled on the astonishing engineering of The Schwaben Redoubt, near Thiepval. The Redoubt was one of the most impregnable defences on The Western front, and it cost many thousands of lives before it was finally taken. The book is the fifth in the series featuring Dr David Audley and Colonel Jack Butler, counter-intelligence agents who work for an organization modeled on MI5.