The Great War and Crime Fiction … Introduction
The Great War and Crime Fiction … Part 1
Robert Goddard and his ex-RAFC/RAF pilot and family black sheep James ‘Max’ Maxted start the ball rolling in our continuing look at crime fiction set in, or influenced by The Great War. Goddard introduced Maxted in 2013 with the first part of a trilogy, The Ways of the World. It is Spring 1919. The Great War is over. but a new war is beginning – a war of words and promises, both kept and broken and a war fought in the splendid hotels and conference halls of Paris. The victorious powers – Britain, France, the US, Italy and Japan – have sent their politicians and diplomats to the French capital to pick over the carcass of the old Europe. Amid the great and the good stands a young Englishman, James ‘Max’ Maxted. The ex-Royal Flying Corps pilot has come to Paris to investigate the mysterious death of his father, minor diplomat Sir Henry Maxted.
Max is used, first by an American wheeler-dealer called Ireton, then by the British Secret Service and other more shadowy organisations, to try to smoke out a German renegade called Lemmer. The story continues in The Corners of the Globe (2014). Max has still to uncover the truth about his father’s demise, and in addition to the Germans who will not accept defeat, there are some equally villainous Japanese thrown into the mix. The series concluded in 2015 with The Ends of the Earth, and it finds Max still battling the elusive Lemmer, but also locking horns with an evil Japanese aristocrat, Count Tamura. In some ways this is old-fashioned stuff, but there are hours of entertainment here for those who like their history spiced with danger and a couple of alluring femmes fatales. Max is an engaging character; a little old-school perhaps, with a nostalgic touch of Biggles and Bulldog Drummond, but equally brave and resourceful.
Robert Ryan, also known as Tom Neale, is an English author, journalist and screenwriter. He has written a host of successful adventure novels and thrillers, but our microscope focuses on his Dr Watson novels. He is not the first writer to exploit the potential of Sherlockiana, nor will he be the last. M J Trow wrote an entertaining series of books featuring the much-maligned Inspector Lestrade, so the earnest, brave, but slightly dim companion to the great Consulting Detective must surely be worth a series of his own. Ryan takes our beloved physician and puts him down amid the carnage of The Great War. Too old to fight, Watson’s medical expertise is still valuable. In Dead Man’s Land (2013) Watson investigates a murder in the trenches which is due, not to a German bullet or shell, but to something much more sinister, and much closer to home.
The Dead Can Wait followed in 2014, and our man has returned from the trenches, mentally shattered by his experience. He has little time to recuperate however, as he is called to investigate what appears to be a mass killing – in a top secret research facility set up to develop a weapon that will be decisive in ending the war.
2015 brought A Study In Murder, and Watson has mismanaged his life to the extent that he is now in a wintry prisoner of war camp, far behind German lines. It is 1917, and the outcome of the war hangs in the balance. Murder, however, is no respecter of history, and when some poor fellow inmate is murdered, ostensibly for his Red Cross food parcel, Watson smells a sizeable and malodorous rat. January 2016 brought The Sign of Fear. The rather clumsy amalgam of two canonical Sherlock Holmes stories finds the indefatigable Watson once more at home, but a home at the mercy of a new terror – bombing raids from German aircraft. Our man is forced to untangle a mystery involving kidnap and a floating ambulance sunk by a German torpedo.
Maisie Dobbs is both the title of a novel by Jacqueline Winspear, and the name of the central character in a series which has now run to twelve novels. In the first of the series we learn that Maisie has seen the worst of The Western Front during her time as a nurse, but now she has returned to an England which is definitely not a land for heroes. She uses her acquaintance with a distinguished French investigator to set up her own agency. Although the series takes Maisie through the years between the wars, right up to the rise of Nazism, the shadow of the dreadful years of The Great War is cast over many of Maisie’s cases. The author herself says:
“The war and its aftermath provide fertile ground for a mystery. Such great social upheaval allows for the strange and unusual to emerge and a time of intense emotions can, to the writer of fiction, provide ample fodder for a compelling story, especially one concerning criminal acts and issues of guilt and innocence. After all, a generation is said to have lost its innocence in The Great War. The mystery genre provides a wonderful vehicle for exploring such a time,”
Dr Jonathan Hicks is a Welsh academic with an abiding interest in The Great War, and he has written a graphic and superbly researched history of a battle which was both one of his countrymen’s finest hours, but in terms of loss of life, arguably their darkest. A detailed look at The Welsh at Mametz Wood, The Somme 1916 is outside of our remit here, but its scholarship and interpretation of history is clearly reflected in what was his first fictional Great War novel, The Dead of Mametz (2011). His central character is Captain Thomas Oscendale of the Military Foot Police, and he has a problem to solve. An attractive French widow has been found raped and murdered in a nearby town. In her clenched fingers is a button from a British army tunic. A Welsh NCO, reputedly her lover, has just turned his Lee Enfield rifle on himself after apparently killing two of his colleagues. A mysterious British officer attends the crime scene, but then disappears. As Oscendale tries to unravel the tangle of clues, he finds a map purporting to show a site in the middle of Mametz Wood where a fortune is buried. Blind-sided by German spies and a conspiracy way above his rank, Oscendale must apply his police training to combat corrupt officials, military incompetence and the disdain – bordering on hatred – felt by front-line soldiers for ‘Red Caps’.
Oscendale returned in Demons Walk Among Us (2013) and he falls for a beautiful war widow in the process. When he finds that his most likely witness to corruption in high military places has been invalided home with neurasthenia, he has to resort to drastic measures that threaten his own life and sanity. The action takes us from the dust, heat, flies and bloated corpses of 1915 Gallipoli, through the bleak and devastated flatlands of Flanders, to small-town Wales, with its shattered and impoverished war widows, deserters at their wits’ end, and heroes who have been crippled both physically and mentally. One of the strengths of the Oscendale novels is that Hicks combines the horror of The Front Line with less dramatic but equally menacing events back home in Wales.
History. Crime Fiction. Railways. It’s as if Andrew Martin has written a series of books specifically tailored to three of my abiding interests, but within his Jim Stringer, Steam Detective series there is even more icing on the cake – a pair of novels set in The Great War. Jim Stringer is a railwayman through and through, and we first met him as a young man in an intriguing account of The Necropolis Railway, where he investigated shenanigans connected with the funeral trains that used to run from near Waterloo Station out to Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey.
By 1916, however, Stringer has several years of crime detection under his belt, but he is sent to France where he survives the carnage of 1st July, and is picked out to supervise the running of ammunition trains carrying vital supplies up to the front line. The Somme Stations (2012) is both a chilling account of everyday life on The Western Front, but also an excellent murder mystery, with Stringer investigating a criminal death – as opposed to one of the scores of men killed daily by bullets and shells.
1917 sees Stringer invalided away from the trenches, but sent out to Mesopotamia to investigate apparent treachery within the British military establishment. In The Baghdad Railway Club (2012) Lieutenant-Colonel Shepherd is said to have accepted a bribe from the fleeing Turks.
Stringer goes undercover as a railway advisor to investigate, but his contact Captain Boyd is discovered murdered in an abandoned station. No further help will be sent, so Stringer is on his own catching the murderer, and preventing a giant betrayal of the British effort. He has to do so whilst navigating an unfamiliar landscape, avoiding getting caught up in an Arab uprising, fighting off a case of malaria during a sweltering Baghdad summer, and treading a careful path as he investigates members of the officer class.
We will finish with the Inspector Hardcastle novels by Graham Ison. In one sense they are well-crafted – but otherwise unremarkable – police procedurals with a period setting, but Ison has created a sequence in the series where criminal events in London are set against successive years of the war. Hardcastle is a bluff, tough, pipe-and-slippers kind of copper, but the novels have a subtle sub-plot which reflects how the war is being fought on the home front, with the inevitable shortage of manpower in the police service, and the ruthless advantage taken by those who live outside of the law. The books have a cosy tinge to them, but are none the worse for that. Ison doesn’t flinch in his portrayal of the effect of a brutal war on hard-pressed families as well as those who are financially more comfortable. For those who like a good London novel, you will find no current writer who is better than Ison at period detail and the creation of an authentic atmosphere.