Thursday, 10 October 2013

It's A Mystery!

I hear that next year's annual Crime & Mystery Conference at Oxford will recognise the centenary of the outbreak of World War I by taking as its theme "War in Crime Fiction".  I wish them luck with this.  War is a tricky subject, one that can be so painful to read about that the addition of a crime, particularly a murder, to the mix would seem like overkill (if you'll forgive the unintentional pun).

Writers of today are far enough away from the events of the Great War in temporal terms to be able to distance themselves from its events just long enough to attempt the feat.  Two that I can think of, off the top of my head, are Ben Elton and Carola Dunn.  I read Elton's The First Casualty some years ago, and reviewed it for Siegfried's Journal.  It was in many ways an enjoyable read, but the author seemed to be so busy trying to give his readers a history lesson (and simultaneously trying to please female readers by throwing in a bit of romance) that he clean forgot to write the convincing murder mystery he had presumably intended.  Those who picked it up because they were fans of his comedy act must have been extremely disappointed.  Still, it was a valiant attempt.

Carola Dunn's Anthem for Doomed Youth was about as different as it could be.  Capitalising on the title of a Wilfred Owen poem without ever actually mentioning any World War I poetry, it is (as I said in my review for the WOA Journal) a superficial story with entertaining moments.  Unlike Elton's novel, it is not set during the war, but a few years later; events that took place during the war link the suspects and give away most of the plot before it has been enacted.  Once again, it is not very successful as a whodunnit.

A series of mystery novels by a present-day writer that have been given a better reception are Anne Perry's series of five books set in World War I, No Graves As Yet (2003) and its successors, featuring mild-mannered academic Joseph Reavley, a character based on Perry's own grandfather, who himself served in the trenches.  I have to confess I have not read any of these myself and therefore can neither recommend nor warn you off them.  If you are intrigued enough to pick one up, you will judge for yourselves.

Go back further in time, and you find that there were indeed crime writers, during and immediately after the Great War, who used it as a theme in their work.  Their books, popular at the time, have mostly faded into obscurity.  W F Morris, a Norfolk schoolmaster and former middle-ranking army officer, obtained some success with accomplished mystery novels such as Bretherton (1929) and Behind the Lines (1930), but his works are out of print today.

Interestingly, Dorothy L Sayers' famous detective hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, wins over his audience by his humanity, revealed in part through his war experience.  A major in the Rifle Brigade, Lord Peter suffers from nightmares and flashbacks as a result of the traumatic events he witnessed, and his servant Bunter (formerly his batman) has the job of picking up the pieces.  The war does not play a direct role in the crimes and mysteries solved by Lord Peter, but it is an important aspect of the back story.  Sayers' own husband, Oswald Arthur Fleming, was disabled as a result of his war service; but, by the time she married, she had already created Wimsey in the image of her perfect man.

John Buchan's celebrated adventure story, The Thirty-Nine Steps, certainly involves crime and mystery, although it would be inaccurate to call it a crime novel.  Published in 1915, it came too early to deal with the unpleasant truths that the war would bring home, and limits itself to suggesting that Richard Hannay, by unveiling the spy ring and thwarting their plot, has reduced the danger of Britain's defeat in the forthcoming conflict.  In later works, Hannay goes on to become an army officer, and is wounded at the Battle of Loos just before the events of Greenmantle. By the time he stars in Mr Standfast, he has reached the rank of Brigadier-General.  Conscientious objectors and shell shock play a role in this last Hannay outing.  There is, by this time, no doubt that his creator understands the implications of war; Buchan's brother Alastair, a lieutenant in the Royal Scots Fusiliers, was killed in 1917.

If you would like to find out more about the C&MC conference "experience", you can read about it in somebody else's blog!
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