In light of today’s anniversary I decided to have a look at mystery novels which are set in WW1. Initially I thought it wouldn’t be too tricky to come up with some titles. I got off to a great start when I remembered Edward Marston’s Home Front Detective series which now has five novels: A Bespoke Murder (2011), Instrument of Slaughter (2012), Five Dead Canaries (2013), Deeds of Darkness (2014) and Dance of Death (2015). However, after this point the list didn’t progress quite so quickly, mainly because I realised that the authors I had been thinking of, such as Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs’ novels, hadn’t set their novels during the WW1 but in its aftermath. So I didn’t feel these really counted as WW1 mysteries. I then got briefly excited by remembering John Buchan’s The 39 Steps (1915), but then recalled that the book is set during the run up to WW1.
So I eventually caved in and did a spot of googling, which did lead to a few more titles for my list. Firstly there was Charles Todd’s Bess Crawford mystery series, which has a battlefield nurse for its amateur sleuth and has eight books to its name. Todd also has another series starring Inspector Rutledge, but these books begin in 1919. Another name I came across was Anne Perry who I knew did a Victorian mystery series but it seems she has also written a series of books which follows the character Joseph Reavley through WW1. There are five books in the series beginning with No Grave As Yet (2003). A bigger surprise for me though was to find out that Ben Elton, (who wrote so many of the old BBC sitcoms that I love), has also written a crime novel set during this war entitled, The First Casualty (2005). A final author I gleamed from my internet search was Alan Rustage (penname for Sally Spencer) whose Inspector Blackstone series includes a novel set during WW1 called Blackstone and the Great War (2012).
So having written this post two main questions came up for me. Firstly, does anyone know of any other mystery novels set during WW1? In particular ones which were published at the time, as I haven’t been able to find any, though this may say more about my internet searching than anything else. Secondly, am I being too picky? Should novels set in the aftermath be allowed to count? Or should they be kept as a separate group with their specific features and tropes? A feature I felt which made such books distinct was that they are often retrospective and deal with the emotional, physical and psychological legacies of the war, in a way mystery novels set during the war can’t really do.
Of course a mystery novel very pertinent to the Remembrance anniversary is Dorothy L Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), which begins on Remembrance Day. Thanks to the Gaslight Crime blog which reviewed this book this week and reminded me of this crucial detail.