This is an extra special read as this reprint was brought about by fellow blogger JJ, who worked with Bold Venture Press to get this book and Murder on the Way (1935), (also by Roscoe), reissued. Both JJ and Audrey Parente, (authorised biographer of Roscoe), have written introductions to this story. My interest in this book was also piqued due to it being a war based seemingly impossible crimes mystery. Impossibilities abound with an invisible assassin who is not revealed until the end. However this book is more than a whodunit and in fact spends much more narrative space detailing and recording the damage war wreaks on countries and the futility of such organised violence in general. JJ in his introduction notes an ‘anti-satirical’ style in Roscoe’s war, meaning the evils of war are confronted head on. Although this story takes place in Europe, several of the countries mentioned are renamed under pseudonyms – though these are quite thinly concealed. It seems quite obvious that Teutony is representative of Germany, whilst Esperance is France. It is only Helvania which I have not been able to connect to a specific European country. This is not surprising given the role Helvania will ultimately play in this story. Consequently this novel spoke into the times of its original publication and in some ways was quite far sighted, in the way Erskine Childer’s The Riddle of the Sands (1903) was for the WW1. The story was originally serialised in Argosy magazine in 1935 under the name War Declared.
This book has a very busy plot, so no synopsis can really do it justice without becoming overly long. However the key event at the start of the book are the murders of Victor Gatreau, Esperance’s Foreign Minister and Baron Von Speer, Teutony’s Premier. They are found dead in a locked hotel room, which was guarded from the outside. The solution to the Teutonian police seems obvious. Gatreau shot at Speer and Speer managed to kill his assailant before dying himself. This event becomes a powder keg which is quickly lit and both Teutony and Esperance begin to prepare for war. These events are seen from the viewpoint of John Keats, an American newspaper reporter. He was in Teutony to report on this meeting, along with several other reporters from around the world and given that these reporters had a room next door to the meeting, attention is certainly given to them. On the whole the reporters band together superficially, yet underneath it is evident that there is a great deal of mistrust about whether one of them did the killings – the mutual destruction theory not holding much water for them. Keats in particular is unsure who he can trust. It doesn’t help that he seems to have a personal assailant on his tail, taking pot shots at him, amongst other things. Further events follow, leading to the reporters escaping out of the country by train. Yet the war catches up with them and then some and in a way the central mystery of the book becomes swallowed up by the machinations of war as the Teutony use lightening, almost blitzkreig tactics to overwhelm their opposition. The war brings out underlying divisions and calls on everyone to decide where their loyalty truly lies, which becomes an especially pressing issue for Paul Emmerich, a pressman for a Teutony newspaper, but who is soon enlisted into the army. The war also makes the task of solving the murders particularly trying, which is commented on in the book: ‘A city was perishing in his ears but his brain spun in a puzzle more maddening than the destruction of a metropolis. Jigsaw pieces collided, fouled, half joined, fell apart in his mind.’
If Roscoe ever had to take his GCSE in English Language he would certainly get an A* for his descriptive writing. One example which particularly stood out for me was the following:
‘An astounding company of monsters followed in the wake of the Tank Corps. Anton Stehli was reminded of insects magnified gigantic by an opium dream. Huge iron measuring worms. Snorting steel grasshoppers. Nodding mechanical mantises that hissed and spat and dug and scraped at the mutilated landscape.’
However I feel like there can be too much of a good thing. In the opening chapter I enjoyed Roscoe’s descriptive style. It seemed to fit with what was going on. It felt neither overdone nor too pithy. I especially enjoyed this line: ‘The room had a way of creeping up behind him as he advanced to take a chair.’ However after this point the descriptive nature of Roscoe’s writing became almost dense, so despite all the action, the pace did feel rather slow at times. The not overdone details of the first chapter were overtaken by excessive details. But if you enjoy war fiction then this will probably not be as much of a problem for you, since the description predominately focuses on narrating the rise of a war and the mechanisms this involves, as well as looking at the suffering war inflicts. Roscoe’s tale tackles the issue of war in quite an in depth manner, looking at ranging opinions including pacifism and warmongering, as well as those who haver in the middle. Although for me I did feel like I was having to dig the mystery out of a war story, the latter dominating over the former. On the other hand though that might have been one of points Roscoe was trying to make, that war takes over everything once it starts, which is echoed in the line: ‘War exploding in the heart of the puzzle had blown the fragments a thousand ways.’ The solution once it is finally reached is ingenious, but my interest was fairly wavering at that end point and the overall showdown of the book didn’t really work for me. It was far too idealistic and jarred with the horrors of war previously mentioned. I think I perhaps don’t like war fiction enough to fully get into this story. So balance I wouldn’t say this is a bad book, as it achieves an awful lot, but that perhaps I am not the right reader for it.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Newspaper
Tom Cat at Beneath the Stains of Time has also reviewed this book here.