And the Country Found Them Ready*

Some events have such profound effects on us that they quite literally change the world. World War I was such an event. That war propelled us in many ways from the Victorian/Edwardian eras into the modern age. From the use of airplanes to warfare techniques to political realities to social structure to the roles of women, World War I changed the human landscape.

It was also a truly devastating war. More than eight million soldiers were killed; millions more were wounded. It’s hard to get one’s mind round a number like that in the abstract. Want something even more difficult to comprehend? It is said that at least thirteen and a half million civilians died as a result of The Great War. Many of those people were victims of the ‘flu pandemic that started in the trenches of the war. Those deaths, too, changed the human landscape.

To get a true sense of this war, though, it doesn’t just do to look at numbers. As I said, it can be hard to comprehend numbers like that. But crime fiction is full of stories of those who suffered through the war and what its effects were on them. That more personal look at the war can bring it home even more powerfully than any list of numbers could.

Agatha Christie’s fans will know for instance that she worked as a nurse during World War I, and that experience found its way into her writing. Hercule Poirot is a Belgian by birth and as we learn in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, he had to flee his own country because of World War I. In the same novel, we learn that his friend and colleague Arthur Hastings was wounded in that war. Hastings goes to Styles Court, the home of an old friend John Cavendish, to recuperate and is drawn into the investigation when Cavendish’s stepmother Emily Inglethorp is poisoned. Although the family is one of the ‘better’ families, that doesn’t mean they’re immune to wartime realities. Everything – even every scrap of paper – is conserved. Dinner is moved to a then-unfashionably early time to save on the need for electricity. Cavendish’s wife Mary works as what was later called a Land Girl. The main reason the family has access to fuel for the car is that Emily Inglethorp is involved in several civic activities. The war affected even the ‘best’ families.

There’s another glimpse of the Great War in Christie’s The Murder on the Links. At the beginning of that novel, Hastings is on board a train heading back from Paris to London. Along the way he meets a fellow passenger and the two get involved in conversation:

 

‘We passed through Amiens. The name awakened many memories. My companion seemed to have an intuitive knowledge of what was in my mind.
‘Thinking of the War?’
I nodded.
‘You were through it, I suppose?’
‘Pretty well. I was wounded once, and after the Somme they invalided me out altogether.’

 

Hastings doesn’t get much time to mull over the war, as shortly after his return, he and Poirot are drawn into the case of the murder of wealthy Canadian émigré Paul Renauld.

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs has seen more than her share of World War I. She’s a former nurse who sets up her own detective agency after the Great War. But she hasn’t really been able to leave the war behind. For one thing, there’s her former love Simon Lynch, who was a doctor until a wartime tragedy changed that forever. As the series goes on Maisie has to face the truth of what happened to Simon and go on. Winspear’s series addresses the psychological fallout from that catastrophe. Here, for instance, is what Dobbs’ assistant Billy Beale says about it in Maisie Dobbs, the first novel in the series:

 

‘I tell you, sometimes I think we’re like the waking dead. Livin’ our lives during the day, normal like, then trying to forget something what ‘appened years ago. It’s like going to the picture ‘ouse, only the picture’s all in me ‘ead.’

 

Today we’d call that post-traumatic stress disorder, but at the time it was called shell shock, and we see that reflected throughout this series.

Mother-and-son writing team ‘Charles Todd’ has created two World War I-themed series. One features Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge, who took time away from his police duties during the Great War. What he doesn’t tell anyone is that he is not the same person psychologically when he returns from the war as the one who left. He has been severely scarred by his wartime experience, especially by an incident in which he was forced to kill Corporal Hamish MacLeod. He also feels a strong sense of survivor’s guilt. So he’s quite psychologically fragile when he takes up his work at Scotland Yard again. Rutledge’s efforts to keep what’s left of his sanity form an important thread through this series.

The Charles Todd team has also created a series featuring amateur sleuth Bess Crawford, a World War I nurse. While she doesn’t face the same deep psychological scars as Rutledge does, she sees her share of trauma and it affects her as it would anyone.

There are also several novels that explore the after-effects of World War I for civilians. For instance, Chris Womersley’s Bereft takes place in the small town of Flint, New South Wales, where Quinn returns, scarred in more ways than one, after having served in the Somme. He comes back to town to find it in the grip of the post-war ‘flu pandemic. The misery and death, and the panic that comes with them, add a layer of sadness to the already bleak story of the Walker family. Ten years before the events in this novel, Walker’s younger sister was brutally murdered and everyone, including Walker’s own father, believes that he is guilty. So he knows that if he makes himself known in town he’ll likely be killed. Walker hides out in the fields around the town where he meets a twelve-year-old orphan Sadie Fox, who’s hiding out herself in an old abandoned shack. With Sadie’s support, Walker finds the courage he needs to let his mother know he’s alive and to piece together what really happened on the day his sister was murdered.

Bereft isn’t a happy novel and perhaps that’s as it should be. World War I brought much suffering and death, and not just to those who were actually in combat.  It was supposed to be the War to End All Wars. Sadly, it wasn’t…   As we stop this Remembrance Day to reflect on those who’ve served bravely and lost their lives in war, I invite you to give back to them. Find a veterns’ charity you feel comfortable with and support it. It’s the very least we can do. Need ideas? Feel free to email me (margotkinberg(at)gmail(dot)com).

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lena Ford and Ivor Novello’s Keep the Home Fires Burning.

18 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Charles Todd, Chris Womersley, Jacqueline Winspear

18 responses to “And the Country Found Them Ready*

  1. Margot, vyry many thanks for this excelent and thought-provoking post. This is a fascinating topic, and one that, by strange coincidence, I’m currently researching. I think the generation of writers, including Christie, who made the Golden Age what it was, were significantly affected by the war and the consequences of war. This is the case not just with, say, Anthony Berkeley, who was gassed, but also Dorothy L. Sayers,who found the post-war period very challenging, both in her private life and financially; I am sure those challenges had a big effect on her writing..

    • Martin – Thanks for your kind words. The World War I era had such profound effects that I can’t really see how one could have lived through it and not be impacted in some major ways. I didn’t know that Berkeley had been gassed; that must have been horrible for him. I’m glad you mentioned Sayers, too, as I neglected to include her in this post and should have. Certainly the war affected her and so did the post-war era.
       
      I’m intrigued that you’re researching this time period. I hope we’ll be reading at least some of what you’ve learned.

  2. Skywatcher

    Sayers had Lord Peter Wimsey suffer from shell-shock. In the first book WHOSE BODY? he initially comes across as a rather shallow silly-ass, but towards the end of the story he suffers from a relapse, believing that he is back in the trenches and we realise that his carefree attitude is just a front. A lot of the rather hysterical partying that we hear about in the 1920s came from a desire to try to forget the experience of the war. The 1914-1918 conflict gradually receded from the lives of those involved, but it never entirely went away. Even in Sayers later books from the 30s it still is seen to have an effect on the lives of some of the supporting characters.

    • Stkywatcher – Thank you for mentioning Lord Peter Wimsey. I should have included his experience with shell shock and didn’t. So I’m glad you’ve filled in the gap that I left. And you’re quite right; those terrible war years did lasting damage and that comes through in Sayers’ work. Interesting too that you mention the ’20’s as a reaction to the war. I certainly see that point clearly. I’d also argue that the apathy about many events and the isolationism of the ’20’s had at least in part the same roots.

  3. i remember reading Agatha Christie when i was younger…who would have thought. i enjoyed reading your post! very informative. new follower here, hello!

    • Tammy – Hello, and thank you for your visit and for the kind words. Agatha Christie really did have an interesting life. The more I learn about her, the more interesting I find her.

  4. Margot: I have read books featuring Maisie, Ian and Bess. I would add the Inspector Madden mysteries of Rennie Airth. In every book the impact of the war still looms large in their lives.

    Mainly I would like to remember in this comment a real life Australian soldier, Billy Sing. There is a fine biography – Gallipoli Sniper by John Hamilton. The part Chinese Sing was Australia’s best sniper in WW I recording as many as 300 kills – each one carefully sighted by him. One of his commanders chillingly referred to him as the Anzac Angel of death. After the war he struggled in relationships and work dying in extreme poverty. The war afflicted him for the rest of his life. There was no peace for Sing.

    • Bill – Thanks for sharing the story of Billy Sing. What a tragic example of the war’s impact. I’m glad you recommended that biography; I should read it. And thanks for filling in the gap I left by not including Rennie Airth’s work. There’s definitely a sense of the war’s effects in that series.

  5. A very inspiring and thought provoking post Margot. From these writers you mentions, and many others, we can get a sense of how war effected just not those fighting, but those at the home front. It also shows how war lingers physically and mentally and even is sometimes felt by the next generation that wasn’t even involved. A wonderful post to help us reflect on how so many have given so much.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

    • Mason – Thank you :-) – You’ve highlighted something really important. The effects of this war (well, all wars really) are not just confined to the generation that actually goes to war. Effects of war linger on much longer than that. And as you say, wars are not just fought on the battle lines. They reach the home front too and affect everyone there, sometimes in a devastating way…

  6. One of my favourite crime writers – Reginald Hill – wrote about the effect of World War I on some of his characters – in The Wood Beyond (1996). In that book Hill goes into sthe story of Pascoe’s great-grandfather who was executed for cowardice at Ypres. Pascoe finds out about this after a bizarre request of his grandmother after her death. Hill also wrote a non-mystery called No Man’s Land which is well worth reading for those of us who like our history novelized. Of course you can’t beat the Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker who I just read yesterday has a new book out about WWI. Non mysteries also.

    • Jan – I am so glad you mentioned The Wood Beyond. There is never enough room in one blog post to mention all of the great crime fiction out there, so I’m very happy you brought this one up. It’s definitely an example of the way WWI reached forward, if you will. I’ve not (yet) read No Man’s Land, so thanks for that recommendation and the Barker trilogy. More for me to read. :-)

  7. Although I haven’t read the last few, I loved the Winspear books. So many writers seem to use this period to great success.

  8. There are so many ways to support our veterans. The Wounded Warrior Project seems like a good choice to me.

    I haven’t read any of Winspear’s books yet, but I do Have two waiting in my bookcase…

    • Pat – I really like the Wounded Warrior Project myself. I recommend it for those who would like to do something to support veterans and their families. Thanks for mentioning it. And I hope that, if you get the chance to read some Jacqueline Winspear, you’ll like her work.

  9. I really liked ‘Bereft’ and it was one of my favourite reads this year. Carolyn Morwoord’s ‘Death and the Spanish Lady’ was set at the same time but was a more traditiona; murder mystery but still very good.

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