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?’
‘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.