Picking Up the Pieces of My Sweet Shattered Dream*

Post-WarWorld War II ended in 1945. But the world was not magically made right again after the war. There were many scattered pieces, if I may put it that way, to be picked up, and millions of shattered lives to be put back together. And that’s to say nothing of the myriad unanswered questions and difficult challenges the war left behind. Let’s take a quick look today at the way that uncertain time is addressed in crime fiction. As you can imagine, I’ve only space to mention a few examples here. I’m sure you’ll be able to fill in the gaps far better than I could anyway.

Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide) was published in 1948. In it, Lynn Marchmont has recently been demobbed from wartime service in the Wrens. She comes home to the village of Warmsley Vale to pick up her life and instead, gets mixed up in a case of murder. Her family has always depended on patriarch Gordon Cloade for financial support but that all changes when Cloade marries Rosaleen Underhay, a widow he’s met on a ship. Tragically, Cloade is killed in a bomb blast before he can change his will so at his death, Rosaleen is set to inherit everything. Then a stranger comes to Warmsley Vale with possible information that Rosaleen’s first husband is actually still alive. If so, she can’t inherit Cloade’s fortune. When two different members of the Cloade family visit Hercule Poirot, asking for his help in the case, he takes an interest. Then, the stranger is suddenly killed; now Poirot gets involved in the murder investigation. Throughout the novel, we see the financial havoc the war has wrought. People are scraping by at best and some are not even doing that well. We also see how difficult the war has been on those who were a part of it. Lynn Marchmont for instance has had to make a sudden and very abrupt change from the danger and excitement of war to the quiet and impoverished life Warmsley Vale offers. It’s a very difficult transition, even for those who didn’t participate in combat. For those who did, it’s even more challenging.

Just ask Charlie Berlin, the Melbourne cop we meet in Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947. Berlin’s recently back from service in Europe, where he also spent some time in a POW camp. Although he’s not the stereotypical demon-haunted, alcoholic detective, he does have what would later be called PTSD. He deals with nightmares and terrible memories. Berlin is seconded to Wodonga to help the local police track down a motorcycle gang that’s been responsible for a series of robberies. Since the latest incident has resulted in severe injuries, the police and the public are eager to see the gang stopped. Berlin’s just starting to find some answers when the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. At first it’s thought that her death is related to the robberies. It’s not though, and soon Berlin has two cases on his hands. Along with the actual investigation, we get a look in this novel at the lingering resentment against people who’ve been The Enemy for years. That enmity didn’t just vanish when the war ended and McGeachin addresses that.

McGeachin also touches on life for Jews who left Germany either just before the war or as a result of being displaced by the war. Jews were not warmly welcomed everywhere, even by people who abhorred the Holocaust. We also see that theme in Sara Paretsky’s Total Recall. In that novel, Dr. Charlotte ‘Lotty’ Herschel asks her friend Chicago PI V.I. Warshawski to do a personal sort of investigation. Herschel has recently heard from Paul Rabudka, who claims to be a Holocaust survivor looking for as many members of his family as he can find. Herschel’s own family escaped Austria just ahead of the Nazis and ended up in the United States, but it was a harrowing journey and Herschel wants to forget as much of it as she can. Still, she doesn’t want to ignore Rabudka’s contact. Warshawski agrees to investigate and finds some very dark secrets buried in the past.

Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past highlights the enmity that lingered between Swedes who collaborated with the Nazis and those who resisted them. In that novel, two young people, Wilma Persson  and Simon Kyrö, go on a diving exploration of a World-War II-era plane that went down in Lake Vittangijärvi. Someone traps the young people under the ice, killing both of them. Several months later Wilma’s body surfaces and police inspectors Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate the murders. One of the important threads running through this case is the reality that the end of World War II did not erase the hatreds that had developed because of it. We also see this theme in Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast.

One of the many other challenges that arose after World War II was the status of people whose roles had changed because of the war. For instance, millions of women worked in factories to support the war effort. When the war ended, many were not so eager to return to the proverbial kitchen. Women began to see other roles for themselves. We see that in the character of Rebecca Green, whom we meet in The Digger’s Rest Hotel (See above). She’s a journalist/photographer for the Argus, and wants very much to make her way in what is still a man’s world. She isn’t interested at the moment in the ‘hearth and home’ role assigned to women. In her determination to be taken seriously as a professional, we see the challenge that women faced in a post-war world that wasn’t sure how to see them.

The end of the war meant that a lot of people faced job challenges. Factories that had geared up for the war effort had to either close or change their focus. Soldiers came home and needed jobs. All of this had profound effects on work life. We see this in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, the first of his Ezekial ‘Easy’ Rawlins novels. Rawlins has recently lost his job working in a warplane factory. Since he is African-American there are few job opportunities open to him, but he has the same financial obligations as anyone else. This motivates him to accept the offer when DeWitt Albright hires him as an unofficial private investigator. Albright is looking for Daphne Monet, who’s been known to frequent bars in the Black community. The idea is that since Rawlins knows Watts (Los Angeles) very well, he’ll know where to look for her. This turns out to be much more complicated and dangerous a case than a simple search for a missing woman, and it shows how an entire community was affected by the financial upheavals of the war.

There was also the serious question of war criminals. In Stuart Neville’s Ratlines, Gordon Ferris’ Glasgow novels featuring Douglas Brodie, and Philip Kerr’s more recent novels featuring Bernie Gunther, we get a look at the way Nazi criminals escaped (or tried to escape) after the war. We also learn the stories of those who risked their lives to find them. There are other novels too, some that fall into the category of crime fiction and some that are more espionage thrillers, in which the protagonist goes after Nazi criminals and those who support them.

And Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case explores the legal ramifications of German law that related to war criminals. Fabrizio Collini, who emigrated to Germany decades ago, is arrested for murder in the shooting death of Jean-Baptiste Meyer. Caspar Leinen is ‘on duty’ as a legal aid and is assigned to represent Collini. It seems like a very solid case, as Collini offers no alibi and says nothing to defend himself. In fact, he says nearly nothing at all. But Leinen wants to do his best by his client, so he delves more deeply into the incident and the lives of both men.  What he finds is an obscure but vital point of German law that’s had a profound impact. As Leinen investigates, we also see how deep wartime wounds have really gone.

There are other novels too that address the post-war world and the way people tried to pick up their lives again; this is just a smattering. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gordon Lightfoot’s Carefree Highway.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Ferdinand von Schirach, Geoffrey McGeachin, Gordon Ferris, Jo Nesbø, Philip Kerr, Sara Paretsky, Stuart Neville, Walter Mosley

48 responses to “Picking Up the Pieces of My Sweet Shattered Dream*

  1. Carlo Lucarelli’s Inspector De Luca series takes place mostly during the Second World War, which of course was very different indeed in Fascist Italy (the lawgivers being almost worse criminals than the criminals). The last book in the series of course deals with the aftermath of the war and the really difficult first free elections in a country trying to come to terms with its past.
    Another thriller which I read not that long ago was ‘The Bleiberg Project’ by David Khara. which deals with the nefarious experiments conducted by the Nazis during the war, and then how the principles of science are betrayed by governments or associations without scruples. Although the international conspiracy thing has been overdone, there is something really quite sad and very honest about the way the horrors of war and the unexpected, long-term effects on individuals are described.

    • Marina Sofia. I’m so glad you mentioned the Carlo Lucarelli series. That’s one I have meant to keep up on but haven’t done. One thing that really does fascinate me about the series is exactly what you mentioned about the perspective. We really do get to see the Italian perspective on the war (There’s a little of that in The Collini Case too). I must dive back into those novels. And thank you also for mentioning the Khara. It’s a stark reminder that governments or groups without ethical principles are incredibly dangerous.

  2. Hi Margot

    Coincidentally, I’m just writing a mini-post on the same topic. Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke is populated almost entirely by WWII veterans and the war has cast a long shadow of violence over London. Plus most of the characters still behave as though they were in the Army.

    • Rich – Oh, I’m looking forward to your post. And thanks for mentioning the Allingham which of course does focus on WWII’s aftermath. It’s a terrific example of what I had in mind with this post. Great minds 😉 – I’m very glad you filled in that gap.

  3. One of the more offbeat DI Napoleon Bonaparte mysteries of Arthur Upfield is “The Mountains Have a Secret.” After the end of World War II, Bony finds himself investigating the disappearance of a couple of young women, not to mention a possibly related murder. While investigating that, he stumbles on a much wider and more terrifying conspiracy involving a powerful and dangerous group sympathetic to Hitler and his goals. Bony barely escapes with his life, as I recall, and the novel veers over almost into fantasy at the end, but the story serves as a reminder that even after the end of the war, there were still plenty of Nazi sympathizers remaining.

    • Les – There were indeed, and I’m glad you mentioned that Bony novel. It shows that the Axis powers losing the war doesn’t mean that Nazism lost all of its devotees. As I read your comment, I’m also thinking of Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders. That one doesn’t take place after the war, but during it. Still, one of its themes is the impact of Nazi sympathy in Australia.

  4. I’m glad you mentioned Gordon Ferris and the ‘Douglas Brodie’ novels. I’ve just read the fourth and last in the series and think that taken together they are one of the finest portrayals in fiction of a man trying to come to terms with his wartime experiences and find a way to get back to living in a still-quivering peacetime society. I’m sad they’ve finished but think he’s done the right thing not to drag the series on too long – I suspect that would have diminished their impact.

    • FictionFan – Isn’t it a great series?! In my opinion it’s best appreciated as a whole, but even the first one is a good indicator of the character’s quality and the story. You make an interesting point too about keeping the series going for too long. There are series that might lose their spark if left too long; this is one of them. Folks, do try it.

  5. LIke Rich, my first thought was Margery Allingham’s Tiger in the Smoke, which does that post-War atmosphere so well. Quite a lot of British murder stories of the era feature the demobbed soldiers, the restless people, the ones who had a different and exciting life during the War, and now can’t settle – Roger Bax’s Blueprint for Murder is one example. It’s also reflected in other Christies of the era – she often has characters comment on how things have changed. She always has them say ‘no-one knows who anyone is any more’ – ie people could be impostors, untrustworthy. (eg A Murder is Announced.) But frankly there were quite enough impostors and strangers in her pre-War books, it’s not a wholly convincing claim!

    • Moira – No, it’s not! But she does make an interesting overall commentary on how much life changed after the war. And it really did. People couldn’t depend on life as it had been. And one of the interesting points Christie makes in several of her novels is how many records and so on were destroyed during the war. Although I agree that her claim isn’t wholly convincing, she does have a point about that. And you do about Tiger in the Smoke. I’m so very glad you and Rich mentioned it. That was a gap that very much needed to be filled.

  6. A really interesting and thought-provoking post, Margot.

  7. I was interested to read in Agatha Christie’s autobiography that the character of Poirot was a Belgian refugee from World War I, inspired by a real-life community she observed in her own village. I wish she’d written a novel about Poirot’s early life. There’s an idea: “Young Poirot” (or perhaps it has already been done, though it would have to be authorised through the estate, wouldn’t it?).

    • Caron – As far as I know (but someone please correct me if I’m mistaken), there hasn’t been any exploration of Poirot’s early life. Christie herself seems to have left that story untold. I wonder what she’d have written about him if she had explored his early life. That’s an interesting question! Of course, Christie is said to have got quite fed up with him as the series went on, so perhaps she wouldn’t have been interested in that sort of story as her career went on. But it is interesting.

      • Yes. There must be a reason why no one has written it: perhaps the estate won’t allow it (which may have been stipulated by Christie herself). She also said she wished she’d made him much younger when she started writing about him, but she had no idea the character would last so long.

        • That’s a good point, Caron. It probably has something to do with what the estate would(n’t) permit. I wonder what would have happened if Christie had made him younger when she started writing him…

  8. Margot: The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth was the first work of fiction I read about escaping Nazis after WW II.

    One of the most challenging post-WW II mysteries I have read is The Good German by Joseph Kanon. It skilfully explores who was and is a good German.

    • Bill – Oh, that’s a great novel (The Odessa File). It really does take a solid and frightening look at what happened to escaping Nazis. And thank you (!) for filling in the gap I left in not mentioning The Good German – a perfect example of the kind of deep and difficult questions the war left. That sort of soul-searching may be challenging to read, but it gives one much food for thought.

  9. What an excellent post, Margot – thank you. You really highlight the very varied ways in which crime writers have engaged with the legacy of the Second World War. As you know, I have an academic interest in this area, and one of the things I’ve been doing is putting together a database of ‘Nazi -themed’ crime novels – novels that are either set during the Nazi period or engage with the legacy of National Socialism after 1945. Your focus has obviously been a bit broader in this post, but your readers might be interested in the list, which currently contains around 150 crime novels from around the world. It’s available here and contains links back to posts and discussions on Mrs Peabody Investigates: http://mrspeabodyinvestigates.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/detecting-the-past-nazi-themed-crime-fiction-database-with-hyperlinks-june-2013.pdf

    I’ve picked up some new ones from your post and the comments so far – thank you all!

    One the subject of Lucarelli – and having seen MarinaSofia’s comment – Brian and I were having a chat on the blog about the first novel in the series – Carte Blanche, set in 44-45 – and its TV adaptation, which was shown in the UK a couple of weeks ago. We both noticed that the central character of de Luca had been softened a little: in the novel it’s made very clear that he served with Mussolini’s political police and is therefore not as neutral as he might think, but this is something that’s glossed over in the TV adaptation.

    • Mrs. P. – Thank you very much for the kind words. That means a lot to me coming from someone with your expertise. I appreciate it. And thank you also for that extremely interesting and helpful resource. Now I have a literary/crime-fictional gold mine to plumb. 🙂 – Folks, do check it out.
      Interesting point about the softening of de Luca’s character too. I suppose that was done to make the TV version more appealing. After all, people who served with Mussolini’s political police are not exactly seen as ‘the good guys.’ But a lot of people did. I’m glad Lucarelli doesn’t mince matters in the novels. Quite honestly, in my opinion that makes de Luca a more interesting character and more complex, even given people’s feelings about Mussolini.

  10. Margot, this is my favorite topic related to mystery fiction. I have already read a lot of your examples, but there are several I will be reading sometime this year. I recently got a paper copy of McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel. Same for the novels by Gordon Ferris. I have three of those. I loved Devil in a Blue Dress. And some of the suggestions in the comments are great.

    And I have two other series that I have enjoyed. Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series. I have learned a lot about post-war Britain from that series. And the John Lawton series about Inspector Troy. It moves around in time: before the war, during the war, post war years.

    • Tracy – I can see why you like this period so much. It was such a fundamental time of change and I think we still feel its impact. I’m very glad you mentioned Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series. I didn’t bring it up myself, mostly due to space, but it does indeed show what post-war England was like. People really were shattered by the war and although this isn’t a gritty series, one can’t help but see the deep scars. Thanks too for mentioning the Lawton series – another good ‘un.

      I am very happy too that you got your hands on McGeachin’s first Charlie Berlin novel. That’s a fabulous series in my opinion. And it shows life in post-war Australia without either sugar-coating it or being gratuitous. And it’s good to hear you’ve got some Gordon Ferris ahead of you too. As FictionFan points out, that’s a terrific series that’s made all the more powerful by the fact that it’s limited. And of course, you can’t go wrong with a Walter Mosley in my opinion.

  11. Interesting post, as usual, Margot.
    You continue to amaze me with your knowledge.
    Hope you’re having a great weekend. 🙂

  12. What an interesting post. I need to go away and have a “thunk” before coming back with a longer reply. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  13. kathy d.

    This is such a good post, with so many illuminating and varied points — and books. I liked Gordon Ferris’ Pilgrim Soul, and inf act, got “post-good-book slump” after that ended.
    Another book by Sara Paretsky, which deals with WWII and the importing of Nazi scientists to the U.S. to develop the atomic bomb, is her latest one, “Critical Mass.” V.I. Warshawski is in top form here, serious about the war, with flashbacks to wartime Vienna, discussing Lotty Hershel’s family, zipping up to present-day murders — and yet witty as ever.
    “The Collini Case” brings up shocking issues in German law, but which really are not so surprising.
    And I’m glad Lucarelli’s series is discussed here. Every time I read a review of his series somewhere, it was as if De Luca was “neutral” in the police force under Mussolini, that he was not one of those bad guys. I kept asking how one could be a police officer in a fascist regime, and not be one? He had to carry out orders to do horrible things and saw horrible acts carried out by the police, so how could he not be one of them?
    And to talk about vestiges of Nazism, one only has to look at right-wing groups in France, Greece, and elsewhere in Europe, including in Ukraine. And then there’ was the horrific massacre in Norway by Anders Briveck, and Stieg Larsson’s Nazi-watch activities in Sweden.
    But if we’re only talking about crime fiction, there seems to be a resurgence of novels about WWII these days, or its aftermath. I’ve
    actually learned a lot.

    • Kathy – Thanks for the kind words. Critical Mass is on my TBR list, so I”m glad you’ve mentioned it here. Paretsky really is skilled at weaving past and present together in the overarching theme of her story, isn’t she? You’re right too that it would be hard to imagine de Luca as completely removed from what Mussolini’s forces were doing. As you say, at his rank, at that time, and considering his past, how could he not have known?
      It’s true too that there is some frightening resurgence of far Right activity in several different places. I don’t know how the different societies will deal with it but as you say, it’s already led to some awful loss of life.
      And about interest in WWII and the post-war era, I think you have a point. There are a lot of them these days, and when they’re done well, one really can learn a lot.

  14. I really like the sound of Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case, so thanks very much indeed for the introduction to that book. Spy novels in particular seem to have been particularly adept at exploring the ramifications of the postwar world, though I always liked the way that Margery Allingham in particular changed her books (in a way that say John Dickson Carr did not)

    • Sergio – I hope you’ll enjoy The Collini Case. It’s not a long novel, but it explores a number of different issues. You make a good point too about spy novels. They really have explored different aspects of the post-war world haven’t they? And it is interesting how some writers, like Allingham, did change with the times, others, like Carr, didn’t. Both very talented writers, but with very different perspectives on their work.

  15. The breadth of your knowledge is amazing! I’ve really enjoyed Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon novels, especially the ones that deal with works of arts stolen by the Nazis. And, the ones that weave in the involvement of the Catholic Church in WW2, and Allon’s relationship with the current pope, are also fascinating.

    • HWGO – Thanks very much for the kind words. I appreciate it. And thanks for mentioning Daniel Silva’s work. His Gabriel Allon is a really interesting character, and I agree; there are lots of fascinating plot themes having to do with stolen art and the continuing effects of WWII’s aftermath today. And Silva seems to really ‘do his homework’ about the backgrounds for his stories.

  16. Margot – terrific post on a subject that always yields good material from crime fiction writers. Once again, my thoughts are mostly cinematic and in some cases I define crime and mystery fiction loosely: Graham Greene’s The Third Man and its Third Man-esque sibling Zentropa. Also the recent BBC series The Bletchley Circle, which paints a realistically bleak picture of British life in the late 40s and early 50s. Also Billy Wilder’s pungent tale of the American occupation in West Berlin A Foreign Affair.
    There’s also Marta Hillers’ grim novel, Woman in Berlin, later made into a movie, which takes place right at the war’s end with the Soviet occupation.
    And of course there’s the world-weary overlay of WW2 on film noir, and one could go on and on about that topic. In fact, writers have gone on and on … 🙂

    • Bryan – Thanks for the kind words. And thanks very much for those terrific examples of the impact of WWII’s aftermath on film. All of them show how much wreckage the war left on so many levels. And it doesn’t go away magically. And you’ve reminded me that I ought to read Woman in Berlin; I’ve heard a lot about it, but not (yet) put it on my list. Time to change that, methinks.

      • Please do. 🙂 A slight correction, however, A Woman in Berlin isn’t a novel, it’s a series of diary entries. As I see it, they were written out in full some time after the actual events, based on notes the author made during the time.
        There has been some dispute of its authenticity (thus, perhaps, the term “novel”), but from what I was able to find out during my research for Marta Hillers’ biography, I am very certain that most, if not all, of it was written by her, and that she lived through the events she described.

        • Clarissa – Thank you so much for your insights. And I’m sure that Woman in Berlin is all the more powerful for the fact that Hillers very likely lived through the experiences written up in the book. I appreciate your thoughts on this.

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  18. Pingback: ‘Sweat, petroleum and khaki…’ Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  19. kathy d.

    Very interesting comments here. What did Margery Allingham change in her books? I admit I haven’t read them (sign). Why can’t I just read 24/7? I seem to be missing out on so much. Daniel Silva, too. (sigh)
    And what is Billy Wilder’s book about? I didn’t know he wrote this.
    I’m so glad The Bletchley Circle is referred to here. I love this series (another season of four episodes starts tonight!), and it does paint a bleak portrait of post-WWII England, particularly for women. Seeing these brilliant women having to return to lives where they could not use their intellects bothered me a lot.

    • Kathy – I’m glad you’re enjoying the discussion. Allingham stayed very much aware of what was going on in the world as time went on. Her writing changed, if I may put it that way, to allow for those larger changes. And as for Silva, I hope you’ll get a chance to try his Gabriel Allon series. It’s more thriller than, strictly speaking, crime fiction, but with lots to think about.
      The Billy Wilder reference was to A Foreign Affair – a film that he directed. The main plot is about an ex-Nazi cabaret singer and the member of Congress who investigates her, as well as the Captain who’s torn between them. It’s billed as a romantic comedy, but there’s an edge to it.

  20. Col

    Great post Margot. A few books mentioned that I have waiting on the pile, including Collini Case and McGeachin.
    I enjoyed a couple of Peter Leonard books last year that concerned an ex-Nazi who had continued his life unpunished in the aftermath of the war.
    J. Sydney Jones – Ruin Value – set post war, pre-Nuremberg was also an interesting read.
    Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil is waiting for me somewhere on the pile also.

    • Col – Thanks for the kind words. And I’m glad you have The Boys From Brazil. It’s a solid thriller I think and certainly deals with the theme of post-war searches for the Nazis. And thanks for mentioning Peter Leonard’s work. I’ll admit I’ve not tried it (yet), but I know it’s gotten praise. That time immediately after the war but before the Nuremberg trials really was an unsettled but fascinating time – I’m not surprised Jones set that book during those months.

  21. kathy d.

    Considering the size of my TBR piles and lists, I would like to read one book by Margery Allingham with a view of world events, and one good one by Daniel Silva.
    I’d appreciate suggestions as I can’t start a new series (sign, groan).

    • Kathy – You could do much worse, in my opinion, than ALlingham’s Tiger in the Smoke. And you might try Silva’s The Kill Artist (but someone please correct me if you have a better idea on that).

  22. I had to read all the comments to make sure no-one else has mentioned this, but I recently finished Aaron Elkins’ recent novel “Loot.” It’s a modern-day investigation story about art stolen by the Nazis during WWII. I thought it was great, an inventive way of approaching some of the atrocities of that war and the long-term effects on people who chose to leave Europe and those who didn’t.

    And now I really need to see “The Monuments Men.”

    • Chacha1 – I couldn’t agree more about Loot! It’s a terrific novel with great characters. And it highlights one of the very serious things the war left behind – stolen property. I’m glad you enjoyed it too.

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