The end of a war doesn’t mean that people go back to whatever passes for ‘normal’ when it’s over. The guns, bombs and so on may stop, but postwar life often involves major upheavals, uncertainty and trouble. We’ve seen that far, far too often in real life, and it’s woven through crime fiction, too. That backdrop of uneasiness and uncertainty can make for a compelling context for a story.
One challenge that any postwar society faces is the reality of returning soldiers. These people have seen unspeakable things, and, sometimes, done them. They are not the same as when they left, and society doesn’t always know how to respond to them. That’s particularly true for those who come back with obvious physical disabilities.
We see this struggle, for instance, in Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, which takes place in post-World War I London. In one plot thread of this novel, Maisie, who’s just hung out her shingle as a private investigator, looks into the goings-on at The Retreat. That’s a refuge built especially for injured veterans who’ve found it too difficult to function among ‘regular’ people. They’ve found that most people are too uncomfortable around them because their wounds remind others of the lives lost and the horror of war. I know, I know, fans of Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge novels and Bess Crawford novels.
That theme of returning veterans is brought up in Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed, which takes place mostly in Glasgow just after World War II. Douglas Brodie has just returned from service and is trying to put his life back together in London when his old friend Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan asks for his help. Donovan’s been arrested, tried and convicted in connection with the murder of a young boy. He claims he’s innocent, and he wants Brodie to help clear him. One of the facts of life for Donovan is that he was severely wounded in the war. Despite several surgeries, he still has very obvious (and to many people, repulsive) scars and wounds. What’s more, he’s in quite a lot of pain, and has taken up the heroin habit to cope. All of this makes his case all the more difficult. While the focus of the novel isn’t really on Donovan’s service (or Brodie’s, for the matter of that), we do get a sense of the struggle that returning veterans face, especially when they’ve been wounded.
Returning veterans also have the task of fitting in again into a society that often doesn’t want to hear about (and probably wouldn’t understand) what they’ve experienced. War can’t help but leave deep psychological scars, and veterans have to deal with them. That’s one of the things we see in Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Digger’s Rest Hotel. In this, the first of his Charlie Berlin novels, it’s 1947, and Berlin has recently returned from war. He has nightmares, flashbacks and other signs of the psychological burden he bears. It doesn’t help matters, either, that he’s been jilted by the woman he’d hoped would wait for him. The main focus of this novel is his investigation into a series of robberies by a motorcycle gang, as well as the death of a teenage girl whose body is found in an alley. But throughout the novel, we see how Berlin has to adjust to peacetime life.
So do Lynn Marchmont and David Hunter in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide). They’ve both recently returned from service (the story takes place just after World War II), and both are having their issues adjusting. Hunter is the kind of risk taker who’s invaluable in war, but who can’t adjust to peacetime social expectations and rules. Marchmont thought she longed for home, daily life and so on; but now that she’s back, she finds it hard to re-adjust to the mundane life of her village. The main plot thread of this novel concerns the death of a family patriarch, two other subsequent deaths, and what it all means for the family involved. But throughout the novel we see the difficulty of adapting to peacetime life after the pace of war.
There’s also a look at the economic privations brought on by war. Wars are very, very expensive, even for the victors. And it doesn’t help matters that after the war’s over, all of the industries that supported it must either change to meet the needs of a peacetime economy, or close. In the England of Taken at the Flood, there’s still rationing going on, prices are high, not much food’s available, and everyone feels the pinch. That includes veterans who are looking for jobs.
Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests depicts that economic privation too. That novel takes place in 1922 London, where Frances Wray and her mother have suffered heavy economic blows as a result of the war (to say nothing of their grief over the loss of Frances’ brothers Noel and John Arthur, who died in the war). There’s not much money, and even for those who have money, there’s not much to be had. So the Wrays reluctantly decide that their only choice is to open their home to lodgers – ‘paying guests’ is the euphemism. Len and Lilian Barber like what they see and soon move in, and that choice has drastic and tragic consequences. Throughout the novel, we see how difficult it was for returning soldiers (many of whom can’t get jobs, can’t adjust to peacetime life, and don’t fit in). We also see society’s ambivalence towards them. At the same time as one feels sorry for them and compassionate, they also make people uncomfortable.
All of these novels also depict the uncertainty of post-war society. The war’s over, so what comes now? What are the new rules? It’s not easy for a society to switch its focus from wartime unity of purpose, efforts, and sacrifices to peacetime. And in many cases, there’ve been a lot of major changes in social roles as a result of war. As just one example, many US Blacks served with distinction in the military during World War II and Korea. When they returned, it was to a society that wasn’t ready to accept them as full partners, despite their sacrifices. Some people argue that this had an impact on the Civil Rights movement that started just a few years later. And it wasn’t just in the US. To return to McGeachin’s The Digger’s Rest Hotel, one of the characters is an Aboriginal former soldier who’s faced with the same paradox: a country that welcomed his wartime service, but now wants him to go back to being a second-class citizen.
Post-war life is challenging enough for a society that supports a war. It’s even more so for an unpopular war. Vietnam, the Falklands conflict, and the wars in the Middle East have not at all had the support that other wars have had. This has made life extremely difficult for returning veterans of those wars. And we see that reflected in crime fiction, too. For example, in one plot thread of Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian By Night, we learn the back story of octogenarian Sheldon Horowitz, who’s recently moved from his native New York to Norway to be closer to his granddaughter and her Norwegian husband. Her father, Saul, died during his second mission to Vietnam, and parts of the novel describe his visit home between missions. He doesn’t really fit in, and has to deal with people who bitterly opposed US involvement in the war. And part of Horowitz’ later burden is guilt over encouraging Saul to enlist in the first place.
Just because the guns are put down and the bombs stop doesn’t mean that trouble ends after a war. There are often real and difficult struggles that societies face when they return to peacetime life. And veterans and their families have their own difficult burdens to bear, even when they’re no longer fighting.
This post is dedicated to those who served, and continue to serve, their countries in the military, and to their families. They’ve made sacrifices many of us wouldn’t be willing to make. I truly hope the time will come when no more young men and women in uniform will be lost to war.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Shut Out the Light.