As this is posted, it’s 100 years since the armistice that ended World War I. The actual fighting ended, to everyone’s relief. But that didn’t mean that things were all right again. The world faced a number of major challenges, even beyond the political challenges that played a major role in starting World War II.
Crime fiction from and about that post-war era shows some of the difficulties that people faced, even though the guns had fallen silent. Looking at the way that individual people and families coped with those challenges lends a human perspective on what it’s like to try to put life together again after a catastrophe such as a major war.
For one thing, the war had cost much in terms of money, supplies, and even basic items. We see that, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which takes place just after the end of the war. Styles Court is the home of Emily Inglethorp and her husband, Alfred. Also making their homes there are Mrs. Inglethorp’s stepsons, John and Lawrence Cavendish, and John’s wife, Mary. There are also Mrs. Inglethorp’s ward, Cynthia Murdoch, and Mrs. Inglethorp’s companion and friend, Evelyn Howard. Although the family is well off, they’re still facing some privation. Nothing is wasted, not even a scrap of paper. Meals are served so as to use as little electricity as possible. And Mary Cavendish works as a Land Girl. Captain Hastings visits the Inglethorps, whom he’s known for some time. While he’s there, Mrs. Inglethorp is poisoned one night. As it happens, Hercule Poirot is living in the nearby village with some other displaced Belgians, and he works with Hastings to find out who the killer is.
It’s worth noting that Poirot’s refugee status is another post-war issue that had to be faced. Many people had no homes after the war and went elsewhere. Others had lost their families. Still others feared for their lives. All of them needed new places to live.
We also get a look at post-war scarcities in Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests. In that novel, Emily Wray and her daughter, Frances, have lost Emily’s husband and son, and times have become hard for them. So, they’ve decided they’ll need to open their homes to lodgers – ‘paying guests,’ as the euphemism goes. Len and Lilian Barber respond to the Wrays’ discreet advertisement, and soon move in. It’s all awkward at first, as you can imagine. But the Barbers settle in. Little by little, though, things start to spin out of control, and the end result is a terrible tragedy. One of the elements woven into this novel is the difficulty in getting decent food, hot water, and so on. There’s also the sense of shame and loss of pride, since the Wrays can no longer afford the things they once could.
Another major set of challenges was faced as the soldiers returned from war. For one thing, they had many physical and psychical injuries and lasting scars. And then-modern psychology and surgery weren’t equipped to deal with everything these veterans needed. That’s not to mention the reaction of those who had stayed behind to the returning soldiers, who were often badly wounded, with very obvious injuries.
We see this, for instance, in Jacqueline Winspear’s series featuring Maisie Dobbs. At the beginning of the series, she works ‘in service.’ But she joins the World War I effort and becomes a nurse. She sees more than her share of battle and resulting injures. When the war is over, she returns and takes up her work as a private investigator/psychologist. In her first case (Maisie Dobbs is the first book in this series), she investigates The Refuge, which is a home for returning veterans. And we see how difficult it was for these men to try to fit back into a society that often wasn’t ready for them.
The ‘Charles Todd’ writing team also explores the difficult of fitting back into the world after World War I. Their Ian Rutledge series and their Bess Crawford series both feature protagonists who saw wartime combat and now have to adjust to a changing world that doesn’t understand (sometimes doesn’t want to understand) what they’ve been through and seen. Being in war changes people, and being without loved ones (because they’re away at war) changes people, too. And these two series explore those challenges.
That’s also the case in Paddy Richardson’s Through the Lonesome Dark. This novel isn’t, strictly speaking, a crime novel, although there are crimes committed in it. Its focus is three children: Pansy Williams, Clem Bright, and Otto Brader, who grow up in the small New Zealand town of Blackball, just before WW I. The three are best of friends, and they are devoted to each other. When the war comes, Clem goes off to service, while Pansy tries to keep life going at home. Otto faces his own challenges because of his German ancestry. The war tears the three friends apart, and it’s not spoiling the story to say that, when Clem returns, everything is different. All three have to somehow pick up the pieces of their lives.
There were, of course, many other issues that the world had to face after the Great War. The influenza pandemic, new and evolving social roles, major changes in the class system, and other issues made it sometimes very challenging to negotiate the new world order. The armistice of 1918 put an end to the official hostilities of World War I. But it was, in a lot of ways, just the beginning of the healing the world needed to do.
ps. The ‘photo is of the Armistice celebration in Allentown, Pennsylvania, courtesy of the Allentown Call-Chronicle.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Midnight Oil.