Crime writers have found all sorts of different ways to weave larger events like war into their stories. And that makes sense, as it can make the stories more realistic. After all, if you think about it, people do put aside their work to aid the war effort in some way or other. So it’s not surprising that we’d see the same thing happening in crime fiction.
Agatha Christie’s N or M? takes place during WW II. Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are middle-aged, and no longer really active in British intelligence. That leaves them both feeling a bit sidelined. Then, Tommy is recruited to follow up on a clue left by a British agent who was killed. It seems that two German spies, named N and M, have parachuted into England. One or both of them can be found at a hotel called the Sans Souci, but no-one knows who these spies are. All that is known is that one is male, and one is female, and that they are responsible for the death of an agent. Tommy’s asked to go to the Sans Souci and find out whether one or both spies is there, what their identities are, and what the objective is. Tuppence has no intention of being left behind, so, on her own initiative, she, too, goes to the Sans Souci using an assumed name. Tommy is surprised to see her there, but the two begin to work together. In the end, they find out who both M and N are, and what they’ve been doing.
Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe know that he is an immigrant to the US and is extremely grateful for the opportunities he’s had in that country. So, in Not Quite Dead Enough, it’s not surprising that he very much wants to join the US World War II war effort. The government would like him to join, too, and work on intelligence investigations. But Wolfe has other ideas. He wants to be a soldier and fight the enemy in that capacity. So he and his longtime chef Fritz undergo daily exercise and training, so they can head off to war. Meanwhile, Archie Goodwin has also joined the army and has been assigned to domestic counter-intelligence in New York. When he goes to New York, he finds that Wolfe has abandoned his investigation for military training. No cases are being examined, no work is being done, etc. Goodwin knows that he’s going to have to do something, so he comes up with an unusual way to focus Wolfe on investigating, and to make him see that intelligence work is at least as important to the war effort as anything else. And in the end, he and Wolfe solve a murder and find a mole in the intelligence team.
Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn gets involved in World War II in Died in the Wool. New Zealand MP Florence ‘Flossie’ Rubrick goes to the wool shed on her sheep farm to rehearse and important speech. Three weeks later, her body turns up inside a bale of wool being sold at auction. No real answers are found, and a year later, the case is still unsolved. Then, Roderick Alleyn comes to New Zealand on a government assignment. The dead woman’s nephew Fabian Losse asks him to look into the case again. As it turns out, Losse and his cousin Douglas Grace have been working on a new engineering design that will be vital to the war effort. There are signs that the design may have been leaked and could go to enemy hands, and Alleyn follows that up as his ‘official’ reason for being at the Rubrick home. Since it may be connected to Flossie Rubrick’s murder, Alleyn also looks into that matter.
When we first meet Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, she is a housemaid in the home of Lady Rowan Compton, who sees that Maisie is highly intelligent and capable of much. Lady Rowan takes a real interest in Maisie and sponsors her for a university education. At first, it looks as though Maisie will have a good chance at a successful life. Then, WW I breaks out. The war touches nearly everyone, and even the ‘best’ families send their sons to fight. Women join the workforce, and many, including Maisie, become nurses and serve at the front. Maisie’s war experiences have a profound impact on her and leave her with a completely different perspective on nearly everything. When the war ends, she becomes a private investigator under the tutelage of her mentor, Maurice Blanche. But that doesn’t mean she stops being of service to the war effort. In her post-war life, she works more than once with veterans and widows as they face the harsh realities of the post-war world.
And then there’s Aaron Elkins’ Gideon Oliver, who makes his debut in Fellowship of Fear. Oliver is a physical anthropologist and professor affiliated with Northern California State University. He’s accepted an invitation to give a two-month series of lectures at the United States Overseas College (USOC) which serves members of the US military who are stationed in other countries. His first stop is Heidelberg, where he is attacked and his room ransacked. It’s obvious that someone believes Oliver has something of value. When he’s attacked again at his next stop in Italy, it’s clear that he has become a target. As it turns out, he’s been drawn into a web of international intrigue for a specific reason, and that NATO wants him to be involved in one of their operations. For his part, Oliver has no interest in the spy life, but if he’s to stay alive, he doesn’t have much choice but to get involved. He may not have volunteered his service, but it turns out to be very useful.
There are also many fictional sleuths who had military careers before their sleuthing days. Just a few are Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, and Robert B. Parker’s Spense. I’m sure you can think of a lot of others. And it’s interesting to see how authors weave that wartime/military experience into what they write.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Lucky Man.
13 thoughts on “He Went to Fight Wars For His Country and His King*”
In the Maisie Dobbs books it’s almost like war is a character in its own right because WW1 has so much of an impact in the first books. And I assume WW2 will assume as much importance as my next book in that series is Journey to Munich which I suspect is going to involve the Nazis. The other book which comes to mind is Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert, set in a POW camp in Italy and a very good story. And Fire in the Thatch by E.C.R. Lorac has a services connection too – the man that dies is ex-navy.
You make a really well-taken point, Cath, about the Maisie Dobbs books. Winspear really did a fine job of exploring WW1’s impact, which was, of course, considerable. And it’ll be interesting to see how she handles WWII. Thanks for mentioning Gilbert, too; he wrote some good stuff, and I’ve not read it just lately. I ought to get back to it. And Lorac was great; I’m so glad her work has been re-discovered.
Margot: I love Maisie. I am now readingI The American Agent which is set in 1940 and the second in the series covering events during WW II. It was no surprise to me that Maisie actively participates in her second world war.
I have long admired the post-World War I mysteries of Rennie Airth (Inspector Madden) and Charles Todd (Inspector Rutledge and the voice in his head, Hamish plus the series featuring nurse Beth Crawford). All are thoughtful and engaging.
Whenever I read them I think of the high literacy of so many combatants and the powerful poetry written during the war.
An example is Wilfrid Gibson’s poem, Lament, from the anthology, Anthem for Doomed Youth, which captures the post-war mood of the sleuths featured in the above four series:
We who are left, how shall we look again
Happily on the sun or feel the rain,
Without remembering how they who went
Ungrudgingly, and spent
Their all for us, loved too the sun and rain?
A bird among the rain-wet lilac sings –
But we, how shall we turn to little things,
And listen to the birds and winds and streams
Made holy by their dreams,
Nor feel the heart-break in the heart of things?
Maisie Dobbs is a great character, Bill, and I like her very much, too. And I also like the way Winspear sets the mood of the books, and handles the passing of time, I’m also very glad you mentioned Rennie Arth’s work, as well as Charles Todd’s work; those authors, too, have created strong characters and a strong sense of the time period. Thanks also for sharing Lament. It is a powerful poem and it does make one think. You make an interesting point about the literacy level and writing of the soldiers. It reminds me a bit of some of the letters and journal entries I’ve seen of soldiers during the US Civil War; they, too, are powerful and show just how literate the soldiers were.
TBH, I don’t really like detectives getting involved in war-fare which generally means capturing a mole or a German spy but I do like the description of the post-war activities of soldiers, detectives etc and how war has treated them and their expectations from the society. A wonderful post-war description of England is the opening of Carr’s He Who Whispers.
You make an important distinction, Neeru, between the impact of war and a sleuth’s actually being involved in war. They are different, and I can see how you’d prefer one over the other. Thanks, also, for mentioning Carr’s He Who Whispers. He was good, wasn’t he, at setting a sociocultural atmosphere.
Such an interesting post, Margot! I suppose because so many GA Crime books were written in the 20th century, they were bound to be informed by the two great wars. But I had forgotten how much I love some of these stories – time to revisit Wimsey and N or M!
One of my favourite mysteries with a wartime setting is Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate. It has a Home Front setting and is almost like linked short stories, as each suspect’s story is told separately, each casting light on an aspect of the wartime society – civil defence, fear of spies, etc. I also love the ECR Lorac books set in the war – both her London Blitz and her rural settings are so well done and give a really great picture again of the Home Front.
Oh, yes, FictionFan! I remember you reviewed Somebody at the Door a few years ago. And it’s a great example of the sort of thing I had in mind with this post. It’s an innovative way to look at the impact of war – from different perspectives. And you’ve got a good point about Lorac, too. Her work really depicts life at that time. I still can’t work out why she was set aside/forgotten/whatever for so long.
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Thanks for the link, Margot! 😀 No, the whole Lorac thing is a real mystery – she’s definitely one who should never have been forgotten.
It’s always a pleasure to mention your blog and posts, FictionFan! And I agree about Lorac – she shouldn’t have been put aside, and I’m delighted she’s been rediscovered.
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I’d forgotten Harry Bosch had been a tunnel rat. I really must pick up another one of his stories soon. It’s been a while since I read Connelly!
I always find Bosch’s Vietnam War experience an interesting part of his personality, Col. It’s definitely had an impact on him. And Connelly’s work is well worth the time, in my opinion!