--Gertrude Stein, quoted by Ernest Hemingway in an epigraph to The Sun Also Rises
"The times they are a-changing."
--Bob Dylan, quoted by me
Why does World War I still haunt us?
Currently I am reading a new author, Elizabeth Speller, who has two excellent mysteries in a WW I series, The Return of Captain John Emmett and The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton. I love World War I, not in actuality but as a backdrop for these and the other wonderful period mysteries that are currently flourishing. Mostly, they are not even about the war itself, but rather its aftermath. For sure, the period just after WW I provides masses of melancholy atmosphere for existentially tinged mysteries.
It may be that the real changes of the 20th century did not come with the wars, but after. Certainly that is one way to understand the profound social changes of the Sixties, as well as those of the Twenties. And just as WW II feels essentially American, WW I feels essentially British, and seemingly affected Britain much more than the U.S. With more than 700,000 dead and 1.6 million wounded, about seven times the number of American casualties, England truly did lose most of a generation of young men. The closest I can come to understanding that is living through the height of the AIDS epidemic in the early Eighties and Nineties in New York and Provincetown.
Lawrence Bartram, Elizabeth Speller's hero, is suffering something similar to what many survivors suffered during the AIDS epidemic, the numbing from multiple losses -- a syndrome that surely has its own clinical name, but I don't know what it is. The fictional Bartram has lost not only many brothers in arms, but his wife and infant child. In The Return of Captain John Emmett, Bartram is slowly brought back to life by a mystery. Speller writes, "In years to come, Laurence Bartram would look back and think that the event that really changed everything was ... the return of John Emmett into his life." The titular Captain Emmett, an old but not very close friend, committed suicide while apparently on the mend in a private veterans' hospital. His sister wants to know why.
Why indeed? One might think the question for these men who suffered unimaginable horrors would be: why not? Aye, there's the rub...and that's one thing that makes these WW I mysteries so modern in feeling. They are set at the beginning of the modern age, just after the first modern war, and they raise modern questions -- about living with an absence of belief systerms, about living in the face of not just mortality but unthinkable destruction. These are serious questions worth considering, that have not been fully answered in the nearly 100 years since. They lend the WW I mystery some gravitas that is lacking in, say, the Golden Age country house mystery, even though it's set in the same time period.
As you can tell, The Return of Captain John Emmett is a real novel as well as a fascinating mystery. It's beautifully written and constructed, and it resonates beyond the questions of whodunit or whydunit. Speller also touches on a now-familiar theme: the battlefield executions of men who mutinied or deserted. Probably this is because WW I, like Vietnam, was a remarkably unpopular war at the front. It would seem that trench warfare was an extreme test of devotion to abstract notions such as duty, honor, and courage; and uncounted men opted for the reasonable response of non-compliance.
Charles Todd's series about Inspector Rutledge is brilliant on this issue, as well as the related issue of shell shock, or what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. In Todd's series (beginning with A Test of Wills, most recently A Lonely Death), Rutledge is back at work at Scotland Yard, even though he is not exactly cured of shell shock. His main symptom: he hears the voice of fallen comrade Hamish MacLeod in his head, so realistically that he feels the man is with him constantly. This odd form of survivor's guilt makes for great reading, since there is a constant internal dialogue that the reader is privy to. One might almost say that Hamish is Rutledge's Watson.
WW I was the first war in which shell shock was recognized as a real medical disorder, at least in some circles. Since shell shock sometimes took the form of non-compliance, and shell shock victims who were treated in medical hospitals temporarily escaped the fighting, many old-school soldiers and others believed it was a form of malingering, the coward's way out. Thus shell shock is in some ways conflated with the whole issue of cowardice, including the problems of desertion and dereliction that spurred battlefront executions. Veterans themselves struggled with these issues, as well. Psychiatrists, however, learned a huge amount from treating veterans, and WW I proved to be a great leap forward in the understanding of trauma.
More to come on WW I mysteries, including some thoughts on Inspector Rutledge and Siegfried Sassoon; Charles Todd's new series on Bess Crawford; and Maisie Dobbs vs. Bess Crawford for best WW I nurse. What do you think? Leave a comment. Let the voting begin.