Friday, February 24, 2012

WW I and Its Fascinations

"You are all a lost generation."
--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.


  1. Hmmm, okay, now you're into a time period I also like to read about. I've read the first two Inspector Rutledge mysteries - but got kind of bummed out by their bleakness and angst, so gave up on continuing. But maybe I will go back and pick up the series (when I finish The Hunger Games trilogy, in the middle of the second one right now), as well as look into Elizabeth Speller. I wonder if you've been watching the second season of Downton Abbey? What I personally like best about it is the way it is trying to capture the huge changes that this war brought about in that society.

    1. Hey, Mary Ellen. So glad you commented. As I tried to say in the post, it's exactly the bleakness and angst that I can relate to in WW I mysteries. As you can probably tell, "The Return of Captain John Emmett" is no joyride, either. Have you read the Maisie Dobbs mysteries by Jacqueline Winspear? They are more hopeful, and Maisie is a great female hero.

      I'm behind on my Downton Abbey, since years of a teacher's schedule mean that I can't really watch prime time drama. So I'm just finishing season 1 on Netflix. So far, no war. But I love it!

      And how can you reject bleakness and angst when you're reading "The Hunger Games?"

  2. Well - The Hunger Games - I'm reading this series because the kids in the family have read or are reading it. and I like to keep up. I am almost finished with the second one, and don't actually know if I can bear yet a third. I almost couldn't sleep last night as a result of reading it before bed. I can't help but wonder what this means - that the current big youth read (and then the movie!) features young people having to slaughter one another in order to survive? I know it's about more than that - but that's what keeps one awake at night. I think it's all quite disturbing.

    The bleakness and angst in Charles Todd's books are so much more adult, existential, and real than what passes for emotion and psychological turmoil in the Games - where Katniss and Peeta suffer some anguish over their families, a modicum of guilt and sorrow over all the killing - but really - the story line is Survival By Whatever Means. The thought that perhaps this is our not-too-distant future makes me glad I'm 68.

    And, BTW, did you know my name in my family, especially with the kids, is Maisie? I don't know the Maisie you mention in your comment, but I'll check her out!

  3. Alright then, Maisie. Stay tuned for more on WW I and Maisie Dobbs.

  4. I'd like to put in a wee plug for Anthem for Doomed Youth, my 20th Daisy Dalrymple mystery. The series is set in the 1920s and inevitably deals with some of the after-effects of WWI, but this title, just out in paperback, is particularly concerned with the war.

  5. Hi, Carola. Thanks for the info! I'll have to check out "Anthem for Doomed Youth." I already like the title, taken from Wilfred Owen. It sounds totally up my alley.

  6. I have read all of the Jacqueline Winspear books, which opened my eyes to the horrors of WWI and its aftermath. It was clearly England's Hiroshima and Maisie Dobbs is great company as she takes us through that time in Britain. Like all wars, its ripples are felt for generations to come. I lived in Germany from 1990-1994 when many veterans of WWII were still alive. There was a shortage of elderly men and some of those who were alive were missing limbs - every German of a certain age had a compelling story...I met people who had walked hundreds of miles to find safety or relatives, living on chocolate bars that were dropped out of American cargo planes or stealing vegetables from farms. Many people had lost brothers, uncles and fathers who just disappeared or died in Russian camps. I agree with your other followers that Downton Abby also does a masterful job with the WWI theme - I love that show and feel like I lost friends when it ended!

    I am ready for a new book - People, please name the best mystery you have ever read and I will dive in!!!

  7. What a great question!!! I'll have to think carefully about the answer....

    "England's Hiroshima" is a brilliant phrase. Your thoughts on Germany are really interesting, too. When I read the Maisie Dobbs mysteries, I questioned whether the whole of English society would still be feeling the effects so sharply 15 years after the war. (It's now 1933 in Maisie Dobbs's world). And my partner Diane commented, "How long has it been since Vietnam?" That was not nearly so devastating to our society, but we are certainly still feeling the effects.

    Meanwhile, my next post will be about the fictional WW I nurses. In addition to Maisie Dobbs there is now also Bess Crawford, by the author (really mystery writing team) known as Charles Todd who brought us the Inspector Rutledge mysteries.

  8. OK, I think I might be ready to name ONE of the best mysteries I ever read...or two. What comes to mind is that the first mystery I ever read turned out to be one of the greatest of all time, Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. (This got me hooked on mysteries, but it also set me up for a lot of disappointment.) GN was published in 1935 and it is set at the first women's college in Oxford, so obviously concerned a lot with feminism and women's education. It is the 10th in Sayers' series but is a fine place to start.

    Diane put in a plug for Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell, another academic and feminist British mystery, this one written in the 1980s and sublimely witty.

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