At War with the War

Considering how long it lasted, how devasting it was and how deep and lasting were its political and social effects, one may find it odd that the Great War featured so little in Golden Age mysteries. This is relatively understandable in the case of the American school as the conflict was soon sidelined, if not forgotten, in the United States probably because it entered the conflict late and experienced fewer losses than European nations. What about the Brits and the French, though? The former for the most part only alluded to it now and then whereas the latter observed a nearly complete blackout. This silence is all the more surprising as « literary fiction » on the other hand soon tackled the subject both in consensual and more confrontational ways, and gives fuel to the claim that Golden Age fiction was all about cloud cuckoo land fantasy. The problem is, even the more « realistic » hardboiled wing stayed mum about it even though it may/should have felt affinities with the subject. Also, that blind spot lasted well after another war struck and it’s only and perhaps tellingly when survivors became fewer and the events became more distant that crime fiction finally decided to take up the subject, almost to the point that the genre has literally never talked as much about it than now.

One reason may be that crime fiction’s World War I silence began right when the events took place. Crime fiction all but disappeared during the conflict as authors when not gone fighting abandoned « mere » crime for international intrigue. The only major detective novel published during the war, The Valley of Fear, is set thirty years before and makes thus no mention of the ongoing conflict. Doyle later referenced the war in the short story His Last Bow but despite Holmes’s last-minute appearance it is more of a spy than detective story. Another reason may be that crime fiction is, or rather was, popular fiction and popular fiction at the time was not supposed to discuss « difficult » subjects, especially those that everyone would rather forget. That’s entertainment, folks! Fine but why then did crime writers not feel the same way about the next conflict? « World War I in comtemporary crime fiction » would at best be a leaflet whereas the same book dealing with World War II would be a doorstop. The answers may ultimately be more sociological and political than literary – it so happened that crime writers for some reason didn’t want to discuss one war but were open to talk about the other.

All this doesn’t mean that the War had no influence at all on the development of the genre. It is most probably responsible for what can be called the « Golden Age mindset » which can be summarized as the passion for reason and order and the obsessive need for them to prevail. The War had proved Civilization to be mortal, as French intellectual Paul Valéry famously put it and its gatekeepers were thus lionized, be them politicians, scientists, soldiers, policemen or… Great Detectives. The Golden Age mystery is often described as conservative, but it actually was conservationist – seeking to defend Civilization from the forces of Chaos lurking outside. Not everyone thought Civilization as it stood was worth defending though, and some even thought Chaos was already and had always been there. Those cynical and in some cases openly anti-Establisment views went initially lurking as the decade following the War seemed to prove that everything was okay again, but the Great Depression was a brutal wake-up call which many received as Enough being Enough. Not for nothing did the twin brothers Hardboiled and Noir (re-)emerge in the Thirties to become major forces. There had been many economic crises before without eliciting such radical response, but an economic crisis coming so soon after a massive butchery couldn’t stay unanswered, even by crime fiction. The War had finally caught up with the genre that had done the most to escape it.


6 commentaires sur “At War with the War

  1. Off the top of my head:
    Both Sayers’ « Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club » and Wade’s « Duke of York’s Steps » take place on Armistice Day. Lord Peter, of course, still suffers the after-effects of shell shock; the conservative Wade’s books depict a society damaged by the war. The crimes in Philip MacDonald’s « The Noose » and « R.I.P. » are to cover up or avenge something that happened in the war. The hero of Christopher Bush’s first novel, « The Plumley Inheritance », readjusts to civilian life. And Agatha Christie based Poirot on refugees, while Tommy and Tuppence find themselves jobless and longing for excitement after demob.

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  2. I’ve never said that Golden Age writers completely eschewed World War I, but that they didn’t talk much about it, especially in comparison with how talkative they were about the other conflict. i had referenced Christie, Sayers and Wade in the French-language article I did on the subject the other day but I forgot to mention them in this one. I could also have mentioned E.C.R. Lorac’s Inspector Macdonald who served in the London Scottish – perhaps the only memorable thing about him by the way. I didn’t know about MacDonald and Bush’s books and I’m open to other suggestions; this is a work-in-progress that I’ll complete with more articles if needed.

    I’ll note however that with the exception of Wade who kept going back to the subject in book after book most mystery writers of the period treated the war as a plot device or a background for their characters. I have yet to read a classic mystery that really takes place during the events – Styles nominally does but once again the theme is not fully developed.


  3. I have often wondered about this silence in WW1. Comparing to WW2 (from my Anglo-centric perspective), there are possible factors I can think of that might make a difference, but I am largely ignorant of them. The publishing market. The general popularity of the mystery. Novels vs. short stories. Government policy. The authors of this sort of fiction and what they were doing.with themselves.

    There are some authors associated with crime and mystery who wrote war fiction (MacDonald’s novel Patrol; Sapper). There are some novels with scenes set in the war (Wade’s The High Sheriff and Lonely Magdalen). There are some landmark mysteries published or written during the war (e.g. mentioned in Sayer’s introduction to the Omnibus of Crime are the Ware Case by George Pleydell and Lord Gorell’s In the Night). None of this quite fits the bill.

    There are stories set in the trenches with mystery elements, but they often have the spy tinge (Peit-Jean by Ian Hay was included in the British Library’s Continental Crimes anthology); and there are similar stories set ‘at home’ and in more exotic locations (Maugham’s Ashenden; some of the stories in A.E.W. Mason’s The Four Corners of the World). If you include this stuff under crime fiction, your leaflet becomes a little bulkier (and there is also Buchan’s Mr. Standfast and Greenmantle; Valentine Williams’s The Man with the Clubfoot) . I wonder if some other stories of relevance might be found in, for example, the Strand Magazine (I know of Laurence Clarke’s Flashlights–a domestic espionage tale).

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  4. In the WW1 and post-WW1 period it was still generally believed that the best way to deal with traumatic events was to put them behind you and move on. Among the literary/artistic elites there were people who wanted to talk endlessly about the horrors of the war but the average person was not particularly interested. And I suspect that the readers of detective fiction largely subscribed to the « let’s move on » approach.

    In the WW2 and post-WW2 era everything had changed. Freudian psychoanalysis had become all the rage. People now believed that the best way to deal with traumatic events was to talk about them over and over and over again. Suffering was no longer something you tried to forget – it was something you wallowed in.

    Readers of crime fiction were presumably more receptive to books dealing directly with the war. And even if the readers weren’t all that interested writers and publishers were obsessed and were going to give the public stories about the war whether they wanted them or not.


    1. It may also have to do with the respective « dramatic potentials » of both conflicts. It’s hard to imagine a whodunit taking place in a trench (I can think of only one example, Anne Perry’s short story Heroes, which is more memorable for its unusual setting than its plot) while London during the Blitz or occupied Paris for instance are « marvelous » settings for a mystery or a thriller. The basic problem with WW1 is that most, not to say all action took place on the battlefield with not much happening on the rear, whereas it was more evenly distributed, so to speak, in WW2. Also, let’s face it, Nazis are scarier than Junkers and thus make better story material.


      1. It may also have to do with the respective « dramatic potentials » of both conflicts. It’s hard to imagine a whodunit taking place in a trench

        WW2 was a much more cinematic war. And it became a much more popular war than WW1. If you were British or American (or Australian) and not in the front lines getting shot at it seems to have been a lot of fun.

        Of course if you were not British or American and your country was being used as a battlefield it was a lot less fun.

        For British and American writers, including crime writers, WW2 seems to have been very safe and very enjoyable.


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