“Do Mention The War”: A New Project For The Blog

The end of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction is a nebulous concept. Was it 1939? Was it 1945? Do books written by authors who wrote in the Golden Age but after those dates count? And most importantly, does it really matter?

Probably not, but it’s the books written between these dates – 1939 to 1945 – that intrigue me. It’s often argued that the end of the obsession with detective fiction was due to the change in attitude following the Second World War – not something that I intend to go into here – but what I do want to take a look at is those books written during the War.

Let’s narrow it down a little further – 1941 to 1943. I don’t know how slow the writing and publishing process was back then but it’s a reasonable presumption that books from this period were written after the war had broken out but before the outcome was in any way certain. The detective fiction of the time falls into two camps – those that ignore the fact there is a war on and carry on as normal and those that allow the war to influence the events in the mysteries presented.

Take Agatha Christie. She had five titles published in this period, of which four – Evil Under The Sun, The Body In The Library, Five Little Pigs and The Moving Finger – there might be a mention that Jerry Burton’s accident was a military aircraft crash, but I don’t recall. No, it’s only N or M? where Tommy and Tuppence go undercover at a hotel to find a German spy.

It fascinates me that Christie just ignored for the most part what was happening in the world. Why was this? Was it a certainty that life would carry on as normal after the war? Were they being written to provide the readership with a brief distraction? The very fact that non-propaganda books were being printed at all during wartime fascinates me – I may have missed something, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t any anti-German propaganda in The Body I The Library – but whatever the reason she made that choice for, she was hardly alone. While the Sir Henry Merrivale books of the time deal with the current state of affairs – look at the possible panic in the just-pre-war The Reader Is Warned where the country becomes concerned that the “murder weapon” Teleforce could fall into German hands – Gideon Fell was never significantly (if at all?) inconvenienced by them. Ngaio Marsh wrote two wartime tales, but quite late in the conflict but cranked out, for example, Surfeit of Lampreys as well.

The blackout is used as a plot device by a number of authors, for example, Checkmate To Murder by E C R Lorac, but other authors embraced the setting of the war to a greater extent. And it’s these books that I’m going to take a look at over the next couple of months. Christopher Bush’s war trilogy – The Cases of the Murdered Major, the Kidnapped Colonel and the Fighting Soldier – is on the agenda – indeed, it’s the inspiration for this mini-project, and I’ll definitely be looking at some of the John Rhode/Miles Burton titles, specifically The Fourth Bomb, Night Exercise and Four-Ply Yarn. And if anyone wants to give me a hundred odd quid, then I’ll look at They Watched By Night and Death At The Helm as well. Gladys Mitchell’s Brazen Tongue has been mentioned, as has Nicholas Blake’s Smiler With A Knife, so they’re both on the agenda as well. Thanks to the folks at the Facebook GAD site for these.

Any suggestions of other titles to take a look at are gratefully received. Titles that I’ve already covered:

If anyone has any other suggestions – I’m looking for mysteries rather than thrillers and for books not just with a wartime setting but written when the outcome of the conflict was uncertain – then they would be gratefully appreciated. To keep the project focussed, I’m going to look initially at least as those set in the UK, so I’ll leave Chandler, Stout and Marsh for another day.

So, first on the agenda are the Home Guard shenanigans of John Rhode’s Night Exercise and murder in a British Prisoner of War camp (the camp is British, not the prisoners) in The Case Of The Murdered Major. Chocks away!

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21 comments

  1. Interesting idea. I will be interested in what you find. I am never any good at coming up with suggestions, but if any pop into my head at some point I will come back.

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  2. I forgot to include Cyril Hare’s With Bare Bodkin (1946) in my brief FB suggestions list.
    I’ll be interested to see what conclusions you come to in regards to this topic as I wrote an article on WW2 and the Golden Age Tradition for Mystery Fanfare, but I only had space to just scratch the surface. Certainly didn’t look at the Rhode titles you mention so it’ll be good to read your thoughts on them.

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    • There is something very interesting (possibly) at the end of Night Exercise – going to have to decide if it’s a spoiler or not, as it’s not related to the mystery but…

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  3. In The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie, it is simply stated that the narrator Jerry Burton is recuperating from a bad flying crash. There is no mention that a military aircraft was involved.

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  4. Hare’s Tragedy at Law, Crofts’ Death of a Train and Lorac’s Murder by Matchlight also definitely mention the war – in the last the blackout is a major factor.

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    • Many thanks. Apart from Hare, those were written at the end of the war where victory was more certain, so I’ll shove them down the list a bit (if I could find a copy). I reviewed the Hare a while ago – it’s somewhere on the blog.

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  5. I’ve already read, reviewed and scheduled my blog-posts on Bush’s excellent wartime trilogy and they’ll begin to appear on my blog at the start of the weekend.

    They inspired me to revisit an old, often overlooked, favorite of mine, Not Quite Dead Enough by Rex Stout, which comes highly recommend as one of the better entries in the series. A superb set of WWII mystery novellas that puts Archie Goodwin in uniform and Nero Wolfe in the service of the U.S. government. You should definitely add that one to your list as a counterweight to the British writers who always dominate these lists of wartime detective stories.

    Another interesting WWII mystery is Franklyn Pell’s little-known Hangman’s Hill. The plot is passable enough, but the real highlight of the book is its depiction of war correspondents on the battle field in France.

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      • It’s all about this subject, and I didn’t want to repeat myself! The general intro. I don’t believe there’s anything that could be any sort of spoiler in it.

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      • I’m sure there isn’t but I’ve learned in the past (not from you) to play it safe just in case. I’d expect you to not give anything away but I’ve always had the most rewarding experience from crime fiction by reading as little as possible about the book beforehand. I even avoid blurbs sometimes…

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  6. Another is Mr Fortune Finds a Pig by H. C. Bailey. Although even those who still like his work would probably agree it’s not his best work…

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  7. I echo the earlier mention of Lorac’s “Murder by Matchlight” – but it was published in 1946, a year after the time frame of 1939-45. More significantly, I hesitate to recommend it, as it probably will reinforce the opinion of Lorac as a middling mystery writer. 😅

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