London was a city very much at war in 1915. Its streets were rampant with soldiers—either healthy and accompanied by girlfriends, or maimed and beset by despair. Recruiting placards challenged other men hesitant to join the fighting. Mammoth German Zeppelins appeared like apparitions in the night skies, raining bombs down upon the ancient British capital. It was “very terrible to contemplate that it is impossible to sleep in one’s bed in perfect safety,” observed the London Times.
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Further exacerbating civilian angst in that second year of the Great War (later to be rechristened World War I) was the sinking, by a German submarine on May 7, 1915, of the British ocean liner Lusitania. Almost 1,200 of the 1,959 passengers and crew aboard perished as that vessel went down off the coast of Ireland in a mere 18 minutes. In the attack’s aftermath, the German government insisted that armaments secreted on the Lusitania had led to its torpedoing, newspapers around the world condemned the incident’s barbarity and urgent calls went out for the United States to finally enter the worsening European conflict.
Street riots also broke out across Britain, with citizens calling for revenge. “Anyone with a German name became a target,” writes Wales-born author Edward Marston in his latest historical mystery, A Bespoke Murder (newly released in Britain by Allison & Busby, and due for U.S. publication in December). “Shops were looted, houses raided and people beaten up at random. The fact that they were naturalized British citizens was no protection.”
It’s one such uprising that Marston (whose real name is Keith Miles) uses to launch this premiere installment of his “Home Front Detective Series.” Shortly after news of the Lusitania’s destruction reaches shore, an incensed mob breaks into and sets ablaze the shop of prosperous London tailor Jacob Stein. In the midst of fleeing that violence, Stein’s 18-year-old daughter, Ruth, falls victim to a pair of scruffy young men, one of whom rapes her before they both abandon the girl in an alleyway. During the subsequent investigation, police find the elder Stein stabbed to death in his office.
So was Stein simply another casualty of impulsive anti-German retribution, or was there premeditation in his knifing? And is there a link between that crime and the assault on Ruth? Charged with finding answers are 40-something Detective Inspector Harvey Marmion of Scotland Yard and his more nattily dressed, junior Scotland Yard colleague, Sergeant Joe Keedy. Acting with dispatch, and with Stein’s impatient brother criticizing their every move, the pair round up most of the men who broke into the tailor’s establishment, but discover that the two answerable for Ruth’s violation have fled the country—to the trenches of the French battlefront.
Additionally, their probe suggests that something other than xenophobia provoked the tailor’s slaying, perhaps his Jewish heritage. “British bigotry was virulent and there were many active anti-Semitic organizations in 1915,” Marston told me during a recent interview. “Many Jews had emigrated from Eastern Europe in the wake of various pogroms and there was a particularly large Jewish community in the East End of London.”
As Stein’s family suffers further attacks, this tale becomes a contest pitting Marmion and Keedy against the opportunists who hope that a rising tide of prejudice will hide their trail of personal vengeance.
It also becomes something of a cultural study. Between the misdeeds and manifest cover-ups propelling this narrative, Marston layers in a look at how the position of women was changing in a society outgrowing its Victorian fetters and allowing young females to assume new sorts of jobs and make independent decisions about their future.
A Bespoke Murder follows a long line of mystery and thriller novels in which World War I or its aftermath are integral to the storytelling. Robert Goddard’s In Pale Battalions (1988), Charles Todd’s A Test of Wills (1996), Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness (1999) and Max Allan Collins’ The Lusitania Murders (2002) are merely a few that have come before. This being the opening chapter in a new series, however, Marston—who’s best known for his Elizabethan theater mysteries and more recent succession of books about “Railway Detective” Robert Colbeck (The Excursion Train)—should have opportunities to explore the war’s impact on life and politics beyond the battlefield in a way those other writers did not. He certainly seems to have the motivation to do so.
“I've always been fascinated by the First World War because both of my grandfathers fought in it,” says Marston. “My paternal grandfather, who lived with us, was the son of a blacksmith and was therefore drafted into a cavalry regiment in 1914. He’d seen some horrific sights and preferred not to talk about them. There’s a wealth of documentary material about the conflict, and I researched it in detail.”
Being a mystery novelist, Marston was especially interested in the difficulties facing Scotland Yard, which had to maintain peace on the home front, even as war encroached from across the English Channel. Law enforcement during that period was “problematical,” he observes. “Many policemen joined the army and mounted patrols lost their horses to cavalry regiments. A depleted police force had to cope with a wider range of crimes that included desertion, espionage, illegal marketeers and so on. It was a time of great austerity. DORA (Defense of the Realm Act) gave the police increased powers but they struggled to enforce them. Marmion and Keedy will therefore have a tough time in their investigations.”
This novel has its weaknesses. There’s a discordant formality to some of the dialogue, and Sergeant Keedy’s scheme to infiltrate a cadre of zealots comes off a bit too neatly for the purposes of credibility or plot development. Yet Marston shows a talent for crafting absorbing yarns amid richly conceived historical backdrops that could teach other fictionists a thing or two. Or three. A Bespoke Murder should suit most readers just fine.