Next year will mark a full century since the outbreak of World War I in Europe. The four years of that conflict (including the year and a half of U.S. involvement) caused tremendous societal and political stresses, and a head-spinning sense that the old order of things was in swift decline and the future uncertain at best.
However, the seeds of change—mass production of goods, the explosive growth of cities, the failure of landed-class aristocracies and rising middle-class incomes, and globalization that brought foods from distant parts of the globe to dinner plates in London and Chicago—were planted throughout the decade that preceded the opening shots of the “Great War.” As historian Philipp Blom wrote in The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914, “Modernity did not rise virgin-born from the trenches of the Somme....The War acted not as a creator, but as a catalyst, forcing old structures to collapse more quickly and new identities to assert themselves more readily.”
Quite unintentionally, I seem to have been tracing this era of upheaval through the pages of three recent mystery novels, all of which deserve wider notice.
First up: The Mannequin House, by R.N. Morris.
After concocting a quartet of stories around Porfiry Petrovich, the investigating magistrate from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Morris has launched a new series set on the anxious eve of World War I and starring Silas Quinn, an inspector with the fictional Special Crimes Department of New Scotland Yard. Taking place in 1914, Mannequin—the first sequel to last year’s Summon Up the Blood—finds Quinn pursuing whoever strangled Amélie Dupin, a slight young woman who modeled clothes at the House of Blackley, a phenomenally capacious London department store. Amélie is found dead in a residence next door, where she’d lived with the emporium’s other models, or mannequins. The case offers no immediate suspects, unless Quinn credits the monkey in a Turkish fez that fled Amélie’s room as her corpse was discovered.
Quinn is a most intriguing protagonist. Once a medical student, he suffered a breakdown while trying to come to terms with his father’s suicide. Now he balances personal awkwardness with mastery of the detecting arts, his demons only released now and then to encourage his application of excessive force in solving crimes. He’s pitted here against Benjamin Blackley, a tyrannical capitalist who may have employed his “mannequin house” as a personal harem. (Morris has explained elsewhere that Blackley is based on William Whiteley, the 19th-century developer of a mammoth department store in London, who was murdered by a man claiming to be his illegitimate son.) The House of Blackley stands out as a character in its own right, a magnetic, kinetic temple of provisioning where members of the period’s new “white-collar proletariat” buy goods reflecting their sense of having come up in the world.
Although it shares an obvious plot twist with Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery and rushes through some acrobatic deducifying in its denouement, Mannequin is rewardingly abundant in quirky episodes and oddball players still unaccustomed to the early 20th century’s altered mores. Quinn definitely deserves a third outing.
Edward Marston’s Instrument of Slaughter, the follow-up to A Bespoke Murder, accelerates the calendar to 1916 and presents the slaying of Cyril Ablatt, a young library employee who, for religious and moral reasons, refuses to join other Brits on the battlefields of mainland Europe. Like other conscientious objectors, or “conchies,” he’s been subjected to vile derision; yet Ablatt and three friends have supported each other in their antiwar convictions. When Ablatt is bludgeoned to death in a Shoreditch alley, though, fractures appear in his compatriots’ unanimity. Most worrisome is the notion that Ablatt may only have been the first among them to be targeted.
Steadfast Det. Insp. Harvey Marmion and his more dashing partner, Sgt. Joe Keedy—members of a much-reduced wartime police force—find their efforts to ensnare Ablatt’s killer complicated by the fact that many Londoners believe the victim deserved to die for his “cowardice.” Even the detectives’ overbearing new superior shows scant sympathy for the deceased. Yet as Marmion and Keedy probe the circumstances of this malice, they find that Ablatt wasn’t quite the innocent, transparent recluse he’d seemed. In fact, he had secrets to keep and adversaries to keep away from. Tensions build as Ablatt’s chums prepare for imminent conscription, and his lady friend draws a stalker.
Marston is not an especially flashy writer. But his novels are dependably satisfying, and in Instrument of Slaughter he uses the crime-fiction format to develop a nuanced, illuminating portrait of social struggles on the British home front.
Finally, the action moves from England to northern France in Robert Ryan’s Dead Man’s Land. It’s 1918, and Dr. John H. Watson—following an emotional split from Sherlock Holmes—has been commissioned as a major with the Royal Army Medical Corps. Though now in his mid-60s, he’s been dispatched to the deadly front lines as “an expert in the new techniques of blood transfusion.” In the face of persistent shellings and unrelenting carnage, Watson feels satisfaction in helping the war effort. Yet it’s his skills as a sleuth as much as a surgeon that come in handy here.
After a British soldier perishes from a bizarre ailment that turns his skin blue and his hands into claws, Watson’s transfusion techniques fall under suspicion. He’s convinced, though, that another explanation exists. So when a similar death does occur, Watson starts digging into the victims’ history, looking for connections between them. He’s aided in this effort by a volunteer nurse with the Red Cross, the resourceful Georgina Gregson, whose past clashes with the law may make her an unreliable ally. As the violence of war swirls about their heads, and snipers keep a lethal vigil in the bleak no-man’s-land between opposing armies, Watson pursues a murderer with old grudges and no compunction against adding Holmes’ onetime chronicler to the count of battlefront casualties.
Author Ryan’s depiction of combat-zone privations and the peculiar society of the trenches radiates with authenticity, and his portrayal of Dr. Watson is sufficiently faithful to have won Dead Man’s Land the authorization of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate. I understand a sequel is already in the pipeline. Perhaps by then, this UK release will have found a U.S. publisher. Fortunately, it’s easily available now from online sources.