On the morning of Sunday, June 28, 1914, a dark gray, open touring car flying a black and yellow flag of the Habsburg monarchy pulled away from the curb outside the town hall in Sarajevo, Bosnia, joined by a small motorcade. In its back seat reclined a middle-aged couple. He was Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, wearing the uniform of a cavalry general, complete with gold epaulets and a helmet plumed with green peacock feathers; she was his beloved wife of 14 years, the former Countess Sophie Chotek (whom many in the imperial court thought an unsuitable match for the archduke, despite her aristocratic family heritage), swaddled in a white dress, with ostrich feathers fluttering from her hat.
The royal couple had just survived a bomb hurled their way by a Bosnian Serb revolutionary, one of several would-be assassins stationed in the city that sunny day, all bent on striking a blow against Austria-Hungary’s influence in the Balkans. Franz Ferdinand—who hadn’t wanted to visit Sarajevo, for fear of violence—was now bound for a local hospital to visit his adjutant, who’d been injured in the bomb blast. But as his car halted before making a wrong turn onto a bridge across the River Miljacka, a young nationalist named Gavrilo Princip strode forward, drew a pistol and shot the archduke in the neck. He then fired a bullet into Sophie’s abdomen.
Those shocking murders provoked anti-Serb reprisals in Sarajevo, as well as diplomatic maneuverings that led—on July 28, 1914, precisely 100 years ago this month—to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia. Other Europeans powers were quickly drawn into the conflict, and the Great War (later redubbed World War I) spread. By the time it ended four years later, about 16 million people had died, with another 21 million wounded, and the empire Franz Ferdinand once planned to lead had collapsed.
Even before the fighting in Europe ceased, however, the Great War was already making its mark on mystery and thriller fiction. It has since become a familiar backdrop in the genre. With the centenary of that bloody confrontation’s start now making headlines, the time is ripe to explore some of those tales.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s “His Last Bow,” a short story published in the fall of 1917 (but set in August 1914), an older-than-usual Sherlock Holmes—disguised as an Irish-American informant—shows up at the residence of a “devoted” German agent named Von Bork, supposedly to hand over British naval signals. Instead, the disguised detective subdues Von Bork with chloroform and takes him into custody, thereby wrapping up a lengthy investigation of stolen government secrets that had taken him as far as the United States. Conan Doyle, who’d been worried ever since 1911 that war was coming to the Continent, finished this yarn with an exchange between Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson that echoed his own fears:
“There’s an east wind coming, Watson.”
“I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.”
“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.”
(The tête-à-tête was deemed to be so rousingly patriotic, that makers of the 1942 Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce film, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror—which was very loosely based on “His Last Bow,” this time sending Holmes to stop Nazi saboteurs in the U.K. during World War II—made sure to incorporate it into their script.)
British journalist and author Robert Ryan has staked his own claim to World War I–era incarnations of Conan Doyle’s sleuths. In Dead Man’s Land, one of my favorite crime novels of 2013, he imagines a well-ripened Watson joining the Royal Army Medical Corps, being dispatched to the front lines in 1914 and there investigating a series of problematic fatalities among the troops. Its sequel, The Dead Can Wait (2014), lacks the vivid atmospherics of squalid trenches and relentless bomb barrages—it’s set, rather, in England in 1916—but offers compensatory attractions. Principally, a new weapon being developed with Winston Churchill’s backing, that’s driving the soldiers who are testing its capabilities insane. Watson is called in to diagnose the dilemma, only to find himself, along with a frail Sherlock, being chased down “the most lethal road in Britain” by a devious and deadly foe. At present, these books must be ordered from the U.K., but they (along with Ryan’s coming third entry in the series, Dead Men Crossing) deserve to gain an American publisher soon.
More easily had is The Thirty-Nine Steps, penned by Scottish politician/author John Buchan and published in 1915, the second year of the fighting. Buchan called it a “shocker,” and it certainly strives to live up to that label. It finds a young mining engineer, Richard Hannay, returning to London from southern Africa in the spring of 1914, only to be told by an American freelance spy that plans are in motion to kill the Greek prime minister during his upcoming visit to the British capital, and destabilize Europe. When, shortly thereafter, that undercover agent is slain, Hannay—fearing that he’ll become the police’s No. 1 suspect, and hoping to thwart the assassination attempt—flees to Scotland. There he ducks pursuers, learns of a German plot to invade Great Britain and eventually brings down a conspiracy to purloin military secrets. In his dedication of this novel, Buchan called the latter half of the 1910s an era “when the wildest fictions are so much less improbable than the facts.” Yet he continued producing those wild fictions, among them Greenmantle (1916), which sent Hannay to Constantinople in 1915 to foil a German scheme for igniting religious unrest in the Muslim world.
Others have added their own improbable but engaging twists to the field of World War I espionage stories. Consider, for instance, A Drink to Yesterday (1940), a deliberately unromantic work by Manning Coles. It transports us into the company of pseudonymous Bill Saunders, who’s drafted by British Intelligence early in the fighting because of his aptitude with languages, and is subsequently tasked with penetrating enemy lines to thwart plans for a germ-warfare attack and stop a fleet of bomb-weighted dirigibles from reaching London. Meanwhile, W. Somerset Maugham gives us Ashenden: Or the British Agent (1928), a semi-autobiographical collection of linked adventures—alternately ruthless, treacherous and absurd—that star a writer of comic plays who, during his own espionage missions, gets mixed up with traitors, whores, contortionists, revolutionaries and other unsavory sorts.
In 2013’s The Star of Istanbul, Robert Olen Butler puts his daring but sexist, early 20th-century journalist/spy, Christopher “Kit” Marlowe Cobb (who debuted in The Hot Country), on the trail of a German intellectual and likely covert operative. Trouble is, it’s May 1915 and Cobb’s quarry has just boarded the British luxury liner Lusitania, a vessel soon to be sunk by a German U-boat off the Irish coast, resulting in 1,198 deaths and finally dragging the United States into the war. (Butler’s book followed Max Allan Collins’ 2002 novel, The Lusitania Murders, which pictured real-life mystery writer Willard Huntington Wright—better known as S.S. Van Dine—also aboard that doomed vessel, solving a case involving German stowaways and saboteurs.)
And David Downing, having polished off his World War II spy series (Masaryk Station, etc.), moves further back in time to welcome a new protagonist: Scottish high-end car dealer Jack McColl. Although his first McColl outing, Jack of Spies (2014), is set in 1913, you can spot the escalating tensions and machinations that will boil over into war’s outbreak. Our hero has for some while been engaged in low-level data-gathering activities for His Majesty’s government, despite a lack of training for that job. But the threat of exposure and retribution in China, gun-smuggling intrigues and McColl’s budding relationship with an American journalist and suffragette—who also has ties to the Irish Republican movement—add sudden levels of risk and anxiety to a sideline that once seemed the exciting province of gentlemen.
World War I mysteries and thrillers aren’t solely about spies, of course. Anne Perry, though she’s best known for her two long-running series, spotlighting either William Monk or Thomas and Charlotte Pitt, penned five other novels set throughout the war years. The first of those, No Graves As Yet (2002), introduced British college professor and chaplain Joseph Reavley, whose parents are suddenly killed in a 1914 car crash. He and his brother, Matthew, an officer in the Intelligence Service, set out to find the mysterious, supposedly scandalous document their father was intending to turn over to the government. Amid their search, they run into German agents with nefarious plans for England’s future, and Joseph probes the bewildering demise of a gifted student. Perry’s series follows the war to its end (in 2007’s We Shall Not Sleep), finding Joseph, his brother and their sister, ambulance-driver Judith, sussing out murderers and other malcontents both on and off the battlefield.
Worth reading, too, are the Bess Crawford mysteries by the mother and son who write together as “Charles Todd.” Their better-recognized books, starring shell-shocked and haunted Scotland Yard inspector Ian Rutledge (Hunting Shadows, etc.), take place in postwar England, but this second series is no less rich in bogus clues and human emotions. The India-reared, independent-minded Bess makes her first appearance in A Duty to the Dead (2009), setting off for the European front, in 1916, as a volunteer with the British nursing corps. During her travels, she befriends a terminally wounded lieutenant, who asks her to deliver a final, important message to his brother in England. Yet fulfilling that favor will place her in the middle of a family, and a village, that harbors more than a few tightly held secrets. The sixth and latest Bess Crawford yarn, An Unwilling Accomplice, is set for release this coming August.
Some crime novels that do the best job of illuminating what life was like during World War I aren’t set anywhere near the frontline dugouts or mustard gas-washed no man’s lands. After years spent composing a succession of whodunits grounded in the tumultuous theater world of Elizabethan England (The Princess of Denmark, etc.), Wales-born Edward Marston has more recently been assembling a “Home Front Detective Series” focused around a pair of Scotland Yard sleuths, Insp. Harvey Marmion and Sgt. Joe Keedy. The pair started out, in 2011’s A Bespoke Murder, by successfully resolving the case of a prosperous Jewish tailor whose life was taken in his London office during an impassioned protest against Germany’s sinking of the Lusitania. They’re set for a fourth showing in Deeds of Darkness, due out later this year.
In the meantime, Graham Ison, a former member of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, has concocted a dozen books so far featuring Det. Insp. Ernest Hardcastle, all of them (including Hardcastle’s Traitors, 2013) linking the fight overseas with criminal outrages in the British Isles. Agatha Christie crafted connections of a similar ilk in The Secret Adversary (1922), which unveiled former soldier Tommy Beresford and war volunteer Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley as a crime-solving couple, this time hunting in 1919 for a clandestine treaty evidently lost amid the Lusitania disaster. And lest you think all home front mysteries of the 1910s employ the U.K. capital as their backdrop, note that Jonathan Rabb’s evocative 2005 thriller, Rosa—the first in a trilogy of books about beleaguered Kriminal-Oberkommisar Nikolai Hoffner—does its best to portray the food shortages, petty larceny, political thuggery and despair plaguing Berlin at the war’s close.
How fitting it is that an international conflict ignited, in part, by the double murder of royals should have generated so much associated crime fiction. This is not a comprehensive list of what’s available. It doesn’t take into account, for example, the numerous works—such as Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs (2003) and its sequels, Rennie Airth’s John Madden thrillers (River of Darkness, etc.) or Reginald Hill’s The Wood Beyond (1996)—that trace the causes of ensuing later misdeeds to events on the World War I battlefields. But it’s a place to start your own explorations.