The best World War I crime fiction

KitchenerToday marks 100 years since Britain entered World War I. For the next five years, writers, artists and historians from all over the world will remind us the momentous events which took place between 1914 and 1919.

The Great War is remembered for its soldier poets – Owen, Sassoon, Gurney, Blunden and Thomas – but those years that shaped the 20th century have inspired some fine crime fiction novels too. What better cover for plain old-fashioned criminal activity than the carnage and chaos of the front line? The books we have chosen below feature all kinds of dark deeds from rape and murder through to treachery and profiteering. All these titles also contain superbly researched historical detail and deliver an authentic atmosphere of the war, in and out of the trenches. So, over the top we go!

DoMThe Thomas Oscendale novels by Jonathan Hicks
Oscendale is a former policeman from Wales but is serving in the Military Foot Police – a forerunner of today’s Royal Military Police. In The Dead Of Mametz he investigates the rape and murder of a French widow, but finds that he has enemies on both sides of the front line. The follow-up, Demons Walk Among Us, sees him jump from the frying pan of the Somme in 1916 to the fire of Ypres in 1917. Hicks is equally adept at describing the Home Front as this story moves on to Oscendale’s investigation of a series of horrific murders on South Wales. He discovers that they link back to events in Gallipoli in 1915, and the carnage of Passchendaele.
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NGAYThe Joseph Reavley Quintet by Anne Perry
With her novels set in Victorian times, Anne Perry is up there in the top rank of contemporary historical novelists. But it is her five book series centred around the Cambridge academic Joseph Reavley which deals with World War I. No Graves As Yet (2003) begins during the endless summer of 1914, and Reavley is drawn into an international conspiracy involving the death of his parents. Perry takes us through the war years, with titles that borrow from the poetry of the time. The over arching story has Reavley searching for a traitor WSNSembedded deep in the British government. With a title taken from John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields, the series concludes with We Shall Not Sleep (2007). The war is all but over, but now the mysterious agent called The Peacemaker threatens chaos and carnage.
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the-somme-stationsThe Steam Detective novels by Andrew Martin
We first meet Jim Stringer in The Necropolis Railway (2005) when the young railway employee is drafted to London in 1903 to work the funeral trains that leave the special station near Waterloo, bound for the sprawling acres of Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey. Given the time frame it is inevitable that Jim becomes involved in the Great War and in The Somme Stations (2011) he’s to be found driving engines behind the lines during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. As Jim battles shot and shell to deliver ordinance to the front line, there is a murderer out there who waits to be caught. This book won the CWA Ellis Peters Award for historical crime fiction. In the grimly topical The Baghdad Railway Club, Jim is trying to keep the railway running in the 1917 Mesopotamia. A spy, an unexplained death, and the unforgiving desert provide his greatest challenge yet.
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ThefirstcasualtyThe First Casualty by Ben Elton
The stand-up comedian, scriptwriter and scourge of Mrs Thatcher ventured off his home turf with this 2005 novel. A former detective, who has been imprison because he is a conscientious objector, is freed on the understanding that he will travel to the Western Front to investigate the shooting of a British officer, who was also a controversial poet. Douglas Kingsley has to conduct his enquiries against the rapidly worsening military backdrop of the Third Battle of Ypres – Passchendaele.
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No Mans LandNo Man’s Land by Reginald Hill
The late and highly regarded creator of Dalziel and Pascoe showed in this 1987 novel that he was too good a writer to be confined by the boundaries of the popular detective series. There was an urban legend that in the wastes of no man’s land – which was particularly inhospitable given the artillery used in World War I – there existed a band of outlaws. These deserters from the opposing forces were said to scavenge and prey upon the living, wounded and dead. Viney’s Volunteers have their own laws and their own code of conduct. Horrified by the execution of his brother, a young English soldier joins these renegades only to face huge questions about the nature of love, loyalty, and life itself.
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The-Ways-of-the-WorldThe James Maxted series by Robert Goddard
Though they’re set after the armistice of November 1918, Robert Goddard’s books are totally appropriate if you’re looking for WWI crime fiction with a touch of espionage thrown in. The Treaty of Versailles, signed on 28 June 1919, was merely a piece of very expensive paper. Behind the scenes spies, renegades and duplicitous politicians were still fighting the battle which would carve up Europe for decades to come. James Maxted is a decorated former RAF pilot who becomes involved in all this skulduggery when his diplomat father dies in mysterious circumstances. It was hard enough to win the war, but winning the peace poses almost as many problems. We’ve reviewed both The Ways of the World and The Corners of the Globe.
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Mentioned in dispatches…
There are many World War I novels that fall outside the crime genre, but are also worthy of mention. Covenant With Death by John Harris, All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy, and Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks are all excellent. There is also a handful of novels such novels where crime is an ingredient, albeit not the main one.

GreenmantleJohn Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps misses the outbreak of war by a few months, but in Greenmantle(1916), Richard Hannay is sent on a spying mission to Constantinople, and the thriller ends with Hannay on the winning side after The Battle of Urzurum. In Echoes of Madness (2014) by Roy Stolworthy, two officers develop a deadly rivalry. The more junior of the two escapes from the front line before his court-martial, and hides in the East End of London, plotting the downfall of his nemesis.

Paths Of GloryWilliam Boyd directed a film – The Trench (1999) – which focused on a group of young men on the eve of the Battle of the Somme – but he also wrote Waiting for Sunrise (2012), which is essentially a wartime spy thriller. It begins in Vienna and pays a respectful nod to the detecting style of Sherlock Holmes. Talking of Sherlock Holmes, we should mention that Robert Ryan has transported Dr Watson to the Western Front. The most recent of these adventures is The Dead Can Wait, where Watson is back on home turf, investigating the deaths of seven soldiers at a tank training camp. Squeezing in by the skin of its teeth, principally because it contains that quintessential element of crime fiction – the courtroom drama – is Paths of Glory by Humphrey Cobb. Cobb, a WWI veteran is little read now, but his 1935 novel exploring the fate of four French soldiers in the aftermath of the notorious 1917 mutinies was made into one of the finest anti-war films ever made – Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 movie of the same name, starring Kirk Douglas.

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4 Comments

  1. Robert Ryan Reply

    All fine recommendations (I particularly like the Reg Hill book) but if we can have Robert Goddard’s excellent post-1918 series, can I make a plea for Gavin Lyall’s pre-1914 series, which begins with Spy’s Honour? Four books take the fledgling British Secret Service from 1912 to the eve of war, with a cast of well-drawn characters and nicely intricate plots. Probably more thriller than crime, the quartet was Lyall’s swan song, but a strong finish to his writing career.

    1. crimefictionlover Reply

      Thanks for posting Robert. You’ve not mentioned your own WWI crime books, so I shall. In Dead Man’s Land, Dr Watson of Holmes fame is serving in the trenches as a physician but happens upon a murder in the ranks. More here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dead-Mans-Land-Robert-Ryan/dp/1849839573/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1407235108&sr=8-1&keywords=Robert+Ryan

      And in The Dead Can Wait Watson’s back at it in Blighty, solving more crimes as he helps veterans of the Great War recover from their injuries both physical and psychological. More here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Dead-Wait-Robert-Ryan/dp/1471101177/ref=pd_sim_b_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=0N5879XGEX9XH9NMZBGR

      Cheers – CFL

  2. Deborah Anne Reply

    The Bess Crawford series written by Charles Todd features a sleuthing front line nurse. It is excellent. Also consider the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. It is set after the war but most of her cases involve something that occurred during the war.

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