The period immediately following World War I was a time of particular social turmoil, involving issues such as labor, class, and colonialism. People were changed as individuals, too. Former soldiers had to deal with their return from battle to families who might not understand them any longer. Those who’d stayed on the home front had to adapt to changes necessitated by the death or disablement of so many men. And women who had been vital to industry and the food supply during the war were forced back into their traditional roles by the soldiers’ return.
A basic theme of the mystery genre as a whole is society and its morals and ethics. Perhaps that’s why so many historical mystery series have been set in the aftermath of World War I—it’s a perfect venue for examining issues that are crucial to the genre itself. I’m discussing those series that specifically provide some insight into postwar society, or that I particularly enjoyed.
The first series I always think of—the first post-World War I series I remember reading—is Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey series. Wimsey suffers from shell shock and his sidekick, Bunter, was his batman during the war. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, in particular, explicitly addresses post-war issues, as it features a character who was disabled from having been gassed and is having marital problems as a result; plus the murder takes place on Remembrance Day. Wimsey’s lingering shell shock appears in several of the books, most notably Busman’s Honeymoon.
Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books, which begin in 1914, offer an excellent picture of the lives of educated, upper-class women in the postwar period, and later in the series, we are introduced to a former soldier who happens to be Holmes’s son.
Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series, set in Australia, likewise follows an upper-class woman as she moves through a changed society, encountering both former soldiers and others who were against the war.
Suzanne Arruda’s Jade Del Cameron series is interesting in that its American heroine, postwar, travels to Kenya, where she begins her career as an amateur detective. Her first case results from the dying wish of her fiancé, a pilot killed in the war. Like Phryne Fisher, Jade was an ambulance driver in the war.
Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is one of the best known contemporary post-World War I mystery series, and shows upward class mobility made possible postwar. Maisie worked as a maid in the house of aristocrats before serving as a nurse during the war; eventually, the contacts she makes there lead to her opening her own detective agency.
Charles Todd (a collaborative identity of two authors) has two series, the long-running Inspector Rutledge and Bess Crawford. Rutledge served as an officer and was profoundly psychologically damaged by events during the war, including the execution of a soldier. Crawford served as a nurse, and her first two cases relate to patients who were soldiers wounded in the war.
River of Darkness is the first book in the John Madden series by Rennie Airth. Madden, as you might expect, still bears physical and emotional wounds from his time at the Front, but his experience turns out to be important when he finds that a mass murder has been inflicted with a bayonet.
Finally, I’m not sure if it counts as a series yet, since book two is not out until June 2012, but I’d like to recommend Elizabeth Speller’s Laurence Bartram books, starting with The Return of Captain John Emmett. It explores how soldiers’ experiences while at war often changed them beyond recognition of their families and loved ones back at home. Bartram himself suffered shell shock, and is in the process of trying to find what his new self is going to be, and how he will fit into the world now that he’s no longer a soldier.
Please feel free to suggest other series to me in the comments!
Victoria Janssen is the author of three erotic novels and numerous short stories. Her latest novel is The Duke and The Pirate Queen from Harlequin Spice. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.