Last March, I cobbled together "The Hit List: Top 10 Favorite Reprints from Dean Street Press" and intended to make "The Hit List" a semi-regular feature of the blog without using it as an excuse to ride my favorite hobby horse to pieces – which is why it took so long to compile another list. I'm sure most of you would have thrown up your hands in despair, if the second Hit List had been titled "Top 5 Favorite Translations from Pushkin Vertigo" or "The 10 Best from Locked Room International" (We know, Tom, you like locked room mysteries. Shut up).
I decided on a World War II theme, which may sound as basic as any other top 10 list, but wanted to put together a list with titles with some historical weight behind them. Not merely titles that take place during the war or use WWII aesthetics as a frame for the period of the story. Just reference to blackouts, air-raid wardens and rationing is not enough to make the cut. So no Anthony Wynne's Emergency Exit (1941), Nap Lombard's Murder's a Swine (1943), E.C.R. Lorac's Checkmate to Murder (1944). The war has to play a significant part in the plot, storytelling or characters, while trying to pick titles that also happen to be great detective stories.
That was not as easy as it sounds. There are one, or two, novels on the list that made the cut purely on the strength of their now historical content than the quality of their plot, but, on a whole, I'm quite pleased with the result. A wide and varied selection of titles with publication dates ranging from 1934 to 2008! It's often overlooked that the Golden Age detective story was ahead of the world when it came to expecting a sequel to the Great War. Hopefully, you can all appreciate this historically skewered list and find something to fatten those bloated, but always famished looking, wishlists.
The Talking Sparrow Murders (1934) by Darwin L. Teilhet
A prescient novel contemporary to the Nazis rising to power in Germany using the detective story as a vehicle to address those early atrocities. To quote Douglas G. Greene, "it took five or six tears for popular writers, who usually reflect widely-held attitudes, to feature Hitler and the Nazis in their novels." The Talking Sparrow Murders is more than an unheeded warning. It's a darkly comedic chase mystery crammed with spy-and thriller material that anticipates Carr's The Unicorn Murders (1935) and The Punch and Judy Murders (1937). The story turns on such bizarre, seemingly inexplicable situations as an elderly men hearing a sparrow talk or high-ranking Nazis going out of their way to bow to a lonely tree. A rare bird, indeed!
I'll Grind Their Bones (1936) by Theodore Roscoe
novel years ahead of its time. Roscoe was something of a military
historian who was commissioned by the United States Naval Institute
to write "the
detailed and massive histories" of US submarine operations
during the Second World War, but he had a finger on the pulse of
modern, industrialized warfare back in the 1930s – penning a
terrifyingly prophetic pulp-style mystery. I'll Grind Their Bones
breaths the atmosphere of the immediate pre-WWI period as tensions
between Teutony (Germany) and Esperance (France) threaten outright
war. When their respective Iron Premier and Foreign Minister are
assassinated, Der Meister of Teutony declares war on Esperance
and destroys their capitol city in an apocalyptic attack from the sky
with "aerial torpedoes." The protagonist stumbling through
the smoking rubble of the devastated city is just one of the
prophetic images that would become reality in less than five years.
I'll Grind Their Bones is currently also available under the
title War Declared. My mistake. See comments.
Nine—and Death Makes Ten (1940) by Carter Dickson
Arguably, one of the two best-known, most celebrated and atmospheric World War II mysteries of the period. A blacked out munitions-carrying ship, HM Edwardic, traverses the Atlantic gale and submarine infested waters shipping a precious cargo of war equipment. So not even the nine passengers aboard know the ship's exact destination, but then someone disappears and another passenger is foully murdered. The cut-throat left behind a set of incriminating, bloody fingerprints, but, to everyone's surprise, they do not match anybody aboard the ship. A classic of both the shipboard and WWII-era detective novel unfairly overshadowed by the author's more famous novels.
The Case of the Murdered Major (1941) by Christopher Bush
During the early years of the war, Bush wrote three excellent, wartime detective novels forming, what can be called, the home front trilogy and the first of these three novels was drawn from firsthand experience – administrating prisoner-of-war and alien internment camps from 1939 to 1940. The Case of the Murdered Major finds Ludovic Travers serving as an Adjutant Quartermaster at POW camp in a Victorian-era hospital, but there appears to be a phantom prisoner among the captives who moves around the camp unimpeded. A serious problem exacerbated when the body of the titular major is discovered lying outside in untrodden snow. This is a rock solid, tightly plotted detective story giving an inside look at a British POW camp combined with two borderline impossible crimes and a carefully constructed alibi that needs knocking down.
Green for Danger (1944) by Christianna Brand
The most famous and celebrated of all British WWII mystery novels. Green for Danger entirely takes place in a military hospital during the Blitz and concerns the death of a patient who died under mysterious circumstances on the operating table. A fiendishly plotted detective novel demonstrating why Brand's only rivals were John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie.
Not Quite Dead Enough (1944) by Rex Stout
The United States homeland, oceans away from the theaters of war, remained untouched and American writers seem to have produced more (foreign-set) spy fiction than proper, wartime detective novels like their British counterparts – barring one or two exceptions. Between 1942 and 1944, Rex Stout wrote two first-rate novellas, "Not Quite Dead Enough" and "Booby Trap," in which the war adds a whole new dimension to the characters of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. "Not Quite Dead Enough" is easily the best of the two. Not only in how the war has changed the characters, but sporting one of Stout's cleverest plots. "Booby Trap" is not quite as good, but still a very well done story about corporate espionage and a US army colonel blown to pieces by an experimental grenade.
Subject—Murder (1945) by Clifford Witting
A recently uncovered and reprinted gem that begins with the promise that the story is not going to be another rookie's war diary, but Peter Bradfield's account of his first weeks of training to become a bombardier certainly can be read as a war diary. I fear the long prelude to murder, "a comedy-drama that ended in tragedy," will test the patience of many readers, but I detailed account fascinating. And, when the murder finally happens, it happens with all the ingenuity of the Golden Age and "the brutal justice of the Dark Ages." Only drawback is the long prelude cutting into the page count of the detective side of the story. Subject—Murder is pretty much a war novel ending with a detective novella.
Hangman's Hill (1946) by Franklyn Pell
Practically every title on this list is either currently in print or used copies can be easily found online, but Franklyn Pell's Hangman's Hill is a truly obscure, long out-of-print novel and had a fresh take on the WWII-era detective story – secreting a murder victim on the battlefield. The book takes place in partially liberated France as the Allied forces push onward from the perspective of news correspondents following closely behind. Since the book was published shortly after the war, Pell had the room to give a more sober and realistic depiction of the war with references to soldiers making cognac out of gasoline, racketeering and stiff punishments for minor mistakes. If more care had been given to the quality of the plot, Hangman's Hill would have been a minor classic rather than a fascinating historical curiosity. Weakly plotted, as it may be, its depiction of the battlefield towards the end of the war warrants its presence on this list.
The Danger Within (1952) by Michael Gilbert
This is one of my personal all-time favorite detective novels! The Danger Within, alternative published as Death in Captivity, is another novel inspired by the author's own experiences as a prisoner and escapee in Italy. Just imagine The Great Escape playing out like a classically-styled whodunit and a murder victim miraculously appearing inside a collapsed escape tunnel. There are some genuinely funny scenes as the British soldiers try to get the body out of the tunnel to prevent the Italian guards from discovering it and putting a stop to "The Great Crawl" of Campo 127. The Danger Within has it all and the fact that the story is informed by firsthand experience makes it so much more a mere masterpiece of detective fiction.
Crucified (2008) by Michael Slade
I started the list with two novels from the 1930s providing prophetic glimpses of the then coming war and wanted to end the list with a title dealing, in some way, with its aftermath or long-buried secrets – one title immediately sprang to mind. Michael Slade is somewhat of a controversial figure around these parts as he has been called "a torture porn maven." Yeah, Slade's approach to murder tends to be that of a sadistic butcher with a hacksaw working at piece rate and enjoys a fanbase known as "Sladists," but Slade kept the torture at an appropriate minimum to tell an archaeological and historical (locked room) mystery. A construction project uncovered the wreck of a long-lost Allied bomber and inside the find the remains of a seemingly impossible murder: the decayed skeleton of the rear gunner is found in his turret with obvious signs of stab wounds in his back. But who could have killed him when everyone was in their battle stations? And remained their until they bailed out. The wreck of a sealed submarine, destroyed by a depth-charge barrage, offers the story a second archaeological locked room mystery towards the end. A fitting book to the close out the list as one of many examples of the continued fascination with the Second World War and how it continues to drive stories today.