The Fourth of July is a time Americans celebrate freedom, but the date also marks an important ideological expansion of a war, since the Declaration of Independence made clear that the conflict was not simply an internal rebellion within the British empire, and it paved the way for France to enter the war on the Americans’ side. Whenever this date comes around I find myself thinking of Edward D. Hoch’s mystery series set during the Revolution, starring an intelligence agent for George Washington, Alexander Swift. The stories follow Swift’s investigations of that most notorious of all traitors (to Americans), Benedict Arnold. But Ed Hoch was an excellent researcher, and his portrait of Arnold is nuanced: He makes clear, for one, that Arnold was also a hero of the American Revolution, one who helped ensure an American victory at the crucial second battle of Saratoga.
One of the things that never fails to make a war mystery engrossing for me is dexterous handling of the many upheavals war creates in daily life: a skillful drawing of the contrast between life as it was and life as war has made it. Ed Hoch did a good job of bringing such contrasts out in his Alexander Swift series—particularly when the scene was New York City under British occupation. Another fine example of interesting treatment of the civilian side of war can be found in the BBC television series Foyle’s War, which focuses on murder investigations on the home front in WWII Britain. The term “cozy” may seem odd applied to stories set amidst bombings, espionage, and black-market racketeering, but this series also manages to capture much of the altered domestic life of its central characters. Carolyn Hart’s Pulitzer-nominated and Agatha Award-winning novel Letter from Home, set on the U.S. home front during WWII, features the heroine of a short story published in EQMM in March 1999, “Spooked.” That’s a “cozy” war mystery not to be missed, and in case you haven’t read it, our podcast of it is still available through The Mystery Place.
Of course, a lot of war mysteries focus on the larger events of such violent crises: espionage directly affecting the success of armies; issues relating to justice and the wartime suspension of civil liberties are common themes. What I look for in such stories is a good use of historical facts, especially those that aren’t too widely known—for example, the fact that the U.S. government appealed to the American mafia to convince its Sicilian counterpart to turn against the Nazis in WWII (something J. Robert Janes wove into his WWII-based fiction series). War certainly makes for strange bedfellows, turning avowed enemies into temporary friends and, sometimes, as in the American Civil War, friends and loved ones into enemies. Doug Allyn’s story “The Scent of Lilacs” (EQMM September/October 2010), about a family split between the Union and the Confederacy, is such a tale, and it won its year’s Edgar Allan Poe Award for best short story.
One of the reasons stories set in wartime continue to prove compelling—and why people often find them inspirational—is that the significance of seemingly small actions is magnified by war. A sort of black market can probably be found at any time in most large cities (at least in the form of unlicensed street vendors selling goods that “fell off the back of a truck”). In wartime, when the consequences of misappropriating goods are so much greater, such acts may carry the death penalty. Likewise, unselfish compliance with restrictions on trade and consumption can take on an almost heroic significance. I wonder, though, if the way in which so many contemporary wars is fought isn’t going to change the nature of the war story. Dixon Hill’s story “Dancing in Mozambique,” from our July 2010 issue, provided a harrowing portrait of war waged by mercenaries and the greed and pitilessness it breeds. It’s a riveting thriller, but certainly offers no profiles in courage.
Stories heavy in descriptions of weaponry tend to turn me off (though I know there’s a big audience for such stories, so I try to keep an open mind). But every once in a while in my EQMM reading I come upon something of a technological nature that I find absolutely fascinating. It was through Ed Hoch’s Alexander Swift story “King George’s Gold,” for example, that I learned that the first use of a submarine (or at any rate a submersible) in war was in the American Revolution, on the American side, in New York Harbor.
Happy Fourth!—Janet Hutchings