It surely takes a lot of chutzpah (or maybe just a bit of insensitivity) to give the title Anthem for Doomed Youth to a light detective mystery. I came across this in Waterstone’s, and since the back cover promised a story about ‘a tragic case of long-buried secrets’, linked to the Great WarI thought I’d take a look at it.
Carola Dunn’s novel (published by Robinson in 2011) is what is known in the book business as a ‘cosy’. This means that it is a pastiche of the detective fiction of the twenties and thirties – early Marjory Allingham or Dorothy Sayers, for example – and is designed to appeal to readers nostalgic for cloche hats, class distinction and proper tea shops. These readers have a penchant for crime fiction but are put off, probably, by the typical twenty-first century examples of the genre, which mostly aim to entertain us with lurid descriptions of autopsies, and with the exploits of improbably brilliant and prolific serial killers.
Carola Dunn’s detective is a bright young woman called Daisy Dalrymple, and Anthem for Doomed Youth is the nineteenth novel in the series (though Ms Dunn, who is clearly no slouch, has also produced other mystery stories, and also some Regency romances).
I found this a very odd book indeed, so I shall write a bit about it – but I warn you that my description contains hints of what happens in the course of the plot – so if you want to avoid spoilers, stop reading now.
The heroine/detective is not actually Daisy Dalrymple by this stage in the series, but Mrs Fletcher, since she has married a policeman, Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher. The book begins with him heading off to Epping Forest, where three bodies have been found in shallow graves. Daisy is told to keep her nose out of police business, but her intuition gives him the (fairly obvious) solution to what could possibly link the three victims. Then, in the book’s most improbable coincidence, Daisy happens to be around when a fourth victim is discovered.
The big difference between this book and the detective novels of Christie and Sayers is that it is much, much cosier – and much more predictable. In those ‘Golden Age’ novels, many of the characters were stereotypes, but at least one would always turn out to be very different from what he or she seemed. The story might present a world of apparent cosiness, but there were always cruel secrets lurking. In Carola Dunn’s novel, it is cosiness all the way. The characters who seem to be nice are still nice at the end; the ones who seem to be nasty are confirmed to be nasty. The book has rather less moral complexity than an Enid Blyton ‘Famous Five’ adventure.
As for the Great War background, this is not, I think, a subject on which Carola Dunn is an expert. For instance, here’s someone talking about a soldier:
Then the war started, just as he finished school. He volunteered at once, of course – the Territorials – they didn’t take volunteers into the regular army yet, not till – I’m not quite – sometime in 1915, I think, or was it ’16? As soon as they did, he – and then he was sent to France. Or he volunteered to go.
Then there is the question of trench warfare, which Carola Dunn has obviously heard was quite a feature of the First World War. An old soldier is described:
He was in the Eighth Battalion [of the Buffs]. They went all over the place, Ypres, Loos, the Somme, and who knows where else. Wherever there were trenches. William didn’t approve of trenches. He said the Buffs had fought without in Napoleon’s war and the Boer War, and they ought to be attacking, not cowering in holes in the ground.
Hmm. Here is a photo of a Boer War trench…
Since the history is so haphazard, it becomes obvious that the ‘long-buried secret’ is going to be the thing that everyone knows about the Great War. Yes, a sixteen-year-old deserter was shot at dawn! The three corpses in the forest are the officers who sentenced him.
It has become obligatory for any twenty-first century first pop-culture artefact about the First World War to include a firing squad . Tragedy has been reduced to cliché. The sloppily-written second series of Downton Abbey squeezed a bit of pathos out of the cook’s nephew being executed, and even the film of War Horse differed from the book in popping in a firing squad (though showing a little originality by making it a German one.)
The deserter, of course, is presented as totally innocent, as well as under-age. The execution is insisted on by a sadistic senior officer, who bullies the other two on the court-martial into agreeing to the verdict. His only real supporter is an equally sadistic N.C.O., who forces unwilling soldiers into joining the firing squad. It is entirely a matter of vicious men being wantonly cruel to a defenceless victim. Real-life cases, I need hardly say, were more complicated.
The murderer of the officers is the condemned boy’s aggrieved father, and one of the odd things about the book is that he never appears as a character. The novel ignores the cardinal rule of Golden Age detective fiction, that the culprit should be introduced within the first few chapters, to give the reader a chance of guessing his or her identity. There is very little of a detective puzzle in this story; its form is more that of a plodding police procedural. CI Fletcher appeals for information; someone gives him some, and he is led more or less straight to the killer (who then commits suicide before we can find out anything interesting about him). Daisy does a tiny bit more investigating in the book’s sub-plot, but not much. She just has intuitions that lead her in the right direction. Less time is spent on detection than in describing teas and picnics, and minor problems with children.
The book is interesting, though, in suggesting what is happening to the memory of the Great War. Not so many years ago, texts like Oh What a Lovely War, Days of Hope and The Monocled Mutineer may sometimes have played fast and loose with historical accuracy, but they were written with passion. In a book like this, the tragedies of the War become little details that fill out a nostalgic picture. Oh dear, wasn’t that sad! But didn’t they wear lovely clothes in the twenties! And wasn’t it nice when the lower orders knew their places!