Thursday, September 11, 2014

Detectives Beyond Borders' Peter Rozovsky and "Crime During Wartime"

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: I'm delighted to introduce Detectives Beyond Borders' Peter Rozovsky, writing about "Crime During Wartime," a panel he moderated at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany.


PETER ROZOVSKY: I changed the name of a Bouchercon panel because of Susan Elia MacNeal. The panel, at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany, spotlighted crime fiction set during World War II and its aftermath conflicts, and I had called it “World War II and Sons.”

“What about daughters?” Susan asked, and I explained that the “sons” in this case were not people, but rather the Cold War and the Korean War, personified as male.  Susan accepted my explanation with good grace. But she had got me thinking about the books our panel would discuss, and I realized these were at least as much about people as they were about fighting. 

When I welcomed the audience, I told them the panel was now called “World War II and Its Offspring” because the stories that Susan told, and those of her fellow panelist/authors James R. Benn, J. Robert Janes, John Lawton, and Martin Limón, were more about persons than about personification, and those persons were, of course, women as well as men.  

Sure, Benn’s Billy Boyle is an aide to Gen. Eisenhower, but he’s also a brash kid from South Boston thrust into a world far bigger than anything he had encountered before, and the passages where he realizes this are some of the most affecting in Benn's books. (MacNeal's Maggie Hope, though brilliant, college-educated, and heiress to an English home, is, like Billy, something of a fish out of water, and a more interesting character for it.)

I told the audience in my (brief) introduction that war was like a magnifying glass, multiplying the real or imagined significance of any action, including “ordinary’ murder, arson, and embezzlement. But it’s really more like a raindrop or a tear. It will magnify a scene, but the lightest touch to the surface on which it rests will set the lens vibrating and hopelessly distort the view.

Among the members of that wartime crime panel, that sense of unease, of the distortions and diffractions war works on the way people see the world and are themselves seen, is strongest in J. Robert Janes and Martin Limón. Janes pairs a German Gestapo and a French Sûreté inspector investigating crimes in occupied France during World War II. Limón’s novels and stories have two American G.I.s in South Korea looking into crimes that involve the U.S. military—two outsiders, that is, poised uneasily between two divided cultures. 

Amid a military hierarchy often more interested in protecting its own brass than in justice, amid a Korean culture sometimes mysterious to Limón's American investigator-protagonists, and always in the face of the looming military menace of North Korea, it is no wonder that the most "ordinary" crime acquires deep and menacing dimensions. And, though a disclaimer that prefaces Janes' Kohler and Sr. Cyr novels claims Janes merely inquires after the way "ordinary" crimes were solved in occupied France, his moral universe is the darkest of any noir I have ever read. Here, too, there are no "ordinary" crimes.

And how about this brilliant dissection of England's national character (and characters) in John Lawton's Second Violin?  Read the passage, then reflect that Lawton sets the scene in an English internment camp for aliens from enemy countries, notwithstanding that some had escaped the terror of what seemed about to happen in those very countries:

"`And I'm Rod Troy ... of Hampstead.'

"`It helps," said Drax, `and it will not detain us long, if we state for the record our city of origin. ... Arthur Kornfeld, of Vienna, keeps records for us. We all feel it helps to know where we all come from. To have something written down by us rather than by the British. Helps us not to ... not to lose touch. A matter of identity. No small matter you will agree.'

"Rod did agree. It was a matter of identity that had brought him here in the first place.

"`In that case,' he said, perfectly willing to play the game, "`I'm Rodyon Troy, also of Vienna. Indeed, I think you'll find more than a few of us are.'

"Drax stuck out both hands to shake one of Rod's, beaming at him as though he'd found a long-lost son. Behind him Rod heard Jacks plonk his gladstone bag on the table and say, `Billy Jacks, Stepney Green.'

"Kornfeld said, `It won't hurt, you know. And we're all in the same boat.'

"Billy shot a surly glance in Rod's direction, looked back at Kornfeld.

"`OK, OK, whatever `Ampstead says. Abel Jakobson, Danzig. Now, where's me bleedin' tea?'"

(Lawton's principal characters are English, but his novel Bluffing Mr. Churchill offers an entertaining version of the American innocent abroad, a young embassy staffer plunged into London in 1941, puzzled by Cockney rhyming slang and staggered by the sight of solitary houses left standing after German air raids.  Are stories about civilians in wartime particularly fascinating to we North Americans, the majority of whom have been mercifully free of such experiences in real life?)

The wars need not be long past. Some of my favorite crime fiction in recent years has come out of Northern Ireland, from authors grappling with the effects and after-effects of a kind of war – the sectarian Troubles – on daily lives.   See Anthony Quinn's Disappeared, for example, or Stuart Neville's Ghosts of Belfast.  I'll leave it to one such author to sum up the appeal of crime fiction set during wartime, of the terror, the exhilaration, and the sheer wonderment that something like ordinary life sometimes goes on amid hellish circumstances.

"I wanted to set a book in this claustrophobic atmosphere," writes Adrian McKinty in an afterword to his novel The Cold Cold Ground, "attempting to recapture the sense that civilization was breaking down to its basest levels. I also wanted to remember the craic, the music, the bombastic politicians, the apocalyptic street preachers, the sinister gunmen and a lost generation of kids for whom all of this was normal."

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Reds and lovely readers, do you read historical fiction? Who are some of your favorite authors? Do you believe, as Peter does (and I do), that "war [is] like a magnifying glass, multiplying the real or imagined significance of any action, including “ordinary’ murder, arson, and embezzlement"?

Peter Rozovsky writes the Detectives Beyond Borders blog. His reviews and essays have appeared in Following the Detectives: Real Locations in Crime Fiction; The Cultural Detective; Nordic Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Film & TV; Words Without Borders; the Philadelphia Inquirer; and elsewhere. Read Detectives Beyond Borders at


  1. Yes, I do read historical fiction. I love the books Susan and Rhys write; I’ve enjoyed the Billy Boyle stories . . .
    And, yes, war certainly magnifies actions . . . . Now I’m going to check out the Detectives Beyond Borders blog.

  2. Thanks for having Peter on. I love the Detective Beyond Borders blog.

    I love a good historical, either general fiction or mystery. Of course, the name that springs right to mind in Charles Todd, but the JRW are already familiar with them.

    As I watch the Outlander television show and reflect back on reading that book 20 years ago, I have to say that much of my knowledge of the history of that time-period comes from that book.

    Good think I know that Diana Gabaldon has done tons of research and accurately depicted the time.

    (As an aside, I know many male readers stay away from Gabaldon's books, because they are filed in the romance section, but I think her depictions of war and the troubles surrounding it are some of the most realistic and are sure to please male readers who just give the books a chance.)

  3. Peter, loved reading about these wonderful books and authors... your enthusiasm is contagious. Adding to my TBR list.

    Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances -- that's the essence of war, isn't it? And I confess, it's hard not to be thinking about war on this anniversary ... when I'm wondering is there going to ever be an "after" to today's "war."

  4. I watched a piece of historical fiction on Masterpiece Mystery over the past 3 weeks-- did anyone else watch "Breathless"? It fascinated me because it was set in London in 1961 or 1962, and that is right when I started college in NYC, so the characters were perhaps a few years to a decade or so older than I would have been at the time, and wore clothes that could have been in my closet and hairstyles I'd worn (or tried to wear), and drank things that I'd sampled.

    I found it stayed with me in ways that were, perhaps, not intended. I kept thinking, "I know what is likely to happen to that person, and it isn't at all what people think." Or maybe it was-- I hear the series was a sort of "pilot" that was not picked up.

    Does something have to be of a fairly distant historical period to be "historical"? Or could it be set on 9/12/01? Or maybe Miami during the Bay of Pigs invasion-that-failed? And what else was happening in the world of crime while we were all obsessed with the stains on Monica's dress (and could that provide a cover for some totally unrelated action)?

  5. Hey all, Peter will be joining us later today, so please stay tuned.

    Yes, on the anniversary on 9/11, much food for thought. The so-called war on terror seems to me to be similar to "the war on drugs" — it will never end.

  6. Also -- Kristopher, good for you for reading Gabaldon.

  7. And this is quite the magnifying glass day, isn't it?

  8. SO.

    Yes, these books are heartbreakingly important. Thank you, Peter!

    We have to learn how to teach history--and I think it's through characters, not lists of dates. Isn't historical fiction a good way to get people hooked on history?

  9. I do read historical fiction - if it's gripping. And to make it gripping, I agree with Hank - it's about the characters, the people, not the dates. Good history is a great story, not a list of who was where and did what when.

    I think any large-scale, stressful event acts as a magnifying glass. And yes, today is one of those days (although you'll pardon me if I take a break for cake at noon - it is also my birthday and it was my birthday before it was a day of tragedy =) )

  10. I write about the time between wars, but I'm fascinated by crime fiction within wartime. WW I and II were times of heightened emotions, when you lives as if every day could be your last. And yet life went on in all aspects as before. I adore Foyles War that stresses this.

  11. Mystery and historical fiction are my favorite genres, and the two combined are heaven, as with Rhys and Susan. Some favorite historical fiction authors for me are Sena Jeter Naslund, Alan Brennert, Geraldine Brooks, and Jamie Ford. I, too, am an ardent fan of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series and its historical fiction.

    I will now be checking out Peter, as the Jungle Reds always steer me to more great reading on this blog.

  12. A war does magnify everything--the good, the bad, the worse than ugly. And the effects of that war ripple outward into the years which follow 'peace.' I was eight years old during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I vividly remember the tension and fear in my parents. Was another war looming? What would it do to their lives?

    I enjoy historical fiction that gets the details right--and not just the dates, etc., but the characters--authors who are able to make their characters real in the context of the time they are writing about.

  13. I love historical fiction, especially when combined with mystery. Besides those authors already mentioned I would add Barbara Cleverly, Elizabeth Speller, Catriona McPherson, Rennie Airth,Beatriz Williams, Dolores Gordon-Smith, Frances Brody. And their stories cover just the period pre WW1 to the beginnings of WW2. I also enjoy other eras but this 20th century time period is fascinating to me.

  14. Good morning, everyone (It's about 8 a.m. in my personal time zone. And thanks for the kind words.

    Joan, what do you find most attractive about historical fiction> What makes you read it?

  15. Oh, and thanks, Susan, for inviting me.

    Kristopher, I should add that I avoid romance like the plague. On the other hand, war can amplify the stakes of romance as well. This happens in Benn's books and Lawton's, not to mention McKinty's, on occasion, So I'm not sure I'll go running to the romance section anytime soon, but the connection between historical fiction, especially set during wartime, on the one hand, and romance on the other is not at all far-fetched.

  16. Halle, my enthusiasm always picks up around this time of year. For me, summer is something to be got through before the crime-fiction-convention season. And yes I realized this week that this discussion would be appearing on a grim anniversary.

    War is not necessarily about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Sometimes it's more about the circumstances. I am wary of the trend in history in recent decades away from traditional historical writing on a large scale, and toward reductionism and micro-history. For me, anyone who writes historical crime fiction, who sets a tale of romance or murder or daily life against a background of war had damn well better be able to justify the choice of that particular war. The fiction must be about more than just the people, that is. Or, to put it it another way, anyone who wants to write wartime fiction should read WhatI Saw. Joseph Roth's dispatches from Berlin, 1920-1922/

  17. Peter:
    What is most attractive about historical fiction? I think it's the fact that it gives a "personal face" to an event or an era that I don't have a particular frame of reference for, making that event or era real in a way that a history text simply cannot accomplish . . . .

  18. Hank, history is what I read when I'm not reading crime fiction. How do we teach history? We need to strike a balance between names and dates on the one hand, and pandering on the other. Here's an appropriate passage from James Ellroy:

    "`We should have had a child together.'

    "Jack squeezed her arm, soft. `I remember the first time you said that.'

    "`When was it?'

    "`Fall '54. The Army-McCarthy hearings were on TV.'

    "`Why do we remember things that way?'

    "`Pure arrogance. We're self-absorbed and confuse our lives with history.'"

  19. Joan, have you ever become so interested in a given period or country after a reading a novel set there that you then read up on the country's history--or visited the country?

  20. Ellen: Adrian McKinty, whom I mentioned toward the end of my post, set his "Troubles" trilogy in Northern Ireland in the early in 1980s, a period through which he lived as a child. I don't know if anyone would consider the books historical fiction, though they will certainly give a sense of what it must have been like to be around at the time. More to the point, I think they'll help readers understand the political and social circumstances to the time.

  21. No other country visiting, I'm afraid, but I have read a few novels that intrigued me enough to look into the history of a place or an event; Taylor Caldwell's "Dear and Glorious Physician" comes immediately to mind. However, I seldom wait to check it out until I've finished the novel . . . .

  22. And to make it gripping, I agree with Hank - it's about the characters, the people, not the dates.

    Mary: It's about the characters and the dates, and the two cannot be separated.

    Some of you may remember Warren Beatty's movie Reds. I remember thinking, big deal. It's a love story between Bearry's character and Diane Keaton's, with the Russian Revolution thrown in to flatter the audience;s intellectual vanity and Beatty's. First-rate historical fiction has to make better use of history than that.

  23. Rhys: In your 1930s series, how do you handle the historical fact that readers know another war is coming, but your characters do not?

  24. Kathy, if you do check out Detectives Beyond Borders, do searches for "history", "historical crime fiction," "historical fiction," and "historical mysteries." I write about the subject frequently.

    I can recommend to you and to anyone else who reads this the novel Havoc, in Its Third Year, by Ronan Bennett. My discussion of the book begins thus: "I may have found the perfect historical novel."

  25. I should add that the novel is set amid religious strife in seventeenth-century England, so one could call it a wartime novel. It meets every criterion that I and the commenters here have come up with. It gives a heartbreaking sense of life at the time, a sense not just of what the historical conflicts were at the time but of what they meant in everyday life, and it does not hit the reader over the head. It is one of the best novels I have ever read.

  26. FChurch said...
    ... I enjoy historical fiction that gets the details right--and not just the dates, etc., but the characters--authors who are able to make their characters real in the context of the time they are writing about.

    Right. If you're just going to get the dates, just write what is misleadingly called history, but in fact is mere chronicle. And if you're just going to get the characters right, why not set your crime story in a period you know better, and save yourself the work?

    Credible, compelling historical fiction that lives up to both halves of the name must be the most difficult kind of fiction to write. I am in awe when authors do it well.

  27. Pat D ... I also enjoy other eras but this 20th century time period is fascinating to me.

    Yes, I think many of us want to know what created the conditions under which we live, about odd things our parents said or our grandparents did. Recent history can be a kind of personal exploration that way. I wonder how far back one has to go before the personal stops.

  28. Welcome, Peter!

    I will say that when I was first shopping Mr. Churchill's Secretary around (in 2000-2008), a lot of agents and editors said that "Women don't read war novels, especially 20th century war novels. They read Tudor/Elizabethan, Regency, and Victorian." It's so great to see that things have changed.

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  30. Susan, maybe that explains why Charles and Caroline Todd choose to write under the name of Charles.

    Of course, you raise yet another problem that confronts writers of historical fiction: avoiding anachronistic attitudes. How does one write a story directed at women, with a woman as protagonist, and set in the 1930s and 1940s without letting post-1970s political and social attitudes pervade the book? How do you negotiate that problem?

  31. Oh Susan, your comment just burns me up! Maybe women were only reading historical fiction set in those periods because that's what was available, that's what sold, and that's what writers wrote who wanted to get published. Such a circular path!

    And Peter, I think you get around the dilemma by really delving into the the context--while women's roles might have largely been circumscribed by society at any particular time, there were always women who created the life they needed. If you look, you'll find them--the artists, the explorers, the scientists, the writers.

  32. FC, another way to get around the dilemma is by choosing one's setting and characters carefully. Ariana Franklin wrote about a female physician in 12th-century England. How the hell does one pull that off?

    Franklin made two wise decisions. She made the character Italian, and female physicians did exist in Italian at the time, and she then brought that character to England. Such an outsider would naturally describe the strange features of her new land, and this let Franklin offer a lot of colorful detail that might have come across as an information dump had and English character narrated it.

  33. Just finished a book by John Hart and Olivia Ruprecht.
    Riveting, shocking indictment of a horrible war. A mystery, as well as a well drawn picture of how wars demean our very humanity. I couldn't put this book down. Really a harrowing read but superbly written, and a reminder that we must look at worst of our history along with the good.

  34. Peter, it's not like women were only strong post 1970. Look at the women who really were SOE agents. Look at Martha Gellhorn. Look at Pauli Murray. While these women weren't the norm, they certainly weren't unicorns.

  35. I find that the attitude of "women just weren't like that back then" says more about the speaker than the women of the past.

  36. Right, and it's the author's job to tap into that, to write about women of the 1930s (or 1170s), and not to make them post-1970s women in period dress-to give the characters ways to express their strength in the way that people of their time would have.

  37. This, of course, applies equally to male characters. You wouldn't want to give a male character anachronistic attitudes, either.

  38. Peter, to me modern history begins with WW1. I have a Huston Family history which includes some letters a great uncle wrote from France in the final months of the Great War. I hauled that out recently to see where he was and when, what outfit, etc. since so much of my historical fiction reading is that time period.

  39. Pat, I'd say war on an industrial scale plus family material of that sort is an ideal background for fiction. I am beginning to think that might be my next historical interest. I read The Man Without Qualities last year, and I may have to read the war poets one day.

  40. Anon, is that the Edgar-winning John Hart? The book is subtitled "a novel of war and murder," which is about as in your face as a subtitle can get. Sounds worth a look; thanks.

  41. No, Peter. Not that John Hart. The book is called There will be killing. A wonderful mystery and a superb look into that war. Keeps you guessing all the way through, it is written by a veteran of that war. A psychologist who no doubt witnessed some of the appalling atrocities. In terms of historical look back, it is very valuable . As an aside, but relevant, I has been reviewed by a few women .all have endorsed it. Women are very interested in history.

  42. Hmm, a psychologist, you say? Freud had done some of his important early work then. I wonder if that war was the first studied for its psychological effect on those who returned from it.

    Since history takes in everything, I have no doubt that everybody would be interested in it.