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Posts Tagged ‘World War I’

BETRAYAL AT RAVENSWICK by Kelly Oliver: Book Review

There’s a terrific internet site, American Book Review, that lists the best 100 opening lines (or paragraphs) of novels.  Number one, not surprisingly, is “Call Me Ismael.”  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” is another that would appear on most rolls.

In Betrayal at Ravenswick, the first in a new series by Kelly Oliver, these are the first two sentences:  “I should have poisoned him.  If only I’d had the chance.”  Perhaps #101?

Fiona Figg is in a happy marriage, or so she thinks, until she decides to surprise her husband by taking him to lunch at an elegant London hotel.  Warning to readers:  such surprises are usually not a good idea, at least in mystery novels.  She catches said husband and his secretary in an extremely compromising position in his office, and Fiona tells him, “It’s her or me.  Take your pick.”  Second warning:  giving errant husband this ultimatum makes a bad situation worse.

Fiona is the head filing clerk at the War Office.  Set in 1916, in the midst of World War I and before the United States enters the war, Fiona has already made one or two suggestions that the men in the cryptography group found useful; in fact, before the book opens she had cracked a code that had stumped the men.  So when she suggests a way to explain how the War Office got encrypted information from the Americans without letting the Americans know that their code has been broken, something they are definitely loath to do, she is invited to join them as an “honorary consultant.”

Five months after her marriage dissolves, Fiona gets the opportunity for a new start.  The men in the group are suspicious of a man purported to be a big game hunter and journalist who is on his way to visit a wealthy and titled Englishwoman and her family.  They can’t seem to find out very much about the background of the oddly-named Frederick Fredericks, and the agent who was supposed to tail him has broken his leg and is thus out of the picture.  Much to her own surprise, Fiona volunteers for the assignment, disguising herself as a male physician and entering the countess’ household.  In her younger days she had wanted to go on the stage, but she was told by her teacher that she would “never be an actress.”  Well, Fiona thinks, here’s her opportunity to prove Mrs. Benson wrong.

Betrayal at Ravenswick follows Fiona as she splits her time, first as “Dr. Vogel,” a specialist in poisons and female maladies, and also as a volunteer aide at Charing Cross Hospital, an arrival point for thousands of soldiers returning from the front.  The scenes of the wounded men are heartbreaking but beautifully written, and readers will feel as if they are on the wards, watching the doctors and nurses tending to the wounded.  Sulfur drugs and penicillin were years in the future, and the suffering of both the soldiers and those caring for them shows the pain and futility of war.

Kelly Oliver has introduced a smart and delightful heroine, one with enough self-confidence to take on a difficult and dangerous assignment but whose issues of low self-esteem, especially in light of her recent divorce, makes her totally human.  Fiona is a protagonist I would enjoy meeting again.

You can read more about Kelly Oliver at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.


THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN JOHN EMMETT by Elizabeth Speller: Book Review

They called it The Great War or The War to End All Wars, but it was neither. The better name for it, the name that obviously could come only after 1939, was World War I.  It was a horror.  In Great Britain alone, over half a million men died in action or from wounds, and a quarter of a million more were missing in action, their bodies never recovered.

Many men returned home in pitiable condition, with mental and physical problems that British society had difficulty coming to terms with.  One of these men is the one whose name appears in the title of this novel, Captain John Emmett.

As the story opens, Captain Emmett has been dead for several months, dead by his own hand. His sister Mary writes to Laurence Bartram, a former schoolmate and friend of her brother’s, wanting to meet him to see if he can shed some light on why her brother, having endured the war, had to be institutionalized upon his return and then committed suicide.

Faced with his own problems, Laurence Bartram is reluctant to investigate.  While he was at the front, his young wife and their newborn son died in the hospital.   That tragedy propelled Laurence into a mild depression, and he also has a total lack of interest in making any plans for his future.  However, remembering the kindness of the Emmett family when he and John attended the same school as adolescents, Laurence agrees to investigate the circumstances that led to John’s death.

There’s an incredible amount of social and military history in this novel.  I find the era of World War I fascinating, as it led to so many changes in British society. The rigid class system was very much in effect before, during, and even after the war, and it’s amazing to read of the stratification of men according to their birth.  Only men who graduated from “public” schools (which Americans call “private” schools) could become officers, no matter how incompetent they might be or how much more worthy the lower caste men under them might be.

The main issue around Captain John Emmett’s death seems to revolve around the execution he was forced to be part of, the almost unheard execution of an Army officer. Only three British officers were executed during World War I; over 300 British and Commonwealth non-commissioned soldiers were sentenced to death, although most sentences were commuted.  However, the disparity was still great, as if the military minds could barely conceive of an officer doing something that warranted the ultimate punishment.

Laurence’s investigation proves more difficult than he had imagined.  Every person he speaks to in the course of trying to unravel the reason behind John’s death has lost someone in the war–a son, brother, or husband.  Talking about it three years later only reopens the wounds, and many don’t want that.  But Laurence persists, along with his friend Charles, partly because his friend’s sister has asked him to, partly due to guilt over his own relatively safe war, and partly because he has nothing else to occupy his time.  But Laurence finds that his questioning takes him to places he’d rather not go.

Elizabeth Speller’s The Return of Captain John Emmett is a fascinating read. The novel was chosen as one of the Wall Street Journal‘s Top Ten Mysteries of 2011, and it’s easy to see why.  The writing is moving, the book is well researched, and the story of the men who went to war and the families they left behind resonates today.

You can read more about Elizabeth Speller at her web site.