Oline Cogdill

Downton Abbey, the highly rated and addictive British melodrama on PBS, also is having an impact on readers – or at least publishers and booksellers are hoping it will.

toddcharles_alonelydeathViewers’ fascination with Downton Abbey’s aristocratic family and its servants set against the backdrop of World War I has encouraged publishers to bring out books and novels set during the Edwardian and WWI eras that capture life on British estates, from the high society families to the toils of the maids and other servants.

According to a story in the New York Times, publishers are jumping on this bandwagon as fast as they can.

I am not surprised that those who watch Downton Abbey also would want to read about the era. After all, PBS viewers are highly educated and literate. (Downton Abbey airs Sundays at 9 pm on PBS and continues through Feb.19; check your local listings.)

But publishers—and viewers—are slow to understand just how interesting the pre- and post WWI era was in England.

Mystery writers have long been mining this era for fascinating novels.

World War I, or the Great War as it was often called, began on July 28, 1914, and lasted until Nov. 11, 1918, and involved all the world's great powers. It was the first war in which technology entered into the fighting and old-fashioned military tactics no longer worked. It was the first war to use telephones, wireless communications, armored cars, tanks, and aircraft.

World War I also had an immense impact on culture, especially in Britain. It was the beginning of the end of the class system; women had more rights and freedom thanks to the telephone and automobiles. And more women had to support themselves and their families because of the huge loss of young men during the war.

Publishers don’t have to turn to new authors for readers to learn about the war’s devastation and social upheaval. Instead, here are a few authors who have excellent new novels and backlists:


The mother and son writing team have two series that explore WWI.

todd_impartialwitnessThe longest running is about Ian Rutledge, a Scotland Yard detective still fighting the effects of being shell shocked. Ian can barely function but forces himself to do his job and fight for justice. He is still haunted by the battles and what he had to during the heat of war so his job is a way of returning to humanity and his atonement for his sins.

Ian also represents the shift in the classes from the male point of view. He comes from a different background than most of the policemen of his day. Ian was from a middle class family – his father was a solicitor (lawyer to us Americans), his mother an accomplished pianist and Ian was university educated. The reader can feel Ian’s pain—the war left him a shell of a man, lonely, almost incapable of having a relationship with a woman or forming friendships with men.

Todd’s 13th novel in this series A Lonely Death came out this month.

The Bess Crawford series gives Todd an opportunity to show England in the midst of the war. Bess is from an upper middle class family but she grew up in India where her officer father was stationed. At the outbreak of the war, she follows his footsteps and volunteers for the nursing corps where she serves on the battlefields of France.

Todd shows in great detail the war in this series. In the first novel, A Duty to the Dead, Bess escapes from the doomed hospital ship Britannic as it is sinking.

An Impartial Witness is the third Bess Crawford novel.


winspearjac_elegyforeddiexHer Maisie Dobbs novels show the challenges and opportunities that women struggled with in post- World War I. Maisie is a psychologist and investigator who began working at the age of 13 as a servant. Her employer supported her education, which was cut short when WWI broke out. At age 18, Maisie enlisted for nursing service overseas and was sent to France where she served close to the front lines.

Maisie represents the blurring of the class lines – the daughter of a servant who would have become a servant herself if her education had not been encouraged—and the merging independence of women.

Like the other authors in this blog, Winspear features details of the day to make her elegantly written novels realistic. For example, as WWI continued, the ink used to write letters became fainter because people were forced to water down the ink to make to go further.

Winspear’s next Maisie Dobbs novel Elegy for Eddie comes out in March.

perry_weshallnotsleepBritish author Perry is best known for her many novels set during the 1800s. The William Monk novels are set in the early Victorian era (1850s-1860s) and the Thomas Pitt take place during the 1880s-1890s.

But from 2003 to 2007, Perry wrote fivc novels set during WWI about the Reavley family—Joseph, an army chaplain; his brother, Matthew, an officer in the Secret Intelligence Service; and their sister, Judith, an ambulance driver.

The last novel in this series We Shall Not Sleep came out in 2007.

This is just a small sampling. Do you have a favorite mystery writer who sets her or his novels with WWI as the background?