TOP TEN WARTIME THRILLERS
Although war itself tends to push thrillers into the background—how can even the most ruthless murderer compete with the wholesale carnage that ensues when nations take up arms—along with other writers, I have found that both the aftermath of war and its looming threat provide a rich background against which to set tales of murder and betrayal. It’s a truism that war changes society. But beyond that, it can also reveal a man’s true nature, what he is capable of, and it was with this in mind that I wrote The Death of Kings (Viking), the latest in the Madden series, to be published in January 2017. Here is a list of ten thrillers with a wartime connection that have caught my eye over the years.
I’ll start with Sébastien Japrisot’s brilliant post-World War I mystery, A Very Long Engagement. This epic love story centers on a crippled young woman’s determination to find out the truth about what happened to her fiancé, one of five French soldiers found guilty of self-mutilation and thrust into no-man’s-land with bound hands to die at the hands of the enemy. Her quest develops into an odyssey stretching over many years and embracing a world of deceit but also one of courage and honor in a war that bled a generation of young Frenchmen white. Written near the end of Japrisot’s career, it’s quite unlike any other book of its kind and a fitting memorial to this talented and, to the English-speaking world at least, little-known French writer.
The long shadow cast by the slaughter of World War I also lies at the heart of the popular series created by the mother-and-son team of Charles Todd featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge, a man not only haunted by his memories of the trenches but tormented by the voice of a young Scottish soldier he had shot for refusing to fight. The book of theirs that I’ve chosen, Wings of Fire, is set in Cornwall. Beautifully written, and more than a little reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier’s classic Rebecca in its disentangling of the past, the novel pits Rutledge against a ruthless killer whose identity remains hidden until the very last pages.
Moving forward in time to the years preceding World War II, we come to one the most gifted practitioners of spy fiction. Has anyone ever written better about the dark world of espionage than Alan Furst, particularly where it intersects with the lives of ordinary people drawn helplessly into its embrace? I doubt it. In fact, my only problem is in deciding which of his remarkable books to select for this ten-best list. Should it be Night Soldiers…or perhaps The Polish Officer? In the end, I settled on Dark Star, with its appealing central character, André Szara, a roving correspondent for Pravda but, more importantly, a survivor of pogroms and Stalinist purges. Szara simply wants to live a little longer if he can but he is drawn against his will into the terrifying world of secret agents as the darkness in which the whole of Europe will soon be engulfed draws ever closer.
Another writer who has used the approach of World War II as a backdrop for his plots is Philip Kerr whose outstanding early trio of books known as Berlin Noir first introduced us to his cynical hero, Bernie Gunther. The Berlin detective’s black humor makes him an apt observer of the mounting tragedy in prewar Germany as the new Nazi regime tightens its grip on the country. Of the three titles comprising the Noir series, I’ve chosen The Pale Criminal in which Gunther is directed to track down a savage serial killer by a man hardly less sinister: none other than Reinhard Heydrich. Indeed, it’s the almost casual way in which some of the great Nazi monsters—Heydrich, Himmler, and Joey the Cripp (a.k.a. Joseph Goebbels) to name but three—step onstage that gives these books their special flavor and their chilling edge.
Part II of the TOP TEN WARTIME THRILLERS will be published next week! Stay tuned…
Rennie Airth’s newest book is Death of Kings, on sale from Viking on January 3, 2017.