British Library Crime Classics have done it again! The discovery of a locked room mystery set in a closed community written by an authentic witness to the time, place and setting is a real gift. This novel, set in an Italian Prisoner of War camp in Italy at the time of the British invasion, was written by a man who had been there, as outlined in Martin Edwards’ excellent and informative introduction. This “Second World War Mystery” manages to catch the atmosphere and reality of a large group of men in difficult if not impossible circumstances. Groups and subgroups of the captive British officers make for strange alliances, while the behaviour of the Italian guards and officers is complicated and unpredictable. The urge to escape is one of the overwhelming themes of the book, but not everyone is agreed on the best way, or time, to achieve such an aim. There are times when this does not seem to be a murder mystery, but this is because the authentic details and plot are written in such depth. The question of “whodunnit” is maintained right until the end, though there is much to distract with red herrings, plots and plans. I recommend this book to all those who appeciate a murder mystery in a terrific historical setting, written at the end of the Golden Age and was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and reveiw this excellent novel.
The novel opens with a discussion between the camp’s officer in charge and the senior British officer, as the situation in Italy becomes more uncertain. There are warnings about escape attempts, that the men should stay in their huts during the evenings. The various activities are shown, as well as the punishment block. It emerges that there is a man widely supposed to be a traitor in their midst, a man who is possibly supplying the Italians with information about the escape attempts which are always taking place. Coutoules is generally disliked and many are suspicious of him. The scene changes to Hut C, where the most substantial tunnel is being worked on, in the most secret way possible. As the diggers get further along the tunnel they discover something that is deeply shocking, the body of Coutoules. As the soldiers try to conceal what is presumed to be a murder, the Italians become increasingly suspicious. When the body is surrendered, the Italians begin to take action. An officer called Goyles is asked to investigate among the captive men, and turns amateur detective, trying to weigh up all the available information. This is made nearly impossible as escape attempts are still happening, and the Italians are inflicting their own brand of justice. The mystery remains even when circumstances dramatically change, and this carefully plotted book maintains the tension.
I found this book a gripping read, with a military humour throughout. It is certainly a great wartime novel of men in challenging circumstances, but it is also a classic murder mystery which will tax the most dedicated reader in a different way from most books in the genre. Not that this is a cosy book, as there are other deaths and grave danger throughout, but it reads naturally as coming from a writer whose background research must have largely come from experience. This book well deserves its classic status both as a murder mystery novel and a wartime story, and will appear as one of my favourites in this excellent series.
Recently we went to see the National Theatre production of Small Island at our local cinema, where it was being shown on film. It was incredible. Having read the novel at least twice, and discussed it at two book groups, I was really impressed with this production which brought out the sometimes painful humour and the power of the original. A special feature was the music which really lifted the production, and it was beautifully acted by the entire cast. If you get the chance to see it, it is long, but very good.