Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Americans go to war, Part II (Bouchercon 2013 panels)

Last month I noted a motif common to John Lawton's Bluffing Mr. Churchill (also published as Riptide) and James R. Benn's Billy Boyle: Each features a young American bewildered by wartime London.

Three weeks later I learned I'd be moderating a panel at Bouchercon 2013 of which Lawton and Benn will be members, along with Susan Elia MacNeal, whose Mr. Churchill's Secretary features a young American woman who winds up working for Churchill in 1940.

I'll ask all three authors why they chose to thrust three Americans, all young, into wartime London. In the meantime, I'll ask you: Why do you think Lawton, Benn, and MacNeal made the choice they did? What are the attractions of the innocents abroad theme? What are your favorite stories, crime or otherwise, of Americans abroad in wartime? Why do you like those stories?
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James R. Benn, John Lawton, and Susan Elia MacNeal will be part of my "World War II and Sons" panel at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany, N.Y., on Thursday, Sept. 19, at 4:00 p.m.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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34 Comments:

Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I can't think of a single thing I've read that involves an American abroad during a war. Surely there's something? This will keep me awake tonight.

August 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A Farewell to Arms comes to mind. MacNeal's novel lays more stress so far on its protagonist's role as a woman in wartime than an American abroad, but still ... It has been so many years since a war was fought on American soil that the theme of an American thrust into war has to be attractive to writers. Think of all the political, political, and historical territory an author can make it cover.

August 27, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

It seems to me that the reasons are entirely commercial. Its the same reason why they had Steve McQueen, James Garner and James Coburn in The Great Escape. WW2 sells and young Americans caught up in WW2 sell even more...

I'm surprised no one's thought of setting a mystery novel at Auschwitz. Our culture is certainly vulgar enough to do such a thing.

August 27, 2013  
Anonymous Jim Benn said...

Adrian - While you are correct that Hollywood has inserted Yanks into WWII flicks where they had no proper role - that's Hollywood. I'm an American writing from an American perspective. We did actually do a fair bit of fighting and dying in both World Wars. I think the more interesting question may be why there are no similar novels written by English writers featuring a young Brit sleuth amidst the war. Perhaps since the sun never set on the British Empire, there was nowhere for an English innocent to be abroad?

August 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, wait until you hear about J. Robert Janes' Kohler and St. Cyr novels, which pair a Surete and Gestapo officer solving crimes in occupied France. I shied away from the books for years until Janes wound up on my Bouchercon panel. I don't know if his novel Tapestry, which I've just read, is vulgar, but its Paris is literally and morally the darkest setting for crime fiction I have ever read.

As for Americans in World War II, Yankee movie stars tossing a ball in prison may be stretch, but Jim Benn's Billy Boyle is on Eisenhower's staff, and Eisenhower was based in London from the summer of 1942. Eisenhower gets named Supreme Allied Commander for North Africa, and Billy Boyle winds up there. So, if the novels have a touch of fancy to them, they're at least erected on a framework of plausibility, I think.

August 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jim, John Lawton, who will join us on the panel, has Frederick Troy, and Englishman of Russian descent, working for Scotland Yard in wartime London. But the war is just part of a swath of English social history that covers 1938 to 1963 in his Troy novels (and I expect we'll discuss that in Albany, too.)

Carlo Lucarelli's De Luca novels have an Italian police officer trying to make his way in postwar Italy, but neither these nor Lawton's books have anything like a Billy Boyle. I expect you're right about the reason for this.

August 27, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Jim

I think its a very smart commercial move. WW2 resonates as the last good war and if the History Channel is a reliable judge of popular taste the Nazis are, apparently, endlessly fascinating.

August 27, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I know that some day I'll open a publishers envelope and find myself being asked to review a book about Anne Frank, Detective! It's inevitable.

August 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, you'll be happier when I get to Martin Limón, who sets his military mysteries in Korea in the 1970s.

August 27, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

I thought a little Googling would jog my memory of books about Americans abroad in Wartime Europe, but it didn't. I can think of several scebnes in British films and television with Americans wandering haplessly into the scene--usually botching things up and causing some murder to ensue, but I haven't remembered anything yet where the Yank was actually the protagonist. Unless we're counting Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, et al.

So James Benn, Susan MacNeal and John Lawton may be mining an untapped vein here.

August 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I mentioned A Farewell to Arms, and we know about J.D. Salinger. Benn is about eight books into his series, and the beginning of the first makes it appears that the American might be wandering helplessly onto the scene, with a chip on his shoulder, no less. It's a good beginning.

Lawton is little different because he's English, for one thing (thought he has lived in the U.S.), and the young American in Bluffing Mr. Churchill figures as an older American elsewhere in the series, and because he's not the central character in the series. The American abroad theme is less to the fore in Lawton's books, that is.

August 28, 2013  
Anonymous Jim Benn said...

There's also a very short series featuring a German military detective, by Ben (Verbena) Pastor. Lumen was the first title; very well done.

August 28, 2013  
Blogger Dana King said...

Staying away from what other books come to mind--nine do--I can think of another couple of reasons this kind of story has potential. Americans in England during the war had an external pressure normal visitors don't: the war. Add this to the fact that, military and English law notwithstanding, the family and social restraints many of these soldiers would feel have been lifted by distance. Their acts, and their reactions to others, may be quite a bit different than what would happen at home.

The same is true of anyone placed in a friendly foreign country during war, though the American-British crossover has the added implications of a shared language (for the most part), and customs that are alike enough to seem identical, yet different enough to cause unintended issues.

James Benn has been on my radar for a while; I'm looking forward to seeing thi panel.

August 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jim: I think there are two books in that series now, and the has written many more books than that, I just found out. Thanks.

August 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I think all three authors make use of that odd situation of an American in England: that of being home and in a foreign country at the same time.

August 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I like the image of your having a war novelist on your radar.

August 28, 2013  
Anonymous Liz said...

Enjoying the Billy Boyle series, as we've discussed 9but you must have an ARC of A Blind Goddess as it's not due out until next month.

MacNeal's Mr. Churchill's Secretary was fun too but Princess Elizabeth's Spy disconcertingly identifies Poland as the country betrayed with "peace for our time".

August 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nope, I have a finished, hardcover copy of Blind Goddess. As for MacNeal and Poland, I have not read that book, but Polish military and political figures play an interesting subsidiary role in several crime novels. In Jason Goodwin's late-Ottoman-era books, the character Palewski is the diplomatic representative of a country that no longer exists. And Billy Boyle as a Polish sidekick, too.

August 28, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter, James

Listened to Billy Boyle goes to N Ireland (book 4?) on audiobook yesterday while I was preparing the house for the landlord's annual inspection. My annual waking nightmare. The book overcame my initial scepticism fairly quickly and was an excellent read. Highly recommended.

I discovered in my book log that I read the John Lawton book some time ago and I thought that was pretty good too. (I gave it an A).

The publisher is sending me Ms Macneal's book and I'll get back to you when I've read that.

August 28, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Annual landlord's inspection?

I am never moving to Australia.

August 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jim, you'll not get a more hard-earned compliment than that you've just got from Adrian. He combines the dour disposition of an Ulster Presbyterian with the the skepticism of a man of the world, skepticism reserved especially for depictions by outsiders of Northern Ireland. Treasure your McKinty Prize.

Adrian, I hope your house passed the inspection. If not, send your new address.

August 29, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: If there were landlord inspections in America, I'd have vacillated between homelessness and homeownership years ago.

August 29, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Actually, in Santa Cruz there is an ordinance that says the city has the right to inspect all rental units. It's supposed to protect against bad landlords, but the only two cases that I've heard mainly had a very bad effect on the tenants. Like, they got booted out through no fault of their own.

Tonight I've got some kind of mysterious racket going on somewhere nearby which sounds like I'm living next door to a drive in movie. If I had to leave here abruptly, it wouldn't be the worst thing. Not that I'd enjoy the hassle.

August 29, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yikes! I hope the situation has a satisfactory, inspection-free solution. I generally oppose upheaval.

August 29, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Well, since my unit already went through a huge upheaval this spring it will probably be okay. But the renter's life in Santa Cruz has always been sort of provisional.

August 29, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sounds like Zenlike detachment in practice as opposed to in theory is called for.

August 29, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Yeah, I've never been any good at that all.

August 29, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suspect that sort of attitude comes more easily to those who have little need of it.

August 29, 2013  
Anonymous Jim Benn said...

Peter, I will be framing Adrian's comment along with your description of dourness & skepticism. My reader base, right there.

August 29, 2013  
Anonymous Liz said...

Clarification: in Princess Elizabeth's Spy, one of the bad guys vents about the betrayal of Poland. Too true, but not when the Munich 'peace for our time' agreement was announced. That was Czechoslovakia. Not a good mistake in an historical novel.

August 29, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dour skeptics are an important demographic, I guess.

August 29, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Liz: Got it. My desire to think the best of my fellow human makes me want to read the book to see if there's some reason she had the character say what he did.

August 29, 2013  
Anonymous Liz said...

Does this make me a dour skeptic too?

August 29, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Neither, I would guess.

August 29, 2013  

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