Since last November, I've been reading Anne Perry's series of novels about the Reavley family and their involvement in World War One. Each novel of the five volume series is set in succeeding years of the conflict that really marked the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth.
For the Reavleys, the war has been more than just a conflict. Their parents, John and Alys, were murdered on the day when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, and the great European powers were drawn into a massive war that took a terrible toll in human lives and toppled empires. In John's possession was a document that would have brought a lasting peace, but the price would have been a terrible one. Now his children -- Joseph, Matthew and Judith -- are struggling to find the identity of the person behind their parents' murder, known only as The Peacemaker.
Joseph has spent the last five years as a chaplain on the front lines in Belguim, trying to save what lives he can by bringing back the wounded from the front, and giving what comfort he can to the dying. In addition to what he has seen in the midst of battle, he has some deeply rooted scars from his past that still simmer. Working alongside him as an ambulance driver is his youngest sister, Judith, who has proven herself again and again, facing the same shortages as everyone else, and the same dangers. Matthew is working in London as an intellegence officer, desperately trying to find the truth about the Peacemaker.
Now it is November 1918. The Germans are still fighting, but thousands of them are putting down their weapons and surrendering. The war could be over in a matter of months or even days. But there are still plenty of dangers for all of them -- the British soldiers are roughing up the Germans, and tempers are getting frayed and ugly. In London, Matthew recieves a surprising offer -- the Peacemaker's counterpart in Germany is willing to come and reveal the identity of the Peacemaker, without any conditions. For it seems the Peacemaker has come up with an even more appalling plan -- he wants to continue the war, creating a never ending war, and reviving the German empire from the ashes.
To complicate matters, one of the nurses, Gwen Price, has been found brutally murdered, her naked body flung on a rubbish heap. Joseph is called upon to find who did it, but before he can unravel the mystery, the German officer with the information appears, and is charged with the murder. To complicate matters, his brother Matthew, who has arrived to escort the officer and the valuable information back to London is also arrested for the crime.
There are quite a few red herrings and subplots that are being wrapt up in this book. Lizzie Blaine, from a previous novel, reappears, forcing Joseph to contemplate a life beyond the endless warfare, and so has Richard Mason, the war correspondent that Judith has become close to. Along the way there are vivid descriptions of life and especially death on the Western front, with all of the attendant misery, mud, filth and lost lives.
While the ending is a bit too pat, all of the loose ends are tidied up, and there's even a promise of happiness in the future, short lived as we living in the here and now will know it will be. Perry manages to pack an awful lot of action into the space of a few days, all of it moving at a near breakneck speed. In between all of that, she has her characters endlessly thinking about the past, what is happening now, and what they can do to stop the onrushing disaster that will happen if they can't stop the Peacemaker.
In fact, it's that rumination and raking over the past that caused me the greatest amount of annoyance with the story. Over and over, Ms Perry tells us once again the how and why and who the Peacemaker has murdered -- just as she had done in the previous four novels. It gets tiresome, and assumes that the reader has the attention span of a rabid gerbil. It does very little to push the story along, and instead slows it down very much.
Now that I've completed reading the series, some thoughts overtook me. Perry has managed to do something very different than her ongoing series set in the Victorian World. For one, these five books have a definate begining and end, and she lets her main characters mature, instead remaining the static observers of the mysteries. Everyone in this one makes mistakes, rash decisions, and moves forward in their thinking and maturity. I do hope that Ms. Perry will continue along with sort of writing, and expanding beyond the 'whodunit' novel.
Another valid point is that Ms. Perry is very much a pacificist, and she draws comparisons to the warfare of the 1910's with our own modern times, and while it does take a strong stomach to read some of her descriptions of death and humans caught up in misery, she does it without getting too preachy about it.
Overall, the series gets about a four star rating. It's better than most novels set in World War One, and she works very hard to capture the feel and nature of warfare that is brutal even by modern standards. One caveat is that the series really does need to be read in order, as so much of the narrative relies on what has gone on before.
If you want something different than the usual rah-rah valiant hero in the middle of chaos of war, then this series should satisfy. While I doubt that I will ever reread these in the future, they are an excellent series of books, and worth the effort to get through.
Four stars. Recommended.