Many a novel has played out in the dying days or fraught aftermath of World War II, in particular among the rubble and ruins of a vanquished Berlin. In contrast, novelists dealing with World War I tend to steer clear of the end of the conflict, preferring instead to focus on the cusp of it and the crumbling of old orders, or the heat of battle and the horrors of trench warfare.
British writer Philip Gray has done something refreshingly different with his new novel. "Two Storm Wood" contains the odd flashback to military events during World War I. However, the book is set predominantly in 1919, several months after hostilities were brought to a close and the Armistice was signed. Rather than tell a story of war with a soldier at its center, Gray has crafted a historical thriller in which a gutsy heroine goes searching for answers on the empty battlefields of the Western Front.
Amy Vanneck discovers that her fiancé, Captain Edward Haslam of the 7th Manchesters, is missing in action. Rather than sit around idly waiting for news, she travels to northern France to find out what has become of him and, if necessary, give him a proper burial in a marked grave. It is a bold move for a well-bred woman, one who, until now, has been forced to lead a sheltered life.
"A young lady of your station doesn't spend her time cutting up bodies, living or dead," her mother once told her, thwarting her plan to study medicine.
Such an education might have prepared Amy for the carnage she witnesses on her grisly fact-finding mission. First, she meets Capt. James Mackenzie and his band of war-weary, battle-scarred volunteers who are engaged in the grim task of recovering, identifying and laying to rest the many bodies strewn across the ravaged landscape.
Then her search for Edward takes a different turn when 13 mutilated bodies are located beneath a German strongpoint called Two Storm Wood. It is evidence of a brutal war crime. It soon becomes clear, though, that the killing hasn't stopped and that a murderer is still at large.
Gray's novel succeeds on multiple levels. It is thoroughly researched and tightly plotted. Amy's sleuth work — tracking down survivors, sifting testimonies, venturing underground and re-evaluating the man she loves — makes for absorbing reading. There are murky tales of opium addiction and raids on enemy trenches, plus a range of scenes that are thick with atmosphere. Throughout it all is a fiendish twofold mystery: What happened to Edward, and who committed the atrocity?
The novel is a whodunit of sorts. But it is also a thought-provoking drama which routinely strikes a number of serious notes about man's inhumanity and the traumatic effects of conflict. As Edward reminds us, "War poisons everything that it does not destroy."
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Two Storm Wood
By: Philip Gray.
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company, 352 pages, $28.95.