Jonathan Hicks’ excellent The Dead of Mametz focuses on the carnage of World War I. We learn in the prologue, set in peacetime 1987, that Private Harold Bratton, of the Welsh Regiment, was killed in action on July 7, 1916. Then we hop back in time to the “war to end all wars,” mere days before Bratton’s fatal battle, when a corporal murders two of his fellow soldiers, then shoots himself in the head. Before the corporal dies of his self-inflicted wound, he passes a mysterious note to Bratton. Days later, a Frenchwoman is discovered raped and murdered in a nearby town, and British Captain Thomas Oscendale, a cop in civilian life, is asked to help the French police solve that crime, too.
Mametz vividly describes the horrors of war, especially the kind meted out in WWI: gas attacks, trench warfare, the thousands of rotting corpses hanging on barbed wire in No Man’s Land. In one scene, the author even shines a light on wartime Wales, its landscape polluted by “Hell’s furnaces [feeding] the Devil’s war.” In Hicks’ WWI, everyone profits except the soldiers themselves, who are pawns in a political game played by inept generals and political hacks. The tale is told from various points of view, among them Oscendale’s, Bratton’s, as well as that of a German intelligence officer. This proves especially effective in a lyrical passage where an unnamed soldier in a trench awaits his order to go over the top. Almost dispassionately, the young man wonders if he will die that day. A commentary on the ultimate futility of war, The Dead of Mametz is a superb mystery as well as one of the most moving war novels I’ve ever come across.