Murder on the Home Front
A New Story is Taking Shape
I’m just about to begin writing a new story. It will follow immediately on from the Sherlock Holmes story set in Shanghai. The War has finished and England is back in the broken peace that followed the November Armistice. You can read this story at paulbland.com.au.
My original idea was to write a Christmas murder mystery set in the Agatha Christie AU and while I am following that line, I am also flirting with serious juggling of family history. The original idea was to begin the story in a Red Cross canteen in Piccadilly Circus where Katie helps cut sandwiches and pour the cocoa for soldiers on leave. One of the other volunteers is Miss Jane Marple who takes the girls back to her village of Saint Mary Mead for the Christmas holiday. I had already selected a victim and a murderer and planed “a nice derangement” of red herrings in the true Agatha Christie style. Alas, ideas have overtaken the cliché and I am going to quarry quite a different seam.
Several years ago, a cousin and I worked to clear out the garage of my uncle who had been put into care, suffering from dementia. My uncle was a hoarder and my cousin and I quickly filled a large ski with rubbish: failed Lotto tickets, old newspapers and jam jars. One of the treasures we uncovered, however, was a cardboard suitcase containing photographs and stuff which belonged to my grandfather. I hardly looked at it at the time and just brought it home and put it in my garage. Recently, on a wet afternoon, I took it down and found among the photographs an old exercise book bound up with a piece of masking tape. .
I began to read an extraordinary piece of writing. The exercise book had been written by my grandfather, Corporal Douglas Herbert Harrison Morton. My grandfather had been a volunteer in World War I, joining the army underage and being sent in with the second landing at Gallipoli. [So many of his experiences are copied in the Peter Weir film, Gallipoli.] He contracted enteric fever there and was taken from the peninsular unconscious. He convalesced first in Gibraltar and then in England. While he was recovering his strength, he wrote a letter to his mother that comprised the whole exercise book, explaining what had happened to him from the moment he left Enoggera Army barracks until his convalescence in Manchester.
It’s an intriguing, infuriating text: intriguing because it is fresh and naïve and full of optimism– it’s the work of an eighteen year old boy on an adventure on the other side of the world. It’s infuriating because his self-censorship is total. All the things one might want to know are left out of the narrative. What did it feel like to kill someone? What did it feel like to see friends killed around you? What did the Australians think they were doing in Turkey? None of these –or a thousand other questions- are answered or even considered. The silences are complete.
I was very cautious with the fragile text but to my horror, the exercise book began to fall apart as I read it. In the end, I decided not to complete reading it and to offer it to the Australian War Memorial Museum. I hoped that their experts could conserve the document professionally. My first inquiry to the Museum received a very positive response and I am going to deliver the text myself in November.
Now: back to the Red Cross canteen in Piccadilly Circus. My grandfather was gone from England by November 1918. He was terribly wounded in France in 1916 and after convalescing in Scotland, he was sent back to Australia in 1917, the bones in his skull held together with silver plate. Allow me some licence as a writer, however. Imagine that my grandfather remained in England and was there in the Red Cross canteen along with a bunch of his Australian mates in December 1918. Imagine that he is writing the text of the letter into the exercise book while he drinks his cocoa and his friends are playing cards or singing at the piano. And imagine that he is encouraged and comforted by Miss Marple – and Katie and Emily. The time bending is just delicious: I am the grandson of that young, wounded Australian soldier. Katie and Emily are my grandchildren: that makes them the great great grandchildren of the soldier. There they are together in a chilly London winter. Isn’t fiction grand! Now, I’m planning that there’s a secret in the long letter that the girls discover and it leads to another amazing adventure for our two heroines. You’re going to have to read the story for yourself The working title at the moment is Murder on the Home Front.