Cover image of "Shoulder the Sky," a World War I mystery

When I was born, shortly before the United States entered World War II, the Great War of 1914 to 1918 was an active living memory for many adults. Today, a century after the last of the sixteen peace treaties ending the conflict was signed at Lausanne in 1923, almost no one remembers. We rely on the research skills and perspective of historians, a handful of still-readable contemporaneous accounts, and the ability of historical novelists to convey a sense of what it was like to live through the war that was meant to end all wars. And one of the most evocative of the recent efforts is Anne Perry’s World War I mystery, Shoulder the Sky.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

In 1915, Britain was losing the war

In Shoulder the Sky, the late British-American novelist deftly crosses the bounds of genre. The novel blends a story of espionage, a murder mystery, and a tale of unrequited love in a historical setting. Anchored in 1915 in Flanders, Gallipoli, and England, the book conveys the desperation of the British Establishment as they fought to stave off defeat in the face of a steadily shrinking army on the Western Front, ammunition rationing, German poison gas, devastating U-boat attacks, losses all over Africa to the Germans and Ottomans, and the strategic setback at Gallipoli in what is today Turkey. To some Britons, it was beginning to look as though a stiff upper lip wouldn’t carry the day.

Shoulder the Sky by Anne Perry (2004) 312 pages ★★★★★

Painting of the Allied landing at Gallipoli in 1915, a central event in this World War I mystery
Artists’ conception of the Allied landing at Gallipoli in April, 1915, a crucial event in Anne Perry’s novel. The operation, planned by Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty, was a catastrophe. Allied dead numbered 44,000, with Australians and New Zealanders taking the brunt of the fighting. Image: New Zealand History.

It looked like the end of the world

As many television viewers have learned through the ITV and PBS television series Downton Abbey, World War I upended the certainties of the rigid British class system. And Perry conveys the change underway as upper-class officers shared the privations of common soldiers amid the freezing mud, ear-shattering artillery, German sniper attacks, and suicidal frontal assaults across No Man’s Land in the Ypres Salient. She spotlights the officers and their families as they looked on what many thought the end of their world.

Five major characters dominate the tale

Matthew Reavley

The principal characters in Shoulder the Sky are Matthew, Joseph, and Judith Reavley. A year earlier someone had murdered their parents in a futile attempt to recover an explosive document at the heart of a conspiracy to end the war before it started by uniting Britain and Germany in a strategic alliance to take over the world. Now, a year later, the unidentified “Peacemaker” who masterminded this conspiracy seeks to end the war by engineering Britain’s defeat. And Matthew Reavley, a senior officer in British military intelligence, is on a quest to stop him.

Joseph Reavley

Meanwhile, Matthew’s brother, Joseph, an Episcopal priest, is serving as a chaplain on the Western Front. But he doesn’t limit himself to preaching to the men, many of whom have long since lost their faith in God. Far from it. Joseph himself is no longer certain he believes in the goodness of an all-seeing deity. He has thrown himself into the work at hand, dragging wounded and dead alike from No Man’s Land to the casualty station and tending to the wounded when needed.

Judith Reavley

At the same time, the Reavley brothers’ youngest sister, Judith, is serving as a Volunteer Ambulance Driver in Flanders, not far from Joseph’s post. But she has been commandeered as a driver by General Cullingford, who commands the corps at the heart of the Ypres Salient. The general is twice Judith’s age, and long married. But Judith is falling in love with him.

Eldon Prentice and General Owen Cullingford

Two others, both men, join the Reavley siblings in major roles in Perry’s story. Eldon Prentice, a brash and arrogant young reporter, has made his way to the front. There he makes himself obnoxious, managing to alienate everyone and enrage a few. Things will not end well for Mr. Prentice. Nor does the future look bright for Prentice’s uncle, General Cullingford, who struggles to resist the love he feels for Judith Reavley.

About the author

Photo of Anne Perry, author of this World War I mystery
Anne Perry. Image: BBC

The late Anne Perry (1938-2023) is best known for two series of historical detective novels set in Victorian England. The two encompass a total of fifty-six books. She also wrote thirty-nine other novels as well as numerous short stories and several other books. However, to many, Perry is equally well known for having been convicted of murder in New Zealand at the age of fifteen. She served five years in prison there, then returned to England. (She had been born in London.) For a time thereafter, she lived in the United States as well. There, she joined the Mormon church. For the last five years of her life she lived in Los Angeles.

I’ve also reviewed An Echo of Murder (William Monk #23) by Anne Perry (Ritual murder and Hungarian émigrés in 1870 London). I didn’t enjoy the book.

For a brilliant analysis of how World War I was conducted, see To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild (Reassessing World War I: Learning history the hard way). And for other good novels about war, go to Great war novels.

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