Pierre Lemaitre’s The Great Swindle and Kjell Westö’s The Wednesday Club*: two prize-winning historical suspense novels that deal, one way or another, with the aftermath of the First World War. The Great Swindle was the winner of France’s Prix Goncourt – an almost unprecedented feat for a writer who cut his teeth on crime fiction – and is currently being adapted for the big screen for release in 2017. The Wednesday Club won the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2014, and was also shortlisted for Sweden’s August Prize.
The Great Swindle opens in the last dying days of the war. The Germans know the game is up, and no-one wants to risk taking a bullet when an armistice is expected any day. But a French officer, intent on grasping with both hands his last stab at glory, employs murderous trickery to incite his unit to charge the German lines. In doing so, he secures the promotion he schemed of, but also sets in train his own eventual demise.
The Wednesday Club is primarily set in 1938, in Helsinki, with the shadow of another war looming large. The Wednesday Club of the title is a group of gentlemen who meet to drink, discuss politics and socialise, but as Europe holds its breath, waiting for Hitler’s next move, the club is split between those who support his expansionist policies and those who oppose them. This atmosphere of pre-war uncertainty provides the setting, but much of the action stems from events that unfolded twenty years earlier when Finland went from being a Grand Duchy of Russia to an independent country – via a bloody civil war.
In the novel, Matilda Wiik, the secretary of the Wednesday Club’s members, is haunted by memories of her confinement and mistreatment in a prison camp during the Finnish Civil War. When the pressures of WWI led to the collapse of the Russian Empire, Finland was split between Reds and Whites, Left and Right, Socialists and Conservatives. The Reds occupied the south of the country and the Whites the north. Eventually the German Army intervened on the side of the Whites, and together they took some 80,000 Red prisoners. They were confined to prison camps until their guilt – of treason – could be ascertained. More than 13,000 of them died as a result of their internment, primarily through disease and malnutrition. In The Wednesday Club, Matilda Wiik is abused by a White officer in one of the camps; twenty years later she comes face to face with him again. But this time, she is no longer a helpless victim.
The Great Swindle deals with the aftermath of The Great War in France, which as Lemaitre memorably puts it, is “gripped by a frenzied desire to commemorate those who had died that was directly proportional to its revulsion for those who had survived”. Two of its main characters, Albert and Edouard, are returning soldiers cast adrift in an uncaring world. In part to get by and in part motivated by a sense of injustice, they devise an ingenious scheme to swindle their fellow citizens out of a vast fortune – for while the living are disregarded the dead must be venerated, and France is willing to dig deep to fund monuments to their sacrifice: including some that are in no danger of ever being built. Meanwhile, Albert and Édouard’s nemesis, the afore-mentioned officer who ordered their unit over the top, is also prospering through deception. Having gained control of a war graves commission, he finds that there are ample ways to cut corners and turn a tidy profit.
Both of these novels successfully combine well-researched and realised period detail and atmosphere with tight, suspenseful plotting. If you like to delve into the past, but you’re also keen on page-turners, then look no further for your next read.
* Translated by Frank Wynne and Neil Smith
** The Great Swindle and The Wednesday Club are supported by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union.