Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Instrument of Slaughter — A Roads Classic

by Edward Marston
Allison and Busby, 2012
Reviewed by Jane M. Ekstam

Instrument of Slaughter is the second in Edward Marston's Home Front Detective Series. It tells the story of a group of conscientious objectors in London at the beginning of the war, the leader of whom, Cyril Ablatt, is bludgeoned to death after attending a meeting of the No-Conscription Fellowship. Cyril and his friends believe in "peace and universal friendship." For them conscription is the desecration of principles long held dear, the subordination of civil liberties to military dictation, and a peril to the freedom of individual conscience. Cyril and his fellow pacifists are despised and ridiculed, not least by the police. For the group, however, there is no compromise: "[w]e never compromise" is their motto. All refuse to join the Non-Combatant Corp.

Joe, one of Cyril's closest friends, reminds the group that pacifism has its foundations in the Bible. "Blessed are the peacemakers," he says as he quotes from Matthew's Gospel, "for they shall be called the children of God. If only that were true! Ablatt was a peacemaker and you can imagine the names he must have been called. War puts poison into people's mouths." One of the group, Hambridge, is a Quaker, who reminds his friends, "we utterly deny all outward wars and strife. That's what George Fox [the founder of the Quaker movement] said and he preached the gospel of peace all his life, even though they put him in prison time and again."

In addition to emphasizing the Christian roots of pacifism, Instrument of Slaughter explores the taunting of conscientious objectors. One of Ablatt's group, Leach, suffers considerably from verbal abuse, but he succeeds in winning the sympathy of Detective Inspector Marmion. It is the latter who recognizes Leach's sincerity, but also his weaknesshe is engaged to be married to a young factory worker, Ruby. His decision whether to fight or not must thus be made for two people. In a heated debate with her fiancé, Ruby remarks:

"My parents say that you ought to join up. As for the women at work," she went on, "they're already passing remarks about me. I've got some friends at the factory but there are many nasty ones as well and they keep taunting me for getting engaged to a coward."

Marmion is determined to track down the killer, despite the general public's resentment that so much effort is being made on behalf of a man whom many deem to be a coward. For Marmion, who does not sympathize with pacifism but respects the honor and bravery of the pacifists, it is easy to defend the use of police resources—"when [Ablatt] became a murder victim . . . he ceased to be a conscientious objector." Marmion's uncovering of the murderer is portrayed as a victory for conscientious objection.

Edward Marston's novel reveals the difference between a fictional and an historical account of pacifism. Instrument of Slaughter tells not only the story of the conscientious objector himself, but also of his family. What makes the characters pacifists? What are the pressures put on them by their family, community, and nation? How do they withstand these pressures? When conscientious objection is explored in detective fiction, the reader becomes part of the story, investigating and evaluating motives, clues and evidence, and drawing conclusions. The suspense of the detective story maintains the reader's interest to the end. Justice is meted out and order restored. At the same time, the reader has gained a deeper understanding of what it meant to be a conscientious objector in World War One.

Jane Mattisson Ekstam

No comments:

Post a Comment