I think most people know whodunnit, on the 28th of June 1914. Which rather cramps my style trying to building a novel around it.

The most notorious bit of infamy since Judas Iscariot’s, with a shadow of the same sense of the world changing, a great turning-point in human development. We know the paths that Princip and his confederates took into Bosnia in June 1914; we know how the pistols and bombs came in; we know about the shadowy role of Serbian military intelligence. It’s hard to spin out the intrigue for 400 pages, when everyone’s read the last one.

As with Judas, there’s the same sense too of the individual acting as agent of some greater destiny. Princip wasn’t the lone nut; he was the tool of forces much vaster, and unknown to him. When he stepped forwards from that Sarajevo street corner he was the culmination of decades of tension and manoeuvring, which have been minutely analysed over the ensuing century with the same hunger for melodrama and conspiracy that have characterized the half-century since Oswald fired his shot into history.

Which doesn’t help the historical novelist either.

The politicians have tried to help. Unconvinced by a hundred years of scholarship around the web of international factors that led to the outbreak of war, they’ve recently made a bid to re-establish the dramatic integrity of the single villain – the lone nut theory. A good clear narrative, perhaps, but you can’t fool readers like that.

(And what if our politician-detective does manage to pin it on a single culprit? The denouement, at some diplomatic dinner party of European leaders; "the guilty party is at this very table!" "I refer you to the curious incident of the Kaiser in the nighttime", etc. Should we push for Germany to resume reparations payments? Demand Tanganyika again? Or just sit back smugly, reassured that we’re right and that as in a golden age mystery you can’t trust foreigners?)

Nonetheless, we hunger for the strong simple answer – especially if we’re reading, or writing, historical fiction. The lone assassin, dream in heart and pistol in hand, is a much more powerful culprit, dramatically speaking, than great power rivalry. I can’t write a denouement around the unmasking of the Dreadnought race or the sacking of Bismarck. Crime fiction is built around the fiction of rationality: that all the chaos that troubles us can be explained and controlled by the mind of one brilliant Englishman (or a gallant little Belgian).

But the madness of that world must be the context for that fiction. The Spider of Sarajevo is focused on the exploits of four young agents sent, by an old man obsessed by an ancient rivalry, out into Europe on a mission they don’t fully understand, on paths that converge on the moment of the Sarajevo crime. However, on their journeys – and around their moments of courage and deception and betrayal – the four taste all of the context: the kindling of civil war in Ulster; militaristic, envious Germany; the opulence and poverty of St Petersburg; the exotic decay of Ottoman Constantinople. Through the four, we experience the mentalities and the moments – the little intrigues and provocations and accidents – that all led to the crime of the century.

In that sense, like Iles’s classic Malice Aforethought, The Spider of Sarajevo is a whydunnit leading up to the crime. The madness of Europe was that, like some vast clock, over two decades its cogs were wound and overwound under the strain of immense weight – until, finally, when the hour came it came with a murder that shattered the world and that continues to haunt us.

Novelist-diplomat Robert Wilton’s The Spider of Sarajevo, the latest in the series of novels drawing on documents from the secret archive of the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey, is published on the centenary of the events it illuminates, in the lead-up to the First World War. He’s tweeting the context and countdown for war @ComptrollerGen, and there’s more at www.robertwilton.com.

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