Category Archives: Lene Kaaberbøl

Hans Plays With Lotte, Lotte Plays With Jane*

CollaborationThis year marks the hundredth anniversary of the start of WWI, a time when a host of countries, many of them (but of course, not only!) European countries who fought against each other. We’ve seen what that kind of strife can do. But the fact is, there’s also been some genuine co-operation amongst the countries of Europe as well. It’s not always easy, but it happens. It’s clear in real life, and we see how that sort of co-operation plays out in crime fiction as well.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, for instance, French and English authorities work together to solve the murder of Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who’s strangled during a trip on the famous Blue Train. The first likely suspect is Count Armand de la Roche. He was known to be having an affair with the victim, and has a reputation for bilking his wealthy lovers out of their fortunes. But there’s not enough hard evidence to link him to the crime. Hercule Poirot was on the train when the killing occurred, so he’s on hand to work with the police to find out who the criminal is. In this case, there isn’t just co-operation as the murder is solved; there’s also co-operation involved in tracking down the missing jewels. Of course, not all of Christie’s stories feature such successful collaboration (I know, I know, fans of The Murder on the Links). But it’s evident here.

It’s also evidence in Bartholomew Gill’s McGarr and the PM of Belgrave Square. In that novel, Garda Chief Superintendent Peter McGarr and his assistant O’Shaughnessy investigate the shooting death of Dublin art and antiques dealer William Craig. The team starts with those closest to home: Craig’s wife, business partner and son. Any of them might have had a motive, and they aren’t the only ones. Then it’s discovered that one of the paintings Craig had in his shop is missing. This of course adds another dimension to the murder as well as an interesting clue. McGarr’s wife Noreen has a background in art history, so she follows up on that lead. The trail takes her to France, where she makes an important discovery about the painting. And that discovery helps to lead to the killer. In this case, French and Irish authorities have to share information in order to solve the murder.

Helene Tursten’s police detective Irene Huss lives and works in Göteborg. But murderers cross borders, and sometimes killings are related to things that have happened in other countries. So more than once, Huss works with other police authorities to solve murders. In The Glass Devil for instance, the murders of three members of the Schyttelius family lead the members of Göteborg’s Violent Crimes Unit to believe that someone has a personal vendetta against that family. If that’s the case, then Rebecka Schyttelius, who’s living in London, may be in grave danger. Huss travels to London and works with Inspector Glen Thompson of the Met to track down Rebecka and find out who might want to kill her family. This case has its roots in the past, in Sweden. But it takes co-operation between Swedish and UK authorities to solve it. In The Torso, Huss works with Danish authorities to solve the murder of Marcus Tosscander, whose body is found one day on a beach. Although he was originally from Göteborg, he’d moved to Copenhagen. So Huss travels there to follow up on the victim’s life and find out who would have wanted to kill him.

Stefan Tegenfalk’s trilogy Anger Mode, Project Nirvana and The Weakest Link feature Stockholm County CID police detectives Walter Gröhn and Jonna de Brugge. In Project Nirvana, German police authorities ask for help from Swedish authorities to find a Swedish national, Leo Brageler, who is suspected of murdering four German scientists. There seems to be no motive for the killings, and it’s hoped that if Swedish police look into Brageler’s background, they’ll be able to provide that. Gröhn and de Brugge and their team begin the task of tracing Brageler, but he seems to have disappeared. If they’re going to find the link between Brageler and the murder victims, they’ll have to find him as soon as possible. In the meantime, they’re faced with other crimes including a dangerous hostage situation. This case has far-reaching implications, and solving it involves German, Swedish and UK authorities.

Anya Lipska’s novels feature Janusz Kiszka, who is Polish, and DC Natalie Kershaw, who is English. Kiszka lives in London, where he is known as a ‘fixer’ among the members of that city’s Polish community. Kershaw works with the Met. Both Where the Devil Can’t Go and Death Can’t Take a Joke involve murders where both Polish and English people are concerned. In them, we see that crime isn’t just limited to one country. So authorities and civilians from different countries often have to work together to solve it.

There are also, of course, many thrillers that involve Interpol, the EU and other pan-European groups. And series such as Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Nina Borg novels also show how European authorities negotiate and work together to solve crime.

And I don’t think a discussion of that sort of international co-operation would be complete without a mention of the television series The Bridge/Bron/Broen. In those series, Danish Inspector Martin Rohde and Saga Norén, who is Swedish, work together to solve cases of murder that occur on or near the bridge between the two countries.

International co-operation like that isn’t always easy. But when it happens, the result can be far greater success than any one country could have on its own.
 
On Another Note…
 

philaeprobel
 

This post is in celebration of the amazing achievement of the European Space Agency (ESA). Yesterday the ESA succeeded in landing the probe Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. We will all learn an incredible amount from this venture, and everyone involved in its success is to be congratulated. See? Co-operation can do wonders!
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Gabriel’s Games Without Frontiers.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Anya Lipska, Bartholomew Gill, Helene Tursten, Lene Kaaberbøl, Stefan Tegenfalk

I’ve Looked at Life From Both Sides Now*

DifferentPerspectivesOne of the best things about books and reading – and I include crime fiction in this – is that they give readers the chance to explore and learn about different places, different events and so on. What’s soon clear is that a lot of those events, social issues and so on are complex. So understanding them means reading both sides (or to be more precise, all sides) of an argument. It means reading about a place from a variety of different perspectives. It means reading about an event from the perspective of the ‘winners’ and the ‘losers.’ To put it simply, the more deeply we read about something or someone, the better we understand.

Let me just offer a few examples from crime fiction. Let’s start with the issue of immigration. Many different countries face the challenges that come with immigration. It’s very complex, with many aspects, perspectives and implications that have to be considered. There are plenty of novels and series such as Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Nina Borg stories that show some of the challenges immigrants face as they try to make a new life for themselves. There other novels, such as Elizabeth George’s Deception on His Mind, which depict some of the challenges that residents face when a new group of people with very different cultural beliefs comes in. There are issues of resources, bridging cultural gaps and and so on, and that’s only the beginning. Getting an informed perspective on immigration, what it means, what it entails and how best to meet everyone’s needs isn’t easy. It’s too big and complex an issue for it to be easy. But it starts with reading about it from different points of view.

Or what about the environment? Most people would agree that good stewardship is an important part of our lives on the planet. But we don’t agree on the best way to accomplish that. C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series often addresses environmental issues. So does Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage. There are lots of others too. Those authors show that not all environmentalists are wonderful people who want to help everyone live a better life. Not all developers are evil, greedy people. On the other hand, there are heroic environmentalists and contemptible developers. The task of balancing good stewardship with sustainable economic development is an enormous one. It’s not going to be accomplished without an understanding of all sides of the problem. It requires reading up on all of the issues and implications, and understanding many different perspectives.

And then there’s the whole question of prison and our prison systems. Crime fiction addresses this issue quite frequently and that makes sense. In novels such as Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs, Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage and Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos (and there are others), it’s clear that prison doesn’t necessarily reform criminals (and who counts as a ‘criminal’ anyway?). It doesn’t repair the damage they do. And sometimes, putting someone in prison does more harm than good. On the other hand, any crime fiction fan can tell you that there are numerous novels (I couldn’t even begin to list them here!) in which we see another point of view. We see that people’s lives can be saved when criminals are in custody. We see that victims of crime can start to get a sense of closure and perhaps start to heal when criminals have been convicted and are jailed. The questions of what to do about prison, prison reform and convicted criminals are extremely difficult to answer. They can’t be addressed just by reading one book or looking at one perspective. It may be that we can’t even approach any kind of solution until we understand all aspects of prison and what it means.

But…what if you couldn’t read all sorts of perspectives? What if you couldn’t find out what other people have done to face some of these difficult challenges? What if books that took certain points of view were banned? It’s not a fantasy, as anyone who’s ever lived in a place where books have been banned can tell you. It has happened and still does happen.

Among many other consequences of banning books, it means that people can’t sift through all sides of an argument – even sides they don’t agree with – to understand an issue better. It means that people can’t learn from what others do. It means that people can’t approach some kind of meaningful resolution to some of the big challenges that most societies face (poverty, class issues, inter-group relations, and the list goes on). In many ways and on many levels, it means that people cannot approach anything like the truth about an issue.

This week (in the US, at least) is Banned Books Week. I’m going to be looking at the topic from a variety of different angles as the week goes by (no worries; I promise I won’t spend the whole week ranting!).

For today, I invite you to pick a topic that really matters to you and where you have a very strong opinion. Doesn’t matter what it is; it could be race relations, the drugs trade, immigration, a particular group of people or political issue, or something else. Now, read something responsible written from ‘the other side’s’ point of view. Get an understanding of what that issue looks like from another angle. See what that does for your perspective. And be grateful there are books out there that let you do that.

To get a sense of what I mean about reading different perspectives, you’ll want to check out Marina Sofia’s excellent post on reading about the Middle East from two points of view. And while you’re there, do have a look round her superb blog. It’s a treasure trove of fine reviews, evocative poetry and lots more.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. Listen to her version and Judy Collins’ recording of it, and see which one you prefer.

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Filed under Agnete Friis, Angela Savage, Elizabeth George, Gene Kerrigan, Jørn Lier Horst, Lene Kaaberbøl, Ruth Rendell

It Starts When You’re Always Afraid*

Witch Hunts and Mass HysteriaThere’ve been all sorts of fictional and historical accounts of the ‘witch trials’ in Salem, Massachusetts during 1692 and 1693. Those events have captured a lot of people’s imaginations and the term ‘witch hunt’ has become synonymous with group hysteria that can lead to injustice and much worse. And if you read history you’ll know that Salem was by no means the first instance of mass hysteria about witchcraft. There’s a line between concern for public safety and the public good on the one hand, and mass hysteria on the other. It’s sometimes hard to say precisely where that line is, but there are many cases where it’s been crossed. A quick look at crime fiction shows some interesting examples.

Hysteria about witches plays a role in Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk. In that novel, neuroscientist Edward Armstrong is doing research on anti-depressants. He’s introduced to a nurse, Kimberly Stewart, and the two are soon involved romantically. Kimberly is a descendant of Elizabeth Stewart, who was hanged for witchcraft during the 17th Century wave of anti-witch hysteria. As Armstrong learns about the family history, he also sees another possible avenue for research. It turns out that bread baked in the Stewart home was contaminated with ergot, which has certain psychotropic effects. The house is still in the Stewart family, and Armstrong wants to experiment with the ergot that grows there to see if it has promise as an anti-depressant. The first results are truly exciting and Armstrong and his research team think they’ve made a major medical breakthrough. Then, some disturbing things begin to happen. Before long it’s clear that Armstrong, Stewart and the rest of the team are in far greater danger than anyone imagined.

During the ‘Cold War’ between the US and the UK and their allies, and the then-Soviet Union and its allies, there was a great deal of fear about communism. There was reason to be concerned about Soviet spying, and that concern led to fear and even hysteria. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory DIckory Death), Hercule Poirot investigates some unusual events at a hostel for students. Odd things have been disappearing there and, as the manager Mrs. Hubbard is the sister of Poirot’s secretary Felicity Lemon, Poirot agrees to visit the hostel. On the night of his visit, one of the residents Celia Austin admits having taken some of the things. When she does, it’s believed that the matter is settled. When Celia dies two nights later, her death is put down to suicide, but it’s soon proven she was murdered. Now Poirot and Inspector Sharpe look into the backgrounds and personal lives of the other hostel residents to find out who would have wanted to kill Celia and why. In the process, they discover quite a bit of anit-communist sentiment. That discussion forms an interesting thread in this story.

We see that same sort of hysteria reflected in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is an amateur PI in post-World War II Los Angeles. One day he gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Reginald Lawrence, claiming that he owes thousands of dollars in back taxes and threatening jail if he doesn’t pay up. Rawlins doesn’t have that kind of money so he starts to resign himself to the very real possibility of a jail term. Then he gets a way out. FBI agent Darryl Craxton offers to make Rawlins’ tax problems go away if he’ll do something in return. The FBI wants to bring down suspected communist Chaim Wenzler, a Polish war refugee. Wenzler does a lot of volunteer work for the First African Baptist Church, and Craxton wants Rawlins to use that volunteer work to get close to Wenzler and inform on him. Rawlins isn’t interested but he sees no other way out of his tax trouble. So he agrees to the plan. As he gets to know Wenzler, he discovers that he likes the man and becomes less and less eager to set him up. Then there are two murders at the church. Since Rawlins was there at the time, he’s a natural suspect. Then the LAPD link him to an earlier death. It’s now clear that someone’s trying to frame him for murder. So Rawlins has to clear his name and strike a very delicate balance between keeping to his agreement with Craxton and keeping Wenzler out of trouble if he can. Throughout the novel there’s a strong thread of anti-communist hysteria and Rawlins is appealed to as a ‘patriotic American’ to do his share.

Anti-Western hysteria shows up in a lot of crime fiction too. For instance, William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev series takes place mostly in pre-World War II Moscow. During those years of Stalinist rule, anyone perceived as having any kind of pro-Western or anti-Soviet sentiment was considered an enemy of the state. Such people were often executed or sent off to gulags for ‘re-education.’ Life was hard for their family members too. In this atmosphere people live in dread of being betrayed to the NKVD as traitors. In fact, Korolev himself has to be very careful. As a CID police investigator, he and his team are responsible for catching criminals. It’s in the Soviet interest to have a strong record of catching and punishing those who break the law. But at the same time, Korolev finds that the trail sometimes leads to the NKVD or to other highly respected and powerful Soviet citizens. To suggest that they may be involved in crime is to run the risk of being declared an enemy of the state.

We also see that kind of anti-Western ‘witch hunt’ in Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale, the third of their Nina Borg series. In one plot thread of this novel, two sisters, Olga and Oxana, are growing up in the Ukraine during the terrible famine years of 1934-1936. Everyone is exhorted to make sacrifices for the greater good of the State, but that doesn’t fill people’s stomachs. Yet people who complain or worse, who seem to be too well-fed or have too much food, are in real danger. They’re perceived as traitorous and are denounced. At that time, even the slightest denunciation was enough to consign a person or family to Siberia or worse, as this was the time of Stalin’s Great Purge of people he saw as enemies. That climate of fear and the ever-increasing circle of denunciations play an important role in this plot thread of the novel. Years later, this story casts a shadow when Natasha Doroshenko and her daughter Katerina flee the Ukraine after the murder of Natasha’s journalist husband Pavel. They make their way to Denmark where at first Natasha thinks she’s found a haven. That turns out to be tragically false when she’s imprisoned for the attempted murder of her fiancé Michael Vestergaard.  Then, she overhears a conversation that convinces her that her past in the Ukraine has caught up with her. So she escapes police custody and heads for Coal House Camp, a Red Cross facility where Katerina has been staying. That’s when the real danger starts for her, for Katerina and for Nina Borg.

There are other series too, such as Colin Cotterill’s  Siri Paiboun series, which takes place in 1970’s Laos, that address themes of what you could call ‘witch hunts.’ In series like that, people are encouraged to denounce others, even friends and family members, as traitors. That climate of fear adds a layer of tension to a novel or series. It’s even more disturbing when we think how close those novels come to real life.

ps. The ‘photo is part of an illustration of Pedro Berruguete’s Auto-da-fé, which hangs in Madrid’s Prado Museum. It’s a haunting reminder that widespread fear and the fear of being denounced have a long history.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Stills’ For What it’s Worth.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Colin Cotterill, Lene Kaaberbøl, Robin Cook, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

In The Spotlight: Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ The Boy in the Suitcase

>In The Spotlight: Agatha Christie's 4:50 From PaddingtonHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime novels draw several disparate people’s stories together to form one larger story. When that happens, we see how people’s lives intersect in sometimes very unusual ways. To show you what I mean, let’s turn the spotlight today on Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ The Boy in the Suitcase, the first of their novels featuring Danish Red Cross nurse Nina Borg.

One important thread of this story begins when Nina gets a call from her friend Karin Kongsted. The two arrange to meet and that’s when Karin asks Nina to do something. She wants Nina to go to the train station and pick up a suitcase that’s in one of the lockers. It’s obvious that Karin is upset about whatever’s going on, but she won’t tell Nina what’s in the suitcase. She does however say that she’s planning to go away for a while.

Not seeing much choice in the matter, Nina does as her friend asks and picks up the suitcase. When she opens it, she finds inside a three-year-old boy. He’s drugged and dazed, but he’s alive. Nina doesn’t know what Karin’s gotten herself into, but when she tries to reach Karin, she’s unable to make contact. It’s soon clear too that there are some dangerous people who seem to want this boy. Nina wants to keep the boy safe so for the moment she goes into hiding with him. She gets the medical care he needs and tries to find a way to communicate with him, since neither speaks the other’s language.

In the meantime, Sigita Ramoškienė, a Lithuanian single mother, wakes up in a hospital with a broken arm, a concussion and little memory of how she got injured. The one thing she’s certain of is that her three-year-old son Mikas is missing. At first Sigita thinks he may be with his father Darius. But when that’s proven not to be the case, Sigita is as panicked as any parent would be. As soon as possible, she tries to get the police to investigate. But they’re not convinced by her story. To them, Sigita seems the most likely candidate if someone actually did harm the boy. Her story of what happened seems too vague and unsubstantiated. Not trusting the police to help her, Sigita begins her own search for her son. She tracks him to Copenhagen and starts her search again there.

In a third story thread, we meet Jučas, a man with his own dreams of what he wants from life. He gets a way to make them come true when he’s hired for a very special purpose. The person paying the bills for this job is Jan Marquart, whom Jučas refers to as the Dane.

Soon enough, it’s clear that the little boy Nina has found is Sigita’s son Mikas. Each in her own way, the two women try to find out who abducted Miaks and why. In the end, we see how all of the threads of this story are woven together, but not before there’s a brutal murder.

One of the important elements of this story is the character of Sigita Ramoškienė. It’s every loving parent’s worst nightmare to lose a child, and Sigita’s frantic search for Mikas adds a solid level of believable tension to the story. She is also a strong and well-developed character. She may be injured and frightened, but she is neither weak nor stupid. It’s true that her son has been abducted, but she refuses to be a victim. It’s not hard to be on her side as she goes after Mikas.

We are also introduced to Nina Borg in this story. As her friend Karin puts it, Nina has a need to save the world. In that sense, she’s compassionate and caring. But her instinct to protect the vulnerable gets her in serious trouble. It’s taken her to all sorts of dangerous places in the world, and it causes serious tension between her and her husband Morten. Morten isn’t really what you would call a selfish person, but he thinks his wife puts too much of her energy into risking her life for total strangers and too little into being a mother to her children Ida and Anton. In fact, as the novel goes on, we see how Nina’s devotion to saving others compromises her family. And yet, Nina is not heartless about her family. I think I can say without spoiling the story or the series that Nina grows and evolves as the series moves on.

The story is told from several points of view including Nina’s, Sigita’s, Jan’s and Jučas’. Readers who prefer just one person’s perspective will notice this, especially since the stories are told more or less separately at first. They do gradually come together, but readers who prefer just one major plot thread and perspective will be disappointed.

Another important element in this novel is the set of plot twists. Readers who like to be surprised and outwitted by the author will be pleased. For example, the reason for which Mikas has been abducted is not the one you might assume right off. There are other plot twists too that keep the outcome of the story from being a given.

The plot twists and the high stakes involved give the novel a hint of the thriller. Readers who like a fast pace will be pleased at this. Like some other thrillers, this one asks the reader to do some suspension of disbelief. Readers who prefer not to do that will be disappointed in some parts of the story. That said though, there’s a solid sense of authenticity in Sigita’s desperate search for her son.

The Boy in the Suitcase explores the consequences of Mikas’ abduction for all of the people involved, and shows the power of the parent/child bond. It also shows how one focal point can draw a group of people’s lives together. It also introduces several of the characters that develop further and become important a bit later in the series. As just one example, two characters mentioned almost in passing in this novel become the focus of Death of a Nightingale, the third Nina Borg novel. There are several plot twists and some important themes discussed. But what’s your view? Have you read The Boy in the Suitcase? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 27 January/Tuesday 28 January – The Guards – Ken Bruen

Monday 3 February/Tuesday 4 February – Where the Devil Can’t Go – Anya Lipska

Monday 10 February/Tuesday 11 February – Bruno, Chief of Police – Martin Walker

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Filed under Agnete Friis, Lene Kaaberbøl, The Boy in the Suitcase

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime*

1930sThe world market crash of 1929 was part of what you might call a ‘perfect storm’ that lasted throughout much of the 1930s. That era – the 1930s – was marked by several movements and events, only a few of which space allows me to mention. But as we’ll see, crime fiction of and about the era reflects a lot of them.

The dire economic straits of the 1930’s comes through in several crime novels. I’ll just mention a few. Stuart Palmer’s The Penguin Pool Murder, published in 1931, introduces us to school teacher Hildegarde Withers. As the novel begins, she’s shepherding her students through the New York Aquarium when her handbag is nearly stolen. Miss Withers deters the thief, but ends up getting mixed up in a murder case when the body of stockbroker Gerald Lester is found in the penguin pool. Police Inspector Oscar Piper is called in and begins the official investigation. The Great Crash has financially wiped out many of Lester’s clients and some of them are angry and desperate enough to have committed murder. Among other things, this novel gives readers a look at how buying on margin and other common stock market customs contributed to the crash.

In Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke, which also takes place in 1931, Berlin crime reporter Hannah Vogel happens to be at a local police station when she notices a shockingly familiar ‘photo in the station’s ‘Hall of the Unknown Dead.’ Her own brother Ernst has apparently been killed. Vogel can’t do much to investigate because neither she nor Ernst has official identification documents. They lent those documents to Jewish friends so that they could leave the country. Still, Vogel is determined to find out what happened to her brother so very quietly, she begins to ask questions. As Vogel investigates, we see just how desperately poor many people were at this time. There are, for instance, lots of women who’ve turned to prostitution simply in order to eat. Many, many people have pawned anything of any value, and regular full meals are not a given. It’s a frightening time financially and that adds to the tension of this novel.

Another part of the ‘perfect storm’ of this era was the combination of natural forces, policy decisions and poor land management that led to famine in several parts of the world.  Part of Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale takes place in the Ukraine during 1934-1936. Two sisters, Olga and Oxana, are growing up under Stalin’s regime, and as we learn what happens to them, we see just how desperate people were, just for some bread. Everyone is suffering and although the official message is that everyone must make sacrifices for the State, that doesn’t quell anyone’s hunger. The sisters’ story has a long reach, as we learn when some eighty years later Natasha Doroshenko flees the Ukraine with her daughter Katerina. She takes her daughter to Denmark to escape the people who murdered her journalist husband Pavel. Things aren’t much better for her in Denmark though. First, she ends up in prison for the attempted murder of her new fiancé Michael Vestergaard. Then by chance, she overhears a conversation that convinces her that the people she tried to escape from have followed her. So she escapes police custody and goes to Coal-House Camp, a Red Cross facility that’s been looking after Katerina. Red Cross nurse Nina Borg works at the camp and knows both Natasha and her daughter. So she gets involved when Michael Vestergaard is found brutally murdered and Natasha disappears. The Ukraine famine isn’t the reason for Vestergaard’s murder (or for that matter, for Pavel Doroshenko’s). But it plays a role in the story and we see just how hungry people really were. This plot thread also gives readers a look at the rise of Josef Stalin and the purges of the era. Interested readers can also check our William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series for a look at that aspect of the 1930s.

We also see poverty in the work of Arthur Upfield, whose Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels depict life in Australia’s Outback and other less populated regions during the era. In several of them there’s a real struggle for life, and it’s not made any better by the racism of the day. And I can’t resist a mention of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I admit; it’s not a crime novel as such (although there is a murder in it), but it’s an authentic portrayal of the poverty of the era and the way the American Dust Bowl added to that misery. It’s an unflinching look at what happens to people when it’s sometimes hard just to find anything to eat.

Yet another part of the 1930’s ‘perfect storm’ was the rise of Nazism and the looming threat of World War II. The rising power of the Nazi party is an important theme in Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke. It’s also mentioned vaguely in a few of Agatha Christie’s works. For instance, in her short story The Kidnapped Prime Minister, Hercule Poirot gets a late-night visit from the Leader of the House of Commons and a member of the War Cabinet. Their purpose is to seek his help in finding Prime Minister David MacAdam, who’s apparently been kidnapped. World War II is just on the horizon and MacAdam was on his way to Paris to make a ‘rally the troops’ speech when he disappeared. It’s in the interest of the Nazis for England to take an appeasement approach, so there are several people both inside and outside MacAdam’s government who do not want him to give that speech. Poirot and Hastings are given one day to find MacAdam, so that he can go on as planned.

On a (slight) side note, Christie mentions the Spanish Civil War in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas). In that novel, Hercule Poirot spends the holiday with Colonel Johnson and is thereby drawn in to the murder of Simeon Lee, an unpleasant and tyrannical patriarch who lived not far away. One of the suspects in that novel is Lee’s grand-daughter Pilar Estravados, who’s half-Spanish and has come from Spain at Lee’s request to spend Christmas there. In a few of the stories she tells, we see some of the horror of the Spanish Civil War.

It shouldn’t be surprising that with all of the harshness of reality in the 1930’s, people wanted to escape. So there was also lots of attention paid to famous criminals like Al Capone. And of course, everyone followed the kidnapping of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s son. In fact Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express reflects that case. People were also fascinated by the doings of the ‘café society’ and of course, the Royal family. Several of Agatha Christie’s novels of that decade (e.g. Lord Edgware Dies), focus on the lives of the ‘glitterati.’

So do other novels. In Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts for instance, Hollywood stars Blythe Stuart and John Royle become the subject of a lot of attention, as did many stars of the day. Stuart and Royle had a very public, very stormy love affair that ended years ago. Each married someone else and each had a child. Now, Magna Studios wants to do a biopic of the two stars and surprisingly, they agree. Ellery Queen is under contract to Magna so he gets involved in writing the screenplay. To everyone’s shock, the two ex-lovers re-kindle their romance and even decide to marry. Rather than let this stop the film’s production, it’s decided to embrace the upcoming wedding and give it the full Hollywood treatment. The two marry on an airstrip and then, with their children, board the plane for their honeymoon. When the plane lands, both Stuart and Royle are dead of what turns out to be poison. At first, their children blame each other, but Ellery Queen discovers that the murder has another motive entirely. There are other novels too (e.g. Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep) that take a much more jaded look at the wealthy and powerful of the era.

The 1930s was of course a very hard time economically, politically and in other ways too. At the same time, it was an era that laid the groundwork for a lot of modern attitudes (ask anyone who had a relative who lived during the Great Depression, and you’ll see for instance how mistrust of banks still persists). It was also the height of the Golden Age, so we see a lot of the era portrayed in the crime fiction of the time, only a bit of which I’ve had space to mention here. Little wonder people still find the decade fascinating.

 

ps. The ‘photo is of my grandparents-in-law. It was taken during the early 1930s in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I know, I know, I’ve shown this ‘photo before, but I couldn’t resist it for this post.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by E.Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Arthur Upfield, Dashiell Hammett, Ellery Queen, John Steinbeck, Lene Kaaberbøl, Raymond Chandler, Rebecca Cantrell, Stuart Palmer, William Ryan