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.


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

30 responses to “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime*

  1. That is a great photo. Really nice.

    There is tons of interesting information here. I am going for follow up on all the books (that I haven’t already read). I read somewhere recently that often books written in a “depressing” time would not reference the problems so much because they were used as escape. Not always true of course.

    • Tracy – I’m so glad you like the ‘photo. It’s a special one I think. And you’ve got a well-taken point about books written during difficult times. Very often they’re used as escapism so it’s not surprising that you see a lot of wonderful people living wonderful lives in them. As you say, certainly not true in all cases, but you do see that.

  2. Very cool, Margot! Love your pic.

  3. LOVE that photo! and I speak as someone who looks at hundreds of them every week – that’s very special and you are lucky to have such a memento of your glamorous connections. Your topic reminded me of a book called Golden Door by Kerry Jamieson – it was set in the New York of the 1930s among immigrant communities who were feeling the pinch. It was very very good, and I always meant to follow up on the author… maybe I will now you’ve reminded me.

    • Moira – Oh, I was so hoping you’d get the chance to see this post and that ‘photo. I thought of you when I posted it. It is a treasured memento. Interestingly, my grandparents-in-law were quite young in it. She was barely 17; he was I think 20. And now you’ve got me keen to read Golden Door. I think immigrant communities felt the terrible times much more than some other folks did, and it sounds like a great ‘window’ on that time. Thanks for the recommendation.

      • I almost said first time round: ‘hey! who’s supposed to have the great black and whites round here!’ which I’m sure you will take in the spirit in which it is intended.,…

  4. Why don’t we get to dress as glamorously these days? This post ties in beautifully with my current re-read of Gatsby – itself a crime novel, of course, though it’s usually not described that way. Before the banks crashed, but you can see the depression hovering on the horizon…

    • FictionFan – Yes, that timing did work out, didn’t it? And honestly, I didn’t plan it that way. It’s interesting that you mention dressing glamorously, actually. That ‘photo, so I am told, was not taken on any particular special occasion. That’s the way one dressed at the time for an afternoon outing – complete with gloves and hat . There’s certainly something about that beautifully-dressed dapper look isn’t there?
      About The Great Gatsby…I’m glad you’re re-reading it. Such a telling look at life during those years. And yes, you do feel the Depression looming although it hasn’t quite hit yet. I think that adds a bit of bite to the novel.

  5. Margot – Interesting that you mention the Golden Age. Despite the hardships of the era, that phrase is used to describe many trends, happenings, etc. from the 1930s, not only crime fiction, e.g. Hollywood’s Golden Age. I’m glad you mentioned Hammett, what with his leftist sympathies there’s a heavy, jaded view of the rich, ruling class hovering over all his writings, and especially, as you mentioned, The Thin Man.

    • Bryan – You make a very good point about the Golden Age. As you say, the term can apply to crime fiction, to Hollywood and some other things too. I hadn’t thought about that before, but it makes a lot of sense. And yet it was a time of such privation for so many people. Little wonder that Hammett felt the way he did about the rich and privileged and it certainly comes through clearly in The Thin Man.

  6. One of my favourite Aussie authors is Sulari Gentill who has a historical series set (mostly) in Australia during the 30’s. In the first book in the series, A Few Right Thinking Men it is the political scene that the bad economics of the time generates that causes most of the book’s tension, even though the central character is wealthy and not really impacted by the poor economy – but he shares his wealth with those less fortunate in a very admirable way.

    • Bernadette – Thanks. I’ve been wanting to read Sulari Gentill for a while now and I feel embarrassed that I’ve not yet. I’m glad you’ve reminded me of this series and of course, it fits right in. And it’s nice to have a character that has that attitude towards those hit by the economic times. Yes, this just got kicked up on my TBR list.

      • Wonderful post, Margot. Bernadette beat me to mentioning Sulari Gentill’s books. They are very much in the spirit of the themes of this post. On the one hand they show how the ‘landed gentry’ in Australia were cushioned from the worst effects of the Great Depression. on the other, the books have a strong sense of the economic and political volatility of the time.

        • Angela – Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And I absolutely must read some of Genill’s work; it sounds as though they capture the era very well. With recommendations from you and Bernadette, how could I not?

  7. Margot: I loved the photo the first time and I love it again. It reminds of a photo of my grandparents in Ireland walking down a path from the castle where the Blarney Stone is located. Each photo has a jaunty tilt to the grandfather’s hat. In each photo there was a lilt to their walk. Each photo shows a couple in love with life. I have an abundance of good memories of my grandparents.

    • Bill – Thanks for the kind words. That ‘photo of your grandparents must be lovely; I hope you’ll post it sometime. And you’re right; my grandparents-in-law did love life, and they went through some difficult times. I think that takes some grit and I’ll bet your grandparents had that too.

  8. Col

    Loved Steinbeck’s book and I hope to re-read it one day. Great post ,again!

  9. I do like this time period for novels of any genre. I’ll be adding a couple of new titles to my TBR list from this post. Thanks, Margot.

  10. I remember this photo from a previous post, Margot but I don’t blame you for showing it again. It’s a lovely one.

  11. I LOVE books set in the ’30s and ’40s, and Rebecca Cantrell’s series is a favorite. I haven’t read a couple of the others you mention, so I’m going to look into them. Thanks!

    • Karen – I like Cantrell’s work too. She certainly ‘does her homework’ about the era doesn’t she? And speaking of the era, I think it was so influential and still resonates so strongly today that it doesn’t surprise me you find it interesting. There’s just something about it…

  12. Margot, I am reminded of a series of cozies by Jill Churchill, all set at the height (or depth) of the Great Depression. The series, known as the “Grace and Favor” books, deals with a brother-and-sister pair who are forced to turn the mansion they have inherited into a guest house, in order to make ends meet – they haven’t a dime, otherwise. It’s been a while since I read them – they were mostly written in the last decade – but I remember them as being a good deal of fun, or at least as much fun as one can have mid-Depression.

    • Les – Thank you. That’s a series I’ve heard of, but honestly never tried. I’m glad you enjoyed the novels. Sounds like something I’d like too, as I enjoy historical mysteries. And that’s a realistic premise, too; a lot of people had to open their homes to lodgers during those years for exactly that reason.

  13. kathy d.

    Great topic. The Grapes of Wrath raised my consciousness about the Great Depression and has remained a favorite since I read it while a teenager.
    Nero Wolfe started investigating in the 1930s, and Fer-de-Lance, his first case reflects poverty in New York.
    I heard Brother Can You Spare a Dime throughout my childhood, and the words resonate today with so many unemployed, homeless and even hungry.
    Yip Harburg was a good oerson, as well as a terrific songwriter. He was “blacklisted,” but did not name names during the 1950s.

    • Kathy – Thanks for the kind words and the background on Yip Harburg. I’m not surprised that he wouldn’t name names. In fact, you’ve made me think that I ought to look at McCarthyism and its variants; there’s a lot in crime fiction about such ‘witch hunts.’ Thanks for the inspiration. And you’re right about Fer de Lance. Poverty plays a role in that novel and in some others by Stout too.
      And you’ve got a point about the relevance of Brother, Can You Spare a Dime even today. Sad but true.

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