Taken Away and Held For Ransom*

1932-lindbergh-baby-poster-630x1103As this is posted, it’s 85 years since Charles Lindbergh, Jr., aged 20 months, was kidnapped. He was, as you’ll know, found dead. During the investigation, the case made world headlines. Bruno Richard Hauptmann was convicted and executed for the murders, but he protested his innocence all along. And many people agreed with him. There’ve been several books and articles pointing to other leads the police didn’t follow, other possible explanations, and so on.

Whatever the real truth about the Lindbergh kidnapping, it had a profound impact on the news, on society, and on crime fiction. There are many books that feature a plot where a child is captured for ransom; here are just a few.

One that was directly inspired by the Lindbergh case is Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. In that novel, American businessman Samuel Edward Ratchett is on board the famous Orient Express train, en route across Europe. On the second night of the journey, he is stabbed to death. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and he’s prevailed upon to find the killer as soon as possible, so that the culprit can be handed over to the police at the next border. Poirot interviews all of the possible suspects, and uses that information, plus other clues he finds, to discover who killed Ratchett. As it turns out, this murder is related to a tragic case from several years earlier. Three-year-old Daisy Armstrong was kidnapped from her home, and later found dead. Saying more would get too close to spoiling the story for my taste, but that incident does play an important role in the novel.

Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar begins at an exclusive Southern California boarding school called Laguna Perdida. Its purpose is to serve ‘troubled’ students. Dr. Sponti, head of the school, has called in PI Lew Archer because one of the pupils, seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman, has gone missing. The boy’s parents are wealthy and well-connected, and Sponti doesn’t relish the thought of having to tell them that their son has disappeared. Archer agrees to see what he can do to find the boy. He and Sponti are still discussing the matter when Tom’s father, Ralph, rushes into to Sponti’s office. He says that Tom has been abducted, and that there’s been a ransom demand. Archer goes back to the Hillman home with Ralph, and tries to help. But soon enough, Archer gets the sense that there’s more going on here than a simple demand for ransom from a wealthy family. For one thing, why are the Hillmans so reluctant to give Archer a lot of information about Tom? And why does it seem that Tom may actually be with his captors (if that’s the right word) of his own will? It’s a much more complex case than Archer thinks at first.

John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler takes place mostly on the campus of Hewes College, in Massachusetts. The novel was published in 1971, so there’s lots of student activism and unrest on campus. Wechsler is a professor in the Classics Department, and is much more concerned about doing the best job that he can than he is about wading into the growing divide between students and faculty on campus. He’s drawn into the controversy, though, when the university’s president, Winthrop Dohrn, summons him to a meeting. It seems that Wechsler’s brother, David, may be involved in some of the radical activities on campus. Dohrn wants Wechsler to contact his brother and find out whether he’s involved in any of the subversive activity. Wechsler wants to keep his job, so he can’t very well refuse the president. And it’s not long before he thinks the president may be right. That becomes even clearer when Dohrn’s granddaughter, Nancy, is kidnapped, and a note bearing David’s signature is sent to Dohrn. Then, Dohrn himself is killed. David, though, claims he’s not responsible for the abduction or the other events. Now, the Wechsler brothers have to work together to find out who’s behind everything.

The first in Bill Pronzini’s ‘Nameless’ PI series is The Snatch. In it, wealthy Louis Martinetti hires Nameless for a very specific task. He tells Nameless that his son, Gary, has been abducted, and that the kidnappers are demanding three hundred thousand dollars in ransom. They have also insisted that one, and only one, person go to the drop site to leave the money. The next day, Nameless goes to the appointed place to do just that, when everything goes wrong. Martinetti wants him to take one course of action; other family members want him to do something else. In the meantime, Nameless is trying to make sense of everything, and develop his own plans. In the end, we learn what happened to Gary, and what it all means for the different characters.

And then there’s Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy. Wealthy São Paolo businessman Olavo Bettancourt has what seems like the perfect life. He has money, ‘clout,’ a beautiful ‘trophy wife,’ Mara, and a healthy young son, Olavinho. But things are not nearly as perfect as they seem. He’s involved in several questionable deals. They’ve made him very wealthy and seemingly powerful, but he’s no less trapped for that. Then, a gang of criminals decides to kidnap Olavinho. Their thinking is that the boy’s father will pay any amount he’s told to get his son back. Plans are made and everything is set. But, by mistake, the culprits get the wrong boy. Instead of Olavinhio, they abduct the mute son of the Bettancourts’ cook/housekeeper. Now, the abductors have to decide what to do with the boy they have, and with their grand scheme. And Bettancourt has to decide what to tell the police and the media. The stakes are high, and both sides work frantically to deal with the matter.

There are, as I say, a lot of other crime novels in which young people are taken for ransom. That plot point can add real suspense to a story. And, when it’s done well, readers get a sense of the desperation families can feel when such a thing happens.


The ‘photo is of the ‘wanted’ poster circulated when the Lindberghs’ son was abducted. Thanks, Crime Museum!




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Petty’s Refugee.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Bill Pronzini, Edney Silvestre, John Alexander Graham, Ross Macdonald

24 responses to “Taken Away and Held For Ransom*

  1. Orient Express was the second Christie novel I read, Margot! (The first was And Then There Were None. How lucky was that?!?) I remember jumping out of my chair at the finale because I didn’t know a mystery could END like that! Other Christie titles have claimed my heart as favorites, but I will always be fond of MOTOE, both the novel and the wonderful 70’s movie!

    • That film was quite well done, wasn’t it, Brad? In some ways (ways I’m not sure I understand) it varies from the book. Why, for instance, call the butler Beddoes, not Masterson, as he’s called in the book? But those quibbles aside, it was certainly an excellent film, and who can forget Lauren Bacall as Mrs. Hubbard? As to the book, I remember how I felt the first time I finished it, too. It’s one of those ending. And it doesn’t matter if it’s no longer tops on your list; it still has a place in your heart, as the saying goes.

      • I’ll definitely take those little changes from the 1970’s version of Orient Express over the travesty that the David Suchet 2010 version which just rammed the theme of justice right down the viewer’s throats!

        There’s another adaptation of Orient Express coming up but I think the 70’s version will still stand tall against all the other ones, including this upcoming one.

        • I’ve heard about that new one, Sbrnseay1, and I will most likely watch it. It’ll be interesting to see how it compares to both of the other versions. And I agree that the David Suchet 2010 version completely altered the focus of the novel. I normally think of Suchet as the Poirot, but I didn’t much care for that version at all, to be honest.

  2. Funnily enough, I just recently read and reviewed a book (City of Drowned Souls by Chris Lloyd) where the son of a prominent Catalan family is kidnapped – but the parents don’t seem to be very distressed at all, much to the bafflement of the investigating team. Of course, the son in question is practically a teenager, so there is the usual question: did he perhaps just run away?

    • Ooh, interesting, MarinaSofia. It sounds like a very interesting take on that sort of plot, and of course, leaves room for lots of possibilities. I’m going to check out your review, but I really think I might read that one. Thanks for suggesting it.

  3. Col

    The Snatch was my first introduction to Bill Pronzini and Nameless – what a great book!

  4. Margot, the books that deal with the kidnapping of young children give me the creeps. They are real horror stories for me. That said you have made me interested me in quite a few of these books. And yes, like the others who have commented above, I too am very fond of Orient Express. The end is very satisfying.

    • I think it is, too, Neeru. And, speaking as a mother, I know just what you mean about kidnapping stories. They are really scary. Even the best ones are enough to feel terribly creepy and horrible. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  5. A story about a child being kidnapped grips our heart and won’t let go till we know what happen. Great examples, Margot. When a teenager is involved it does seem to add another layer of suspense wondering did they go on their own or not.

    • You know, that’s true, Mason. The whole feeling is a little different if the person involved is a teen, rather than a younger child. It does cast a different light on everything. Thanks for the kind words, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  6. In real life or fiction, a disturbing topic, Margot. I have read a few books set around child kidnappings. As far as I recall, the authors handled the subject really well and with sensitivity.

    • You’ve highlighted one of the keys to making such a story work, Prashant. The topic has to be handled sensitively and effectively. As you say, child abductions are disturbing, so the author needs to take real care when exploring the topic.

  7. A recent one on the theme is ‘World Chase Me Down,’ debut novel of Andrew Hilleman, a fictional account of the first successful kidnapping for ransom in the U.S. Getting some good reviews.

  8. Dennis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone fits with this theme. Can’t recall if there was a ransom demand, though. On second thought, I don’t believe there was. Have you read it?

    • No, there wasn’t a ransom in that one, Sue. But it’s still a powerful and compelling book about what happens when a child is abducted. I’m very glad you mentioned it. And yes, I’ve read it, and I’m glad I did.

  9. kathy d

    Oh, I don’t think I can read these books. Happiness is Easy was a good one though and not terrifying. I looked at the description of Sarah Hilary’s second book about children being kidnapped and worse and thought, “nope, not for me.” Bad enough when it’s women.
    I can’t get upset about the Lindbergh baby, although I feel sorry for the poor child and the mother But Lindberg was a nazi sympathizer, so that kind of ends it for me.
    I know I’ve read more with this theme but can’t think of the books.

    • It is very difficult to read about kidnapping, isn’t it, Kathy? You’re by no means the only one who’d rather not read books with that theme. I’ll admit, I’ve not (yet) read the Hilary, but you’re right; it does have that theme, too. And And that, in itself, is unsettling.

  10. kathy d

    There was a hint of kidnapping of Ruth Galloway’s young daughter, Kate, in one of Elly Griffiths’ books, but she was saved. Ruth got very upset and I got a stomach ache until Kate was safe.
    These detective types with children, just an awful possible scenario.
    And a TV episode of the Irene Huss series, written by Swedish author, Helene Tursten, showed one of the police detective’s teen-age daughters being kidnapped and tied up. Her mother found her, but the situation was awful. I don’t recall that plot line in one of Tursten’s books.
    I just remember my then-four-year-old nephew asking my sister, “Are you afraid someone will take me?” when he walked out her front door unannounced without a parent with him, and she told him firmly not to ever do that. He grew up, is a terrific adult, but still … I sympathize with all parents.
    And now, unfortunately, I am thinking of child and teenage victims of human trafficking. Too awful to contemplate.

    • It is awful to contemplate, isn’t it, Kathy? I can well imagine your sister’s fear at the thought of losing her son to kidnapping, too; it’s just a horrible thought. Interesting you’d mention the television adaptation of Irene Huss. I don’t think I’ve read that plot in one of the books, either, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there…

  11. It’s hard for authors to walk the line with abduction stories, because it is such a terrifying crime. Agatha Christie’s use of the trope ranges from the heart-wrenching one you mention, to much more light-hearted ones such as the short story the Abduction of Johnny Waverley.
    There are also some examples in Elly Griffiths’ new Dr Ruth book, The Chalk Pit.

    • That is a great story, isn’t it, Moira? I’m glad you mentioned it. Not only is it a solid story, but it does show Christie’s range. As you say, it’s not an easy topic for authors to broach. And thanks for mentioning the Griffith. Folks, if you haven’t tried this series, you’re missing out…

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