Category Archives: Lene Kaaberbøl

Friday Night Arrives Without a Suitcase*

LuggageAny sort of travel involves luggage. Whether it’s a small ‘weekend’ size bag, or the largest suitcase an airline allows, luggage reflects a lot about the person who owns it. For instance, some people pack very neatly…and some don’t. And people tend to pack things in a certain way, even given today’s tight restrictions on what passengers may bring aboard a flight.

And then there’s the matter of how much you pack. Some people pack very heavily, and bring everything that they might need. It means they have to check luggage and get it wherever they’re going, but it also means they’re prepared for a lot of eventualities. Others pack very light. That’s the way I am. I only bring exactly what I need, and I don’t check my luggage through – ever. That’s got its advantages and disadvantages, and it does raise some eyebrows. If you’ll indulge me, here’s one example. I recently returned from a (roughly) week-long trip to New Zealand. When I returned, I went through Customs and Immigration at Los Angeles.  After having my passport stamped, etc., I started to leave the secured area, since all I had brought was one small pilot-sized suitcase and my handbag. One of the security people came over to me and we had this conversation:

Security Officer: ‘Can I help you?’
Me: ‘Oh, no, thanks. I’m all done the process – just leaving.’
Security Officer: ‘But you have to get your checked luggage from the carousel, and that has to go through security, too.’
Me: ‘Thanks – I don’t have any checked luggage.’
Security Officer Looking at my suitcase and handbag: ‘Are you sure? Because if you do, you’re going to have to get it and send it through security.’
Me: ‘No, this is all I have.’


The security officer was doing her job, and doing it courteously, but she must have wondered at a person who spends a week in another country and has so little luggage.

There are good reasons to be very careful about luggage. Don’t believe me? All you have to do is read some crime fiction. There are a lot of examples of luggage that turns out to contain all sorts of things.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot is on board the famous Orient Express on a three-day trip through Europe. On the second night, Samuel Ratchett, one of the other passengers, is stabbed. At the request of Poirot’s friend M. Bouc, who is a director of the company that owns the train, he agrees to investigate. The idea is for him to find out who the killer is before the train reaches the next border, so that he can hand the murderer over to the police. At one point, it’s deemed appropriate to do a search of the passenger’s luggage, and it’s quite surprising what turns up in two particular suitcases…

In John Alexander Graham’s Something in the Air, Professor Jake Landau is on a plane from Boston to New York with his friend and attorney Martin Ross. They’ve been working through the details of Landau’s divorce from his wife, and both are tired just from that process. All of that’s forgotten when a bomb goes off in the plane. Six passengers are killed, including Ross. Landau survives, and decides to try to find out who killed his friend. The only problem is, he’s stymied right from the beginning by airline policy and FBI security regulations. But Landau persists, and finds out that the bombing is related to a powerful and far-reaching drugs ring. And how did the bomb get on the airplane? In a suitcase that’s later stolen by the bomber just before he is killed, too. As an aside, this novel was published in 1970, long before today’s luggage screening protocols. Crime writers who write contemporary crime novels would find it difficult to re-create that sort of scenario.

Megan Abbott’s historical novel Bury Me Deep is the story of Marion Seeley, whose doctor husband Everett has to leave the country when his cocaine habit costs him his medical license. He sees that his wife is set up in an apartment in Phoenix, with a clerical job at the prestigious Werden Clinic. At first, all goes well enough. Marion settles in and forms friendships with a Werden nurse, Louise Mercer, and Louise’s roommate Ginny Hoyt. Before she knows it, Marion is drawn into their world of parties, drugs, and dubious ‘friends.’ As she slips closer and closer to the edge, Marion gets more deeply involved in that world. It all leads to tragedy for those involved. Interestingly enough, this novel is loosely based on the 1933 case of Winnie Ruth Judd, who was accused of killing two of her friends. The bodies were later discovered in trunks that Judd took with her to Los Angeles after the murders…

In Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ The Boy in the Suitcase, we are introduced to Copenhagen Red Cross nurse Nina Borg. One day she gets a call from her friend Karin Kongsted. She wants Nina to go to the train station and pick up a suitcase that’s waiting in one of the lockers. She seems upset about the suitcase, but won’t tell Nina what’s wrong, nor why she needs the suitcase. Nina agrees to get the luggage and goes to the train station. To her shock, she finds that the suitcase contains a three-year-old boy. He’s drugged and dazed, but he is alive. Immediately she tries to reach Karin, but she can’t make contact. In the meantime, Sigita Ramoškienė, a young Lithuanian mother, faces every parent’s worst nightmare when her three-year-old son Mikas goes missing. The police aren’t very helpful; in fact, they suspect her of having something to do with Mikas’ disappearance. So she determines to find out on her own what happened to him. The trail leads her to Copenhagen, and it’s not long before we learn that the three-year-old boy that Nina Borg found is, in fact, Mikas. Now, each in her own way, Sigita and Nina work to find out who abducted Mikas and why. In the end, and after a brutal murder, they discover the truth.

And then there’s Elly Griffiths’ The Zig Zag Girl. It’s 1950, and magician Max Mephisto is on the circuit with other magicians, fortune-tellers, and other carnival people. He’s called in to help when the body of a young woman is found at Brighton’s Left Luggage Department. The body has been cut up in what DI Edgar Stephens thinks is a macabre re-enactment of one of Mehpisto’s illusions. So he’s hoping Mephisto will have some insight into who might be responsible for the murder.

Of course, luggage doesn’t always contain such horrible things as bodies and bombs. For instance, in Anthony Bidulka’s Aloha Candy Hearts, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant is visiting his partner Alex Canyon in Hawai’i. He’s at the airport, preparing for the return to Canada, when he meets an enigmatic stranger who turns out to be archivist Walter Angel. Angel slips a cryptic message, a lot like a treasure map, into Quant’s hand luggage before Quant boards his flight. Shortly afterwards, Angel is murdered. Quant follows up on the clue he was given, and connects the killing to some dark secrets right in his own Saskatchewan.

You see what I mean about luggage? You’ll want to be very careful about yours, and don’t leave it unattended…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Lady Madonna.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Anthony Bidulka, Elly Griffiths, John Alexander Graham, Lene Kaaberbøl, Megan Abbott

It’s No Good, There’s No Way Out*

CorneredIn Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, Hercule Poirot investigates the shooting death of Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow, who was spending the weekend at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell when he was killed. The case seems very clear-cut at first. As Christie fans will know, though, things aren’t exactly as they appear to be. At one point, Poirot is discussing the actions of one particular character. Here’s what he says:

‘Have you not seen a dog caught in a trap-it sets its teeth into anyone who touches it.’

He has a point. When people (and other animals) feel cornered, they often strike out. That instinct for self-preservation is very strong. Certainly the character to whom Poirot is referring does that; other crime-fictional characters do, too.

For instance, in Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is assigned to find sixteen-year-old Margaret Billie Sosi, who has gone missing from the school she attends. Her disappearance turns out to be connected to the murder of a distant kinsman Albert Gorman. A Los Angeles Navajo, Gorman had moved to the Reservation not very long before he was killed. Chee tracks Sosi to Los Angeles, but she disappears again. When Chee learns what, exactly, links the missing teenager to the murder, he finds out the truth about both. As he does, we see the effect that feeling cornered has on Sosi. I can say without spoiling the novel that she’s not a ‘demon seed’ ‘baddie.’ But like anyone else, she has an instinct to stay alive.

That same instinct is woven into Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. In that story, Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins gets a threatening letter from IRS agent Reginald Lawrence. The letter claims that Rawlins owes thousands of dollars to the agency; if he doesn’t pay, he’ll be imprisoned. Rawlins knows that he can’t pay the debt, and prepares to go to jail. Then, a solution comes in the form of FBI agent Darrell Craxton. Craxton wants Rawlins to help bring down suspected communist Chaim Wentzler. In return, Craxton will make those tax problems go away. Seeing no other choice, Rawlins reluctantly agrees. As he gets to know Wentzler, he forms a friendship with the man and becomes less and less inclined to be a part of Craxton’s plans. Then, one of the other residents in Rawlins’ apartment building apparently commits suicide. And there are two other deaths, both clearly murders. Rawlins is innocent, but he was present at both crime scenes, so the LAPD have him in their sights. At the same time, he’s doing his best to resolve his dilemma about Chaim Wentzler. Feeling very much cornered, Rawlins does what he feels he has to do to deal with both issues.

In one plot thread of Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale, Natasha Doroshenko flees the Ukraine with her daughter Katerina after the murder of Natasha’s husband Pavel. He was a controversial journalist whose stories had angered the wrong people. At first, Natasha thinks she and her daughter have found safety in Denmark. She even falls in love again with Michael Vestergaard. Then, everything changes. Natasha is imprisoned for attempting to murder her fiancé. During her time in police custody, she overhears a conversation that convinces her she hasn’t escaped danger from the Ukraine. She manages to elude the police and heads for Coal House Camp, a Red Cross facility where Katerina has been staying. Natasha’s goal is to retrieve her daughter and flee again. As she tries to do so, we see the effect of feeling cornered on the choices she makes and the things she does.

There are also examples of what people do when they feel cornered in Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Digger’s Rest Hotel. It’s 1947, and Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin has recently returned from harrowing service in World War II. He’s seconded to the town of Wodonga, where the local police are dealing with a series of robberies committed by a motorcycle gang. The most recent one has ended in serious injury, so there’s a lot of pressure to solve these crimes as quickly as possible. In the process of working this case, Berlin gets involved in another: the body of fifteen-year-old Jenny Lee has been found in an alley. At first, Berlin thinks that her death is connected with the robberies. But he learns that the motorcycle gang was not involved. Now he has to find out the truth about both cases. And I can say without spoiling the story that that sense of feeling cornered, with no way out, plays an important role.

It does in Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, too. Fourteen-year-old Adam Vander has finally managed to escape his abusive father, Joe. But Adam’s been so kept away from the world that he’s completely unprepared for life ‘on the outside.’ This makes him extremely vulnerable. He finds a protector in Billy Benson, a young man who visits the house just as Adam’s preparing to make his escape. Billy takes Adam under his wing, as the saying goes, and helps him with basics like a place to stay, clothes and food. During the week they spend together, the two become friends. They also get mixed up in some very real danger that threatens both of them. As the story goes on, Adam and Billy have to face some very unsettling truths about themselves and their pasts. And throughout the novel, the suspense is built as both of them react to both the danger and those truths. In more than one place, that sense of being cornered plays an important role in what they do.

When people believe they’re trapped, the instinct to stay alive sometimes takes over, as it does when any animal senses that it’s cornered. And the impact of that feeling can make for a solid layer of tension in a novel. Which ones have stayed with you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jeff Lynne’s No Way Out.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Geoffrey McGeachin, Honey Brown, Lene Kaaberbøl, Tony Hillerman, Walter Mosley

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…


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.


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.


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.


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