Category Archives: Rebecca Cantrell

Get Away From These Demagogues*

DemagoguesLet’s face it: the world can be a very scary place. Tragedies happen, changes happen; and sometimes, life seems to be full of frightening news. At times like that, some people try to use others’ uncertainty and fears to gain power, or at least ascendency, over others. And that sort of demagoguery can have devastating and lasting consequences. We certainly see it happen in real life. We’re seeing it now.

It’s certainly not unique to real life, though. There’s plenty of demagoguery in crime fiction, too. And that makes sense. For one thing, the use of rhetoric and bigotry instead of reasoned debate has been going on for a lot time. For another, the sort of conflict that demagogues exploit can serve as a very useful tool for building tension in a story. There are a lot of examples of this in the genre. I’ll just mention a few.

Some novels and series explore the consequences of the actions of real demagogues. For instance, both Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series and Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series are set (at least partly) in Berlin just before and then during the Nazis’ rise to power. In both of those series, there are good reasons for people to be uncertain and afraid. It’s the height of the worldwide Great Depression, there’s little food, and the currency isn’t worth very much. There aren’t many jobs, either. Against this background, as you’ll know, Hitler rose to power in part through exploiting people’s fears, and setting up easy targets for them to blame. You’ll also know just how horrible the consequences of that demagoguery were.

We also see that pattern in William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series, which begins in Moscow just before World War II. Josef Stalin is firmly in power, and has consolidated his control of the Communist Party. He’s done that in part through playing his political rivals off against one another, and by preying on people’s fears of what might happen if he’s not there to steer the proverbial ship of state. And that’s not to mention the fears people have already had about securing life’s basic necessities. The consequences of that demagoguery have been tragic, too, as hundreds of thousands of people have died in Stalin’s purges and other oppressions. Against this background, Korolev and his assistant, Sergeant Slivka, have to move very carefully. One wrong move and they could be next on the list, so to speak. At the same time, they are charged with upholding the law and catching criminals. It’s not an easy balance to strike, and Ryan acknowledges that fact.

U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy was also arguably a demagogue. He exploited Americans’ fears of Communism to the point where many people were jailed and worse. Others lost their jobs (and any chance of getting another one), were shunned by others in their communities, and more. We see part of the impact of that demagoguery in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is a sort of unofficial PI in post-WWII Los Angeles. One day, he gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax agent Reginald Lawrence. The letter says that Rawlins owes thousands of dollars in back taxes – money he has no way of paying. He’s resigning himself to prison when FBI agent Darryl Craxton offers him a way out. If Mosley helps the FBI bring down suspected Communist Chaim Wenzler, Craxton will make those tax problems go away. Mosley has little choice but to accept. And in any case, he, too, has been taught to fear Communism, and Craxton appeals to his patriotism on that issue. The case turns out to be much more complicated than Rawlins imagined when he finds himself becoming friends with Wenzler. It’s even more complicated when he’s framed for two murders.

Argentina has had more than its share of demagogues. Many of the military rulers have used people’s fears, as well as their concerns about meeting their basic needs, to get and maintain power. For instance, Juan Perón came to power with the backing of (and a great deal of appeal to) the working classes. Once in power, he maintained his position through increasingly authoritarian decisions. The impact of that demagoguery lasted for many decades, long after Perón was no longer in office. Ernesto Mallo’s Venancio ‘Perro’ Lascano series takes place in late 1970’s Argentina, a time when a military dictatorship is in control of the country. People have been taught to fear the political left; and those who are suspected of having leftist sympathies are brutally silenced. So are those who are suspected of questioning or, worse, opposing, the existing government. It’s a very difficult political landscape for a police officer who’s just trying to do his job, and Mallo depicts this faithfully.

In Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men, artist Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair runs directly into demagoguery when he gets involved in finding out who murdered his uncle, also named Rowland. There’s a good possibility that Uncle Rowland was killed by members of the New Guard, an ultra-right political group led by Colonel Eric Campbell. Campbell’s been taking advantage of people’s misery (the novel takes place in 1931, and the Great Depression is taking a toll) and fear, and appealing to their patriotism to gain power. He and the New Guard are planning to install a new government in Australia, one run by ‘a few right thinking men’ who will preserve traditional ways of life and the current class order. He’s gotten plenty of people afraid of Communism, working-class revolts, and other perceived threats, and is set to gain real power. The radical left isn’t taking this lightly, and is preparing for an all-out battle. Rowly wants not only to find out whether Campbell sanctioned his uncle’s murder, but also to prevent violence if he can. But it won’t be easy.

And then there’s Robin Cook’s Seizure, in which we are introduced to US Senator Ashley Butler. He’s a demagogue who’s used people’s fear of the unknown to gain quite a bit of power. He’s strongly opposed to stem-cell research and other, similar, scientific advances. He’s also a staunch supporter of the ‘traditional’ family and ‘traditional family values.’ And he’s used his constituents’ worries about societal change, the economy, and other issues for his own purposes. Then, he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Butler knows that if the facts of his medical condition are made public, he’ll never succeed at becoming president, which is his goal. So, despite the rhetoric he’s used, he reaches out to Dr. Daniell Lowell, who’s been doing exactly the kind of research Butler has publicly opposed. Lowell is no friend to Butler, as he’s seen quite a lot of scientific progress stymied by Butler. He’s also not a fan of Butler’s rightist social leanings. But when Butler offers to withdraw his opposition to stem cell research, Lowell can’t resist the opportunity to use his controversial procedure to see if he can help Butler. Technically speaking, this is more a thriller than a crime novel. But the character of Ashley Butler was too good an example of a demagogue not to mention it.

In case you hadn’t noticed, demagoguery is alive and well. In crime fiction, it almost always has unfortunate, sometimes tragic consequences. I think it does in real life, too.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s Nettie Moore.


Filed under Ernesto Mallo, Philip Kerr, Rebecca Cantrell, Robin Cook, Sulari Gentill, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

I Wish That I Could Stick Around Berlin*

BerlinBerlin has a tumultuous – some would even say at times tortuous – history. Politics and world events have had a tremendous impact on the city, too. Yet at the same time, Berlin is home to world-class music, intellectual pursuit and top museums, among other things.

Because Berlin has been the focal point of so much history, it’s not surprising that several crime fiction authors have set their novels and series there. There’s just something about the city. Space only permits me to mention a few examples. So does the fact that my German is, to put it mildly, pathetic on my good days. But here are just a few examples.

Several stories in Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series are set in Berlin, beginning in the years just before World War II. Gunther was a police officer, but in March Violets, the first of the series, we learn that he has become a private investigator. He’s no fan of the Nazis, and has nothing but contempt for their bullying, thuggery and violent anti-Semitism. But Gunther is no fool. He knows how powerful the Nazis are, and he knows that he’s as vulnerable as anyone (he has a Jewish grandparent). So he does his best to negotiate the very dangerous minefield that is World War II Berlin. After the war ends, Gunther has to find a place for himself in a very different Berlin that now becomes the flashpoint for what later becomes the Cold War.

Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series also takes place mostly in Berlin. This series begins in 1931, during the last years of the Weimar Republic, and features crime reporter Hannah Vogel. In the first of this series, A Trace of Smoke, Vogel discovers that her brother Ernst has died. Determined to find out the truth about his death, she starts asking questions. Discovering what really happened is going to be a difficult task, though, because the trail leads to some important players in the increasingly powerful Nazi party. Going up against them could have tragic consequences. As the series goes on, and World War II looms on the horizon, Vogel leaves Berlin. But she returns in time for the 1936 Olympic Games in that city, this time as a spy. And that’s when she discovers that the Nazis have crafted a peaceful, pleasant exterior for the city for the benefit of the many visitors. Underneath, though, Vogel discovers some of the awful things that are really going on. Later, she learns what the Nazis’ plans for the Jews really are as she uncovers the truth about a mass deportation of Jews to Poland. This series gives readers a look ‘behind the scenes’ as the Nazis come to power and establish their stranglehold on Berlin and the rest of Germany.

As you’ll know, after World War II, Berlin began to take on a whole new strategic importance as the Cold War began in earnest. Lots of spy and other thrillers have been written about this time period; I’ll just mention one. Len Deighton’s Berlin Game, which takes place in 1983, features Bernard ‘Bernie’ Sansom, who works for MI6 in its London Central office. He’s a former field agent who’s settled closer to home as he’s approached middle age. Disturbing news come to the London Central office that one of their active field agents, nicknamed Brahms Four, wants to come to the West. This is an agent who’s been working in East Berlin for some time, and the agency needs the information that Brahms Four provides. Sansom grew up in Berlin (his father was a British agent who worked in Germany during World War II), so he’s thoroughly familiar with the city. He’s the natural choice to go to East Berlin and try to persuade Brahms Four to stay ‘in the trenches’ for just a while longer. As if that problem isn’t enough, MI6 learns that there’s a very highly-placed KGB mole somewhere in the agency. Now Sansom has to solve the Brahms Four problem and find out who the mole is. And he’s up against some dangerous people who don’t want him to succeed. This novel gives the reader a close look at a divided Berlin, weary of the Cold War, but still heavily caught up in it. There is certainly beauty in the city, but the underside of the city is never very far away.

Ferdinand von Schirach’s Der Fall Collini (The Collini Case) takes place in modern-day Berlin, but shows that, as the saying goes,’ old sins cast long shadows.’ Fabrizio Collini is an Italian immigrant who’s lived quietly in Germany for many years, with no problems and no criminal record. One day, he travels to Berlin, to the Hotel Adlon. There, he goes to the suite occupied by business magnate Jean-Baptiste Meyer, shoots Meyer, and is promptly arrested. Caspar Leinen is a new attorney who’s on standby duty for Legal Aid when he gets a call from the local examining magistrate. Collini has no attorney, and German law requires that he have legal representation. Lenin isn’t going to find this case easy, though. Collini admits that he committed the murder, but he won’t give a motive, so defending him is going to be a real challenge. Still, Leinen gets to work. ultimately find the entire case rests on an obscure point of German law. He also finds that this case comes closer to home than he thought.

And then there’s Louise Welsh’s The Girl on the Stairs. Jane Logan has just moved to Berlin to be with her partner Petra. They have a beautiful apartment, and the couple are expecting their first child, so there’s every reason to feel optimistic. Still, Jane is a little lonely. Her only real contacts are Petra, Petra’s brother, and a few other people. And Jane’s German isn’t fluent enough for her to go out and easily make new friends. Then, she begins to take an interest in another family living in the same building. Dr. Alban Mann and his thirteen-year-old daughter Anna. Gradually, Jane becomes concerned about Anna when she hears vicious arguments coming from that apartment. And she learns that there’s a mystery surrounding Anna’s mother, who hasn’t been a part of the Manns’ lives since Anna was very a small child. Despite the fact that Petra wants her to stay out of the other family’s problems, Jane becomes determined to protect Anna. As you can imagine, this has terrible consequences…

There is, of course, a lot more excellent crime fiction that takes place in Berlin – much more than I could mention here. If you want a real expert on the topic, just stop over to Mrs. Peabody Investigates, which is the source for all sorts of classic and contemporary German crime fiction. And while you’re there, don’t forget to check out her great giveaway! You don’t want to miss it!


ps. Thanks to for the beautiful ‘photo!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kirsty MacColl’s Berlin.


Filed under Ferdinand von Schirach, Len Deighton, Louise Welsh, Philip Kerr, Rebecca Cantrell

I Was Listening In*

Listening InPrivacy matters to a lot of people. And that includes their conversations. It’s unsettling to imagine that anyone might be able to hear what you think is a private conversation. And yet, sometimes we don’t have as much privacy as we’d like to think we have. As uncomfortable as it may make us feel in real life, the plot point of someone listening in on a conversation can add real tension and suspense to a crime novel. There are lots of examples of this in the genre; here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal), Hercule Poirot is asked to investigate the death of family patriarch Richard Abernethie. When the members of his family gather for his funeral, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. At first, everyone dismisses what she’s said. Even she tells everyone not to pay attention to her. But when Cora herself is murdered the next day, everyone begins to believe that she was probably right. In the course of the story, one of the characters remembers a vital clue. When that person follows the family attorney’s instructions and telephones him about it, someone listens in on that conversation, and it has real consequences.

Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series takes place mostly in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. At that time and in that place, having someone listen in on a private conversation was not trivial. Anything might be reported to the Nazi authorities, and the consequences of that were often hideous. In the series, Vogel is a journalist who often has to be careful of every word she says. On one level, she investigates stories that the Nazi authorities do not want reported. For instance, in A Game of Lies, she’s reporting on the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936. The authorities want to present a peaceful, pleasant face to the world. But the reality is quite different, and as Vogel gets closer to the truth, she has to be extremely careful of what she says, when and to whom. She has to be careful at another level too. The people she loves and cares about most are at as much risk as she is, and to protect them and herself, she has to avoid being listened in on by the wrong people. That plot point adds a thread of real suspense to this series.

William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series also depicts a society in which listening in on conversations is a regular occurrence. These novels take place mostly in pre-World War II Stalinist Moscow. Any conversation one has may be overheard and used as ‘ammunition’ in a denunciation. And being branded as disloyal to the Party means at the very least prison and/or banishment, with serious consequences for one’s family too. What’s more, when a person is suspected of disloyalty, the authorities have no qualms about installing listening devices to make it even easier to overhear everything. So conversations have to be conducted carefully and private conversations even more so. In this atmosphere, Captain Alexei Korolev works for the Moscow CID, where his job is to catch criminals and support the Party’s vision of a crime-free ‘worker’s paradise.’ But he is keenly aware of the power of the NKVD and other Party authorities. So when the trail leads to highly placed people, as it does in The Darkening Field (AKA The Bloody Meadow), he has to move with extreme caution. Privacy isn’t easy to obtain, and the possibility that someone may be listening in adds suspense to this series.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we meet secondary school teacher Ilsa Klein and her mother Gerda. They emigrated from what was then East Germany during the height of the Soviet Era. Gerda in particular remembers clearly how careful people had to be of everything they said and did. The Stasi – the secret police – had spies everywhere who reported any conversation that might be considered traitorous. And once suspected of disloyal activity, people were subjected to even more listening in. For example, telephones were bugged and tiny holes drilled in walls and ceilings so that ‘neighbours’ could overhear everything. For Gerda, New Zealand has been a welcome haven. Ilsa sees things differently because she was just a child when the family left Leipzig, but she too has settled into life on the South Island. Both women’s lives are changed when Ilsa begins to be concerned about one of her students Serena Freeman. Formerly a top achiever with academic ambitions, Serena has lost interest in school. When Ilsa decides to intervene, she finds herself drawn into something much more than she imagined. 

And then there’s Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Social worker Simran Singh has made a life for herself in Delhi and has little motivation to return to her home town of Jullundur, in the state of Punjab. But she agrees to do just that when she gets a call from a former friend who is now Inspector General for Punjab. He wants Singh’s assistance with a difficult case. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is believed to be responsible for the deaths of thirteen members of her family, and for a fire that burned the family home. At the same time, there is some evidence that she may have been a victim herself, who just happened to survive the incident. Durga isn’t talking though, so the police can’t move on the case. It’s hoped that if Singh can get Durga to talk about what happened that night, the authorities can get to the truth. There are several influential people though who do not want certain facts about the Atwal family to come out. So Singh finds that her telephone calls are monitored and her things searched. She does find out what really happened, but she also learns that a lot of people cannot be trusted, and that her private conversations have to be planned.

Sometimes the people listening in are the supposed ‘good guys,’ who aren’t so good. In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Fire, Perth cop Frank Swann returns to his ‘home patch’ after being away for a few years. He’s learned that a friend of his Ruby Devine has been murdered and he wants to find out what happened. He soon discovers that he’s up against ‘the purple circle,’ a group of corrupt cops who are already against him because he’s reported them for corruption. ‘The purple circle’ may have been responsible for Ruby’s death though, so Swann perseveres. In the course of his investigation, he finds that ‘the walls have ears,’ as the saying goes, and he has to be very careful what he says and to whom. And several people he talks to are reluctant to say anything for exactly the same reason. That plot point adds a solid layer of suspense to this story.

Listening in on conversations is also of course, a major plot thread in espionage fiction. There are lots of spy thrillers (you could probably list more than I could) in which the plot is moved along through bugged telephones and other listening devices. That’s why there are a lot of ‘walks in parks’ where spies discuss things they don’t want overheard.

That possibility – that a private conversation is being overheard – is a creepy one. It’s little wonder we see it so often in crime fiction.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Undertones’ Listening In.


Filed under Agatha Christie, David Whish-Wilson, Kishwar Desai, Paddy Richardson, Rebecca Cantrell, William Ryan

I Go to Extremes*

Political ExtremismThere’s something about politics and political movements that can stir up real passion, even fanaticism. I’m not a social psychologist, but my guess is that part of the reason for that is that it’s easy to get caught up in very strong feelings when there’s a charismatic speaker and an enthusiastic crowd. And when the speaker seems to offer solutions to the problems we all face (e.g. financial concerns, safety, our children’s future) and appeals to people’s need for security, that only adds to the power of a political movement. There’s a long history of political leaders appealing to people’s need for security, their sense of injustice or their desire for a better life, whatever that may be. And frank, reasoned discussions and debates about how best to meet people’s needs are important. That’s how we make social progress.

But fanaticism is a different matter. A quick look at crime fiction is plenty to show what can happen when reason gives way to fanaticism. But of course, you already know from history how dangerous that can be.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), we meet powerful banker Alistair Blunt. He stands for stability, caution and conservative reasoning. And that pits him against several fanatic political groups who would like to see England’s institutions dismantled and a new order begin. So when Blunt’s dentist Henry Morley is shot one day in his surgery, the Home Office takes an immediate interest. It’s believed that perhaps Blunt is the actual target, and it’s in a lot of people’s interest to keep Blunt safe. Chief Inspector Japp is assigned to investigate and one of his first conversations is with Hercule Poirot. Morley was Poirot’s dentist; in fact Poirot had an appointment at the surgery on the day of the murder. So Japp is hoping that Poirot can provide some insight. Then, there’s another death. And one of Morley’s other patients disappears. To add to this there’s another attempt on Blunt’s life. It’s now clear that there is something much larger going on than the shooting of a seemingly inoffensive dentist.

The world market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed it made people very much afraid. ‘The way things always were’ clearly wasn’t working, so it’s not surprising that many turned to sometimes fanatic political movements. That’s arguably part of why National Socialism became popular. We see that in Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke, which takes place in 1931. When Berlin-based crime reporter Hannah Vogel discovers to her shock that her brother Ernst has been killed, she decides to find out why and by whom. She can’t really call the murder to the attention of the authorities because she and Ernst lent their identification documents to Jewish friends who’d decided to leave the country. The documents haven’t been returned yet, and Vogel knows that it’s far too risky to call attention to herself if she has no papers. So she starts asking questions herself, very quietly. As she goes in search of the answers, we get a sense of just how desperate many people were at that time. There were plenty of cases of people who quite literally did not have food and sold everything, including themselves, to eat. That desperation and panic in part made people willing to listen to anyone who would help them. And we can see in this novel how political fanaticism could be successful in Germany.

Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders also takes place against a background of political fanaticism. Over the Christmas holidays of 1943, Melbourne DI Titus Lambert, Sergeant Joe Sable, and Constable Helen Lord investigate a series of brutal killings. The first two are the deaths of John Quinn and his son Xavier. Evidence from those murders suggests that they may be connected to the resurgent Australia First movement, which has adopted many of Hitler’s ideas. Because Australia is among the Allied powers, the movement has to stay very quiet, but it’s no less fanatic for that. Still, the police know they won’t get much information from members of the group unless they have an ‘in.’ So Sable agrees to go undercover as a sympathetic believer in the political extreme Right. Gradually he penetrates the group, and in that plot thread, we see some of the fears, assumptions and beliefs that can lead to political extremism.

The disparity between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ also led to the rise of the Socialist movement and ultimately, to the Russian Revolution of 1917/18. Many people found real appeal in the idea of a ‘workers’ paradise’ and the end of rule by a few wealthy and powerful people. William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev series, which takes place in pre-World War II Moscow, takes a look at the fanaticism of the early decades of the Soviet Union. As we learn in the series, at first Korolev himself was a believer in socialism and was caught up in the movement that promised a full, rich life for everyone. He’s since become disillusioned with what the government has done, and he’s seen too many people he knows fall victim to political denouncers. But he’s well aware that there are many political fanatics who would be only too pleased to ‘do their share for the State’ by denouncing him. So he walks a fine line between doing his duty as a member of the Soviet State and keeping hold of his own beliefs.

There’s an interesting look at the clash between fanatics from the Right and the Left in Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men, which takes place in 1932 New South Wales. Rowland Sinclair is an artist and intellectual, which means he’s got plenty of avant-garde friends, some of whom are quite firmly on the political Left. At the same time, the Sinclair family is wealthy and established, and Sinclair’s brother Wilfred takes that status very seriously. He has no patience with his brother’s ‘disreputable’ friends and political interest. When the Sinclair brothers’ uncle is murdered, the police theory is that his housekeeper may be responsible. But Rowland is convinced that’s not true. And he wants to know who killed his uncle and why. So he starts to ask questions. There are hints that the murderer may be a member of the fanatic Right, so Sinclair decides to go undercover as a new recruit to get some answers. Now he’s at real risk. If he’s found out, his new companions will have no compunctions about killing him. And if he’s thought to be a member of the fanatic Right, his leftist associates will feel betrayed, and some of them wouldn’t hesitate to kill him either. That tension between groups of extremists adds a strong layer of suspense to this novel.

There’s also Ernesto Mallo’s Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano series, which takes place in the Argentina of the late 1970’s when a military junta was in tight control of the country. The fanaticism of the rightist rulers of the country is equaled by the fanaticism of some of the left-wing opponents of the government. And that political battle plays out as a very suspenseful background to these novels.

We see the disastrous results of political fanaticism in Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money too. Madeleine Avery hires Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan to find her brother Charles, who seems to have disappeared. Quinlan starts his search at Avery’s Bangkok home, where instead of Avery he finds the body of Avery’s business partner Robert Lee. The evidence suggests that Avery went to Cambodia, so Quinlan moves on to Phnom Penh, where he picks up the trail again. There he meets journalist’s assistant Heng Sarin, who proves to be invaluable as Quinlan discovers what really happened to Avery and why. The novel takes place approximately twenty years after the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the country is still deeply scarred by that political movement and the fanaticism that came with it. The effects have been devastating and form a powerful backdrop to the novel.

And no discussion of political fanaticism would be complete without a mention of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series. The authors’ leftist political views are clear in this series, but even so, in novels such as The Laughing Policeman and later, The Terrorists, we see the dangerous consequences of political extremism.

Even among individuals who aren’t fanatics, political movements can still bring up powerful feelings. Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn isn’t a fanatic but she does have strong political beliefs. And in The Wandering Souls Murders, she meets Keith Harris, who also has strong political beliefs – quite different to Kilbourn’s. Here’s what Harris says to Kilbourn’s daughter Taylor about it:


‘I work for one party, and your mother works for another party. Not much of a reason to fight, when you come right down to it.’


And in fact, their political differences don’t prevent Kilbourn and Harris from developing an intimate relationship. The relationship ends after a time, but each respects the other and they engage in some lively debates about what is right for Canada. The undercurrent of politics may not count as fanatical, but it adds a layer of tension to these novels.

Political differences and open, reasoned debate can help move a society forward. But it’s a lot harder to do that than it is for me to write about it because people so often feel so strongly about their politics. Still, it does make for a fascinating backdrop to a crime novel.



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Joel song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Nette, Ernesto Mallo, Gail Bowen, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Rebecca Cantrell, Robert Gott, Sulari Gentill, William Ryan

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