As 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.