Friday, July 30, 2010


Kidnapping stories often get lurid headlines, and of course, it’s frightening to think of what it might be like to be abducted and held hostage. Kidnapping crimes aren’t as common as the newspaper headlines make them seem, but they do occur, both in real life and in crime fiction. Sometimes, the goal of kidnapping is money – a ransom. Other times, the kidnappers’ goals are terrorism or to make some sort of statement. Still others, it’s to serve some specific purpose, such as getting information. There are other motives behind kidnapping, too. Whatever the motive, kidnapping has a long history in mystery stories, and a kidnapping can add a high level of tension to a crime fiction story, even if it’s not the center of the novel. In fact, in Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, fictional detective story author Ariadne Oliver mentions that when she needs to add some length to a book she’s writing, she has to sometimes,

“Get the heroine kidnapped again.”

A kidnapping event can take any number of different directions, so it’s no wonder that there’s so much abduction in crime fiction.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Priory School, ten-year-old Lord Saltire, son of the Earl of Holdernesse, is kidnapped. Thornycroft Huxtable, founder and principal of the exclusive Priory School, which Saltire attends, asks Sherlock Holmes’ help in finding the boy. At first, it seems that Heidegger, the German master, must have taken the boy, since he’s missing, too. But when his body is found, it’s clear that someone else is responsible. In the end, Holmes finds out what happened to Lord Saltire, and the surprising reason for his disappearance from the Priory School.

In Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, we meet Anne Beddingfield, a young woman who’s left an orphan after the death of her father. At first, Anne accepts an invitation from her father’s solicitor to stay with his family in London, but she wants more adventure than that. By chance, Anne witnesses a tube accident one day in which a man is killed on the tracks. She picks up a scrap of paper that fell from his pocket, and finds out that it refers to the upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle, bound for Cape Town. Impulsively, Anne buys passage on the ship and is soon mixed up in more adventure than even she could have imagined. She finds out that the death she witnessed was connected to international jewel smuggling, a mysterious woman who’s killed in an empty house, and a criminal known only as The Colonel. The closer Anne gets to the truth, the more dangerous life becomes for her and at one point, she’s kidnapped by thugs under The Colonel’s command. She manages to escape, but she’s almost killed before she’s able to solve the mystery. The kidnapping isn’t the major focus of this novel, but it adds interest to the story.

The same is true in Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons. In that novel, exclusive Meadowbank School is the scene of the shooting death of games mistress Grace Springer. In trying to find out what happened, the police interview several of the mistresses and students, including Princess Shaista, a Middle Eastern princess who’s convinced that the shooting is related to some missing jewels that are part of her family’s treasure. Inspector Kelsey doesn’t believe Princess Shaista, especially when she tells the inspector that she may be kidnapped. Much to everyone’s surprise, Princess Shaista is kidnapped. Then, another death occurs at the school. One of the students, Julia Upjohn, visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to help find out what’s been going on at the school. Poirot agrees, and in the end, he and Inspector Kelsey find out what happened to Princess Shaista, and how that’s related to the deaths at Meadowbank.

In Robert Crais’ The Last Detective, Elvis Cole, one of Crais’ sleuths, agrees to do a favor for his girlfriend, television personality Lucy Chernier. She’s going to be out of town for the week-end, and Cole agrees to look after her ten-year-old son, Ben. Just before Lucy is scheduled to return, Cole discovers that Ben is missing. He searches desperately for the boy, but can’t find him. Then, he gets a call from Ben’s kidnappers. Matters are made worse when Lucy’s wealthy ex-husband Richard arrives on the scene. He isn’t fond of Cole to begin with, and he blames Cole for lax supervision so that the kidnappers could get to Ben. Cole has to look into his own past in Vietnam to find a clue to Ben’s captors, and that past, plus help from former bomb squad technician Carol Starkey, helps Cole figure out who the kidnappers are.

Cole’s not the only fictional sleuth who has to deal with a kidnapping very close to home. In Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage, Inspector Reg Wexford has to deal with a hostage situation when a new road is planned for Kingsmarkham. Several groups have come to the area to protest the construction, and things turn ugly when the protestors take hostages. One of the hostages is Wexford’s wife, Dora, who’s on a local committee that’s protesting the project. Now, Wexford and his team work frantically to save the hostages; when a death occurs, they also find themselves investigating a killing.

In Michael Connelly’s 9 Dragons, L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch gets involved in an investigation of tongs, Chinese Mafia gangs, when a Chinese liquor store owner is shot. Bosch finds out that the victim was paying extortion money to a local gang, and goes after the group that he thinks is responsible for the murder. Then, he gets word that his daughter, Maddie, who lives in Hong Kong, has been kidnapped. Bosch believes the kidnapping is related to his investigation of the liquor store murder and immediately flies to Hong Kong to find Maddie. During a desperate weekend, Bosch searches for his daughter and in the end, he finds out the real truth about the kidnapping. He also finds out what happened at the liquor store.

Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know focuses on an abduction from the past. Baltimore police detective Kevin Infante is investigating a hit-and-run car accident. The driver has no identification, but she claims that she’s Heather Bethany, one of two sisters who disappeared from a mall in 1975. Her story leaves Infante in some doubt, though, and the investigation into the disappearance of the Bethany girls is re-opened. What’s interesting about this novel is that it deals with not just the kidnapping (although that’s a major plot line) but also the dynamics of the family before and after the event. Abduction is a traumatic event, and it’s very interesting to see that aspect of kidnapping discussed.

We see the kidnapper’s perspective on abduction in Tim Baker’s Living the Dream. That’s the story of Kurt, a loser who traces his bad luck to a rock concert he attended years earlier, when he met Vicky. He tried to get Vicky to spend the night with him that night, but she refused. Vicky’s refusal and Kurt’s reaction to it led to a series of misunderstandings that resulted in Kurt’s being tried for and convicted of rape. After being released from prison, Kurt’s life has gone steadily downhill. Then, he finds out that Vicky’s married to a wealthy man, so he decides to kidnap her. He feels that the least she owes him is a great deal of money. When Kurt gets to Florida, where Vicky lives, he finds that she’s out of town. And that’s just the beginning of his trouble. It turns out that Vicky’s rich husband Jimmy has plans of his own that don’t include paying a ransom for his wife. Not only that, but Kurt’s made a few nasty people angry with him. All of this means that Kurt’s plan for a quick trip to Easy Street ends up being much, much more dangerous and complicated than he thought.

There are many, many more crime novels with a kidnapping theme than I’ve had space to mention here. Which ones have you enjoyed?


  1. Ugh, kidnapping. I hate that word. Kidnapping is something that scares me to death down here in Mexico. My friend's uncle has recently been kidnapped, they haven't heard from the kidnappers so he may not be alive. My friend has been stopped in her car (because they follow you here) and threatened with kidnapping. Fortunately for her, her father paid before she was kidnapped but I still walk her to her vehicle when I'm with her. Because her uncle was taken, there is always a chance she might be threatened again. It's a tough life down here... I don't envy people with money. I often see rich people followed around by bodyguards with automatic weapons.


  2. Wanna know something funny... not ha ha funny but sad funny? I have plenty of material down here to fill volumes of thriller novels based on true story but I don't write about anything based in Mexico because it's too scary. I'd rather make up serial killers in my head.


  3. Clarissa - I am sorry to hear how dangerous life can be where you are. It is scary, isn't it, how kidnapping can happen just like that in real life. It's enough to make anyone afraid of the word, "kidnapping." Ick! I am also extremely sorry to hear about your friend's uncle; I hope he's found. Living with that kind of fear must be just about intolerable. And I don't blame you one bit for not wanting to write about something as scary as some of the things I've read... I think things like that are all the more frightening when they actually can happen.

  4. Kidnapping is a heinous crime. Although I have kidnaping in my books (and what better way to kidnap a person than use a wormhole .. in and out without a trace), I have excluded children. I will never have kids being kidnapped in my books. There, my social input for the day. Thanks for listening.

    Stephen Tremp

  5. I use kidnapping a lot in my books. (When I think about it, three of four feature it in some ways - at least false kidnapping, most are non-ransom situations, really.)

    And when you think about it, when you include all the times action heroes get captured by the badguys, it's really common in adventures and thrillers, even though it might not technically be considered a "kidnapping," in the classic sense of the word.

  6. Stephen - I like that word; heinous is exactly what kidnapping is. It's a horrible crime. So I completely see your point about not putting kids through something like that in your books. There are things that I don't choose to do, too, for a similar kind of reason. And the wormhole sounds really interesting...

    Daring Novelist - You're right; action heroes and other sleuths really do get captured quite a lot in crime fiction even if, as you say, we don't consider that kidnapping in the traditional sense of the word. It certainly counts as abduction and it does happen frequently.

  7. Kidnapping in a plot can lead the characters in so many different directions. I guess I'd rather think of kidnapping only in books rather than real life because in books we know for the most part it's going to turn out okay. In real life, it rarely does.

    The kidnappings where the sleuth has to untangle all the lies and blame are always interesting, especially if in the end the one being kidnapped had it staged. Another very interesting post Margot. You send my mind thinking of all sorts of plots, but then that's the fun thing about reading. LOL.

    Thoughts in Progress

  8. The other thing about kidnapping for fiction is that:

    A) the bad guys are really BAD.

    B) the victim can be rescued.

    Because of B, it matters more than murder does.

  9. Usually I don´t like kidnapping. Nasty crime. But ... of course there is a but. I have actually planned and written the first part of a Danish novel about a kidnapping - and of course it is not going to be nasty! The only problem is that my Danish writing pal who suggested the project has bolted (at least for the time being).

  10. Mason - Why thank you : ). You make a very good point, too, that kidnappings in literature are somehow less horrendous than they are in real life. Even when they don't turn out well, it's somehow often a bit more removed. And you're right; a kidnapping can take a book in lots of directions, so that there's lots of opportunities for the author to surprise readers.

    Daring Novelist - I agree; kidnappings do work much better if, as you say, there's a really bad guy to go after, and the victim gets rescued. Especially if it's a child.

    Dorte - I agree; in general, kidnapping really is horrible. But I'm sure that you would have written a fine take on the topic where it wouldn't be nasty. I hope at some point that you're able to get that project done. I would love to read it.