Several of Agatha Christie’s novels, for instance, reflect the effect that the World War II blitzkrieg had on the UK. Those bombings were critical events in the lives of those who lived through them, and we see this in stories such as Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide). At the beginning of that novel, Hercule Poirot is sitting at the club of a friend of his during an air raid. To distract himself from the raid, Poirot listens to a story told to him by Major Porter, the acknowledged club bore. The story has to do with wealthy Gordon Cloade, who’s just been killed in a bomb blast. It turns out that Porter is acquainted with Cloade’s young widow Rosaleen. In fact, Porter says that he knew Rosaleen Cloade’s first husband Robert Underhay, who had died in Africa. According to Porter, though, Underhay had hinted that he might fake his own death, so as to free his wife to marry again, since she wasn’t happy married to him. When a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden shows up in the village of Warmsley Vale where the Cloades live, Gordon Cloade’s relations are only too eager to prove that this stranger is really Robert Underhay, since that means that Rosaleen cannot inherit Gordon Cloade’s fortune. Then, the stranger is killed. Spurred on by a visit from two of Cloade’s relations, Poirot visits Warmsley Vale and investigates the mystery of who the stranger was, and who might have killed him. Although this novel focuses on the mystery, it’s also got woven through it stories of the blitzkrieg, rationing and other memories of World War II.
The famous Lindbergh kidnapping case captured the world’s attention in 1932. Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr. was just shy of his second birthday when he was abducted from his home one evening. Over two months later, his body was discovered not far from his home. After a two-year investigation, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a German carpenter, was arrested, tried and executed for the crime. Since that time, the kidnapping continues to fascinate historians, true-crime enthusiasts and others. This event found its way into Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. In that novel, wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is stabbed to death on the second night of a three-day trip through Europe on the world-famous Orient Express train. Hercule Poirot is traveling by the same train, and M. Bouc, who represents the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits, asks Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees and soon discovers that this crime is related to a kidnapping incident quite similar to the Lindbergh kidnapping. Someone kidnapped three-year-old Daisy Armstrong, the daughter of Colonel Toby Armstrong and his wife Sonia. The child was later found murdered. As Poirot finds out, Ratchett’s murder has everything to do with that kidnapping incident.
The 1900 Paris World’s Fair attracted fifty million visitors and generated world-wide headlines. Exhibits from around the world made a sensation and several new inventions made their debut at this event. Talking films, art nouveau, escalators and the diesel engine are just a few of the innovations that were introduced at this fair. That major world event is also the setting for much of Pablo de Santis’ The Paris Enigma. Sigmundo Salvatrio is the son of a Buenos Aires shoemaker and an aspiring detective. He attends the Academy for Detectives, run by world-famous detective Renato Craig, and hopes someday to become a detective himself. Salvatrio unexpectedly gets his wish when Craig is unable to attend the Paris World’s Fair, where he had intended to make a presentation along with a group of other world-famous detectives known as The Twelve. Salvatrio goes to Paris and gets to meet these illustrious sleuths. When one of their number is killed, Salvatrio works with the group’s co-founder Viktor Arkazy to find out who the murderer is.
In 1969, the world was shocked by a series of brutal murders committed by a group led by Charles Manson. The members of this group, called “The Family” murdered Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary. They also killed actress Sharon Tate, her friend Jay Sebring, heiress Abigail Folger and her lover Wojciech Frykowski. Several days earlier, one of Manson’s followers had been responsible for the death of an acquaintance, Gary Hinman. The trial of Manson and his followers captured international attention and, in fact, still has a fascination for many people. These shocking events have inspired a lot of crime fiction, including Jeffery Deaver’s The Sleeping Doll, in which we meet Kathryn Dance, an interrogation expert with the California Bureau of Investigations. Dance is called in to interview Daniel Pell, the leader of a Manson-like cult. Pell’s in prison for the murders of the all but one member of the Croyton family eight years earlier. Another murder has recently been discovered, and it’s believed that Pell’s group is responsible, so Dance, an expert on kinesics, is sent in to get whatever information she can from Pell. Pell escapes from prison, though, and soon, more murders occur. Now it looks as though Pell is bent on killing anyone he feels has ever crossed him – including Dance herself.
Hurricane Katrina devastated Southern Louisiana in 2005; in fact, parts of New Orleans are still recovering from its effects. That major event is the backdrop for James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown. That’s the story of Jude Leblanc, a parish priest who’s also a friend of Dave Robicheaux, Burke’s sleuth. In the first aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Leblanc was using a boat he’d found to try to rescue some members of his congregation who were trapped in the church. Then a shot rang out and Leblanc was presumably killed. Hours later, the boat is found in the possession of a group of thugs who are using it to go on a looting spree. Robicheaux investigates what happened to the boat and later, to the thugs who stole it. He finds that their stories intersect with Leblanc’s fate in unexpected ways. Besides the mystery that’s the focus of this novel, Burke also explores the effect of the hurricane on the city and its people.
Olympic Games almost always get the world’s attention, and with so many people from all over the world gathered for the events, it’s no surprise that they form the backdrop for crime fiction novels. For instance, Philip Kerr’s first Bernie Gunther novel March Violets has as its backdrop the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In that novel, Gunther is hired by a top-level German industrialist to find out who murdered his daughter and her husband. And Emma Lathen’s Going for the Gold features banking vice president John Putnam Thatcher and his search for the murderer of a skier during the 1980 Olympic Games at Lake Placid, New York.
Even when events don’t exactly change the world, they can hold our attention and grip our imagination. Which events are etched on your memory? It’s little wonder that some memorable crime fiction is based on such events. Which novels have you enjoyed that have this as their theme?
This post is dedicated to the memory of the twenty-nine crew members of the Edmund Fitzgerald, who perished on 10 November 1975 when their ship sank during a sudden storm on Lake Superior. The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald made international headlines, and was the inspiration for *Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the source of the title of this post.