Tuesday, November 9, 2010

And All That Remains is the Faces and the Names of the Wives and the Sons and the Daughters*

Some events are so significant that they sear themselves into our collective memory. We remember exactly where we were and what we were doing during those events, and those details remain clear. For instance, you might have a very clear memory of the day humans first walked on the moon, or the day that Nelson Mandela was sworn in as President of South Africa, or the days of the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, or the attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. Good or bad, those major events shape our consciousness, so it makes sense that they also affect crime fiction.

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?

In Memoriam

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.


  1. Margot another of your brilliant thought provoking posts.
    Mystery and history is a combination I can't resist.
    Your author in the featured writer's blog, Rebecca Cantrell, has written a couple of excellent books based on events in Weimar and Nazi Germany, A Trace of Smoke [ a superb double prize winner] and A Night of Long Knives.
    The superb John Lawton's Second Violin includes an account of Kristallnacht, and the internment of aliens on the Isle of Man during WWII. He calls his books a social history of my time, and they are absolutely brilliant.
    I have a string of historical crime fiction books to read over the next few weeks most of which make me feel very grateful to be living in 2010.

  2. Very nice post Margot. Besides the terrorist attacks on Sept 11, 2001 (New York) and March 11, 2004 (Madrid). I also have in my memory two dates: Nov 22, 1963 the assessination of President Kennedy and September 5, 1972 the terrorist attack during the Munich Olimpic Games. I still remeber what I was doing when I first heard the news on that particular date.

  3. Norman - How kind - thank you :-). I'm glad you enjoyed this post; I thought of you when I wrote it, actually. You're right, too; Rebecca Cantrell is a terrific author and I'm very glad you've mentioned her books. I am proud to have featured her blog this week. Also, thanks for mentioning John Lawton - another very talented writer who combines history and mystery in memorable ways.

    I agree that the more I read of historical fiction - even of eras that fascinate me - the more glad I am that live in this time...

    José Ignacio - Thank you :-). Those two dates - of the terrorist attacks - are etched in my memory, too. And I remember so clearly the images from the 1972 Munich attacks. Those were all horrible days. To me it is fascinating how clearly we remember those significant events...

  4. I agree with Norman - another brilliant perspective that you offer. I love the way you make me think differently about the books I've read.

    As for events that have been the inspiration for books I've enjoyed I can't think of too many off the top of my head...Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series does start with the events of the Munich olympics in that Allon is part of the team sent from Israel to deal with the perpetrators of those horrific events.

    Another of my favourite novels inspired by real events (though not a specific date) and which is crime fiction of a sort is David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars which is set during the aftermath of WW2 and deals with the internment of the Japanese in America.

    I seem to be being drawn to historical fiction a lot more these days and, naturally enough, these books with the benefit of hindsight do tend to focus on the traumas of the past. I'm reading Imogen Robertson's Instruments of Darkness at the moment which deals with the Gordon Riots which took place over several nights in June of 1780 in London and many hundreds of Catholics were killed by protestants - I had barely heard of this before reading the book but it's quite fascinating to read about in this context.

    Like Norman I'm generally very pleased to be living now rather than any previous time in history.

  5. A thought provoking post.

    "The sign of four" is heavily influenced by the India's First War of Independence (known as the Indian Rebellion of 1857 in the western world).

    I think this war marked a major change in the British perception of India which was mirrored in the literature of that time.

  6. Superb post, Margot, even by your stellar standards!
    I have to confess I remember President Kennedy's assassination though I was very young and my memory of it consists of witnessing my parents' shock as the evening paper was delivered with the news (yes, those were the days where the town supported a morning daily and an evening daily "proper" newspaper).

    I also remember where I was when I heard John Lennon had been killed, when the Berlin Wall came down, and of course more recent events.

    Like Bernadette I don't have a clear recollection of reading novels set around these earth-changing events. A movie on the end of communism theme that I thought excellent is "The Life of Others" but that was not really about one, key event - more about its aftermath.

    Many novelists would not touch 9/11 in their books, after it happened. Only some years later did it seem to be an acceptable topic.

  7. Bernadette - You're awfully kind - Thank you :-). And I'm so glad you mentioned Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series. Several of those novels deal with the aftermath of incidents of terror, starting with Munich 1972. I believe that those events of modern terrorism have become branded into our consciousness, so of course they find their way into crime fiction.

    I'm glad, too, that you mention Snow Falling on Cedars. It's only in the last twenty or twenty-five years that the US has been willing to admit to and really be open about the internment camps. In fact, I didn't learn about them as a schoolgirl (shows you how old I am!) but rather, in literature a bit later on. And that novel is definitely a solid example.

    I'll be interested to see what you think of Instruments of Darkness. I really like historical fiction, too, and I'm interested in how that time period is treated. And I agree, a well-written historical fiction novel can offer a whole new perspective on those major events.

    Amey - Thank you so much for that perspective on the India's First War of Independence. You're absolutely right that the events of that war certainly do affect Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of the Four. And, although I confess not to be an expert on that war, you're right that it certainly did affect the way that the British viewed India. That's really thought-provoking!

    Maxine - *Blush* Thank you :-). I smiled when I read your comment about newspapers. I remember the days, too, when there were several papers one could read. Where I grew up you had your choice of mornings or evenings.

    It's funny you would mention John Lennon's death. I clearly remember where I was, too, when that happened. And of course, those images of the Berlin Wall falling and of Nelson Mandela leaving prison are as clear to me know as they were when it happened.

    I'm glad you mentioned 9/11, too. In some ways, it's still a very delicate subject, and lots of people are not comfortable discussing it. But it was a truly defining moment for the US, and I remember exactly what happened in my life on that horrible day.

    I'm going to have to put The Life of Others on my TBW list. Thanks for mentioning it :-)

  8. I wasn't alive to remember some of the things that you referred to but I can comment on 9/11. I think in the future, there will be waves of books featuring that event. Probably when more time has passed.

    I think certain events (like the Mutiny on the Bounty featured in McDermid's Grave Tattoo) attract my attention when picking a book on the shelves.

    I'm always interested in books that claim to have more information on true life unsolved crimes and events like Jack the Ripper or copycats of such.

    Another great post.

    Also, I will send you a couple of stories later today.


  9. Clarissa - Thanks, both for your kind words and for writing a couple of microstories; I am so eager to read them!

    You may be right that as time goes by, there'll be more out there on the events of 9/11. Perhaps it's still too raw...

    I agree with you, too, about stories that offer new information or perspectives or insights on some of those famous unsolved crimes. When it's credible information or insight, it's absolutely fascinating, isn't it?

  10. Great point.

    And to tell you an extremely embarrassing truth: during Sept 11 I was busy surfing the internet, but for hours I thought it was fiction. It took me so long to realize this could be true.

  11. Dorte - Thank you :-). And there's no need for embarrassment. The truth about September 11 was so awful it was hard to believe it could really have happened. Lots of people thought at first that it was some kind of terrible hoax. I wish it had been...

  12. Edward Rutherford's newest book "New York" deals in its later chapters with 9/11; however since it's a history of the city it would be difficult to ignore it.

    I've read "Taken at the Flood" and what I found fascinating was Poirot and the others' attitude about the air raid taking place. It was boredom and looking for a way to pass the time until the all-clear siren blared. Humans can adapt to anything.

  13. Elspeth - Oh, I am so looking forward to reading New York! I can't wait - I'm a big fan of Rutherfurd's work. I'm certain it would have to deal with 9/11, for obvious reasons...

    And you're right; people can adapt to just about anything. In those scenes you mention, the people really are calm and seem more bored than anxious. Interesting commentary on human resilience.

  14. I remember Richard Speck killed several nurses in Chicago in the mid-60s and one nurse escaped by hiding under the bed. Since I lived in Illinois at the time, and my mom was a nurse who had received her training in Chicago many years earlier, it made a bigger impression than some world events did. I think there were a few films based on this crime, but I never wanted to see them or read any more about Speck. Too creepy.

  15. Patricia - Oh, that was a horrible series of killings, wasn't it? I can understand why you didn't want to read too much about it or see the movies. That must have struck very close to home.

  16. I normally do not watch TV, but there are times when I addictively watch for hours on end. The Mumbai Terror Attacks of November 26, 2008 was one such time. As was 9/11. And the assasinations of Rajiv Gandhi and Indira Gandhi.
    In fact, the latter is the first memory so such a calamity that I have.

  17. Rayna - I, too, remember clearly the tragedies of Rajiv and Indira Gandhi. The Mumbai terrorist attacks had me figuratively glued to the television, too. And the 9/11 attacks, of course; I watched for days when those happened. I don't think anyone who saw those images will ever forget them...