"My first rockets went up like iron balloons. Somehow, most people were slow to perceive a genius had been launched, except me."- Leslie Charteris
The Hindenburg Murders (2000) is the second in a string of six standalone novels, known collectively as the "Disaster Series," in which Max Allan Collins slyly blended historical facts with pure fiction by positioning past masters of the written word in the role of detective on the eve of a tragic event – only the reader is aware of the impending doom.
It's an unusual approach to a series of historical mysteries about disasters, but I derived great pleasure from the gradual thickening of suspense as history slowly takes over the reigns of a story. You know what's going to happen, and yet, you can't find yourself on the next page soon enough!
Over the past several years, I reviewed The Titanic Murders (1999), The Pearl Harbor Murders (2001) and The Lusitania Murders (2002). During my pre-blogging days, I read the dark, grimly The London Blitz Murders (2004) and the splendid The War of the Worlds Murder (2005) – which remains my personal favorite and the crown jewel of this series. So that makes The Hindenburg Murders the last one of the lot. Luckily, Collins is a prolific author and has an extensive bibliography of crime-fiction to explore, but first I have to get this review out of the way.
The protagonist of The Hindenburg Murders is Leslie Charteris, creator of "The Saint," a Robin Hood-type of character who first appeared in Enter the Tiger (1928) and was played by Roger Moore in a 1960s TV-series – before he would lend his face to James Bond. However, my exposure to Charteris has been limited to one or two short stories and the Val Kilmer movie from the mid-1990s, which probably does not count for much.
So I'll refrain from making any uninformed, potentially cringe inducing comments about The Saint to spare the enamel on the teeth of genuine fans of the series, because there still seem to be plenty of them around.
Lets move on to the book itself. Or, rather, the after word, entitled "A Tip of the Halo," in which Collins lists of all the sources he consulted and gives an answer to the question if Charteris was actually a passenger on the Hindenburg – which is answered with "a resounding, absolute yes," well, "sort of." Charteris was one of the "well-publicized passengers aboard the airship's maiden voyage," but the account of his presence on its final journey is wholly made-up by Collins. The reason for bringing this up is a 38 second video-clip I found of Charteris reporting on that voyage, which I recommend watching before reading the book. It's like a short teaser for the book.
|Japanese edition of The Hindenburg Murders|
The Hindenburg Murders begins on May 3, 1937, as the Titanic-sized zeppelin is being prepared in Frankfurt, Germany for its trans-Atlantic crossing to the United States. As to be expected, they were real Nazis about airport security in those days: bulky X-ray machines probed the content of baggage, suitcase lining was regularly knifed loose, gifts rudely unwrapped, shaving kits disassembled and even children's toys confiscated. All of this added to annoyance of the dapper-clad gentleman with the monocle, named Leslie Charteris, who begins here to bounce witticisms off the humorless Nazis and later on in conversations with his fellow passengers – which gave me the impression of him having been a real-life counterpart of Archie Goodwin.
Nevertheless, the pesky, but efficient, gründlichkeit of German customs seems not to have been entirely without reason, because the presence of Nazi officials aboard seems to confirm there’s a genuine fear of saboteurs and bombs. After all, the Hindenburg is filled with hydrogen, one of "the most flammable, hottest-burning gas in the world," and even a small spark could light the entire ship up like a Christmas tree. Something is going on becomes very clear when Charteris' roommate, an SS-informer named Eric Knoecher, vanishes in the night, but evidence left behind suggest he was flung out of a port window – plunging 2,100 feet into the freezing waters below. The question is whether this has anything to do with a possible plot by saboteurs or that he posed a danger to one of the passengers, because there were Jews and Jewish sympathizers among them.
Charteris is asked to carry out a discreet investigation by lying through his teeth: he tells everyone that his roommate has come down with a severe case of the cold and will be staying in their cabin. Only the murderer would be aware of this lie, but this potential interesting way of making a killer, subtly, betray himself turns out to be nothing more than a wild goose chase and the guilty party revealed by bungling part of the job than by ratiocination on Charteris parts – which makes this series entry slightly disappointing in the detection department.
The Hindenburg Murders is mostly rewarding for its use of the historical content and its depiction of life about a gigantic airship: from the sumptuous dinners and the lavish passenger accommodation to the hermetically sealed smoking room and water rationing in the shower cabins. It makes you wonder why, as far as I'm aware, there aren't any Golden Age-era mysteries that employed one of these floating ships as a backdrop for a classic whodunit. I should also mention the ending of the book, which gives a harrowing depiction of the aftermath of the disaster and that made for great, if gruesome, ending during which a final surprise was sprang on the reader. That's something I can always appreciate.
So, while The Hindenburg Murders was not the best or my favorite entry in this series, I still found it to be an excellently written, well-researched piece of historical/speculative (crime) fiction. Of course, it has something to offer to the fans of Charteris and The Saint, because Collins is a fan and noted, in the previously mentioned after word, how there are numerous references that can "be found by the keen-eyed Charteris fan" – as well as the tongue-in-cheek chapter titles that were apparently firmly planted in the Charteris tradition of his "Immortal Works."
On a final note, I might not have been wildly enthusiastic about The Hindenburg Murders, but loved the series as a whole and have a particular fondness for The Titanic Murders and The War of the World Murder. I really hope this series, one day, will awaken from its slumber, because there are still a number of possible books that can be added to this series: R. Austin Freeman served in the First World War as a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corpse (The Great War Murders) and surely Edogawa Rampo's war effort for Japan can, for the sake of a good story, be tied to murder connected to Hiroshima or Nagasaki not long before the U.S. drops by.
Well, here's hoping!