Monday, July 18, 2011

Rebecca Cantrell at the Poisoned Pen

I'm kicking off the recap of Rebecca Cantrell's appearance at the Poisoned Pen with the picture of us with the poster promoting her latest Hannah Vogel mystery, A Game of Lies. I'm sure she prefers that picture over the one in which she thinks she looks like a zombie. (I'll use it for the part of the program where it gets really serious.) Rebecca lives on the Big Island, Hawaii, so it's always a treat to see her.

Barbara Peters kicked off the program by asking how many people in the audience had seen the footage of the 1936 Olympics. A Game of Lies is set during that event. From 1923 to 1933, the Nazis were coming to power. Once they did, within a year they had taken over everything, the cultural organizations, sports.
Barbara was going to ask how that could have happened. Then she thought of living in Arizona for the last year. And, she mentioned Minnesota, and asked, how did we lose control of the governors? Rebecca told us there was no room for dissent in Germany from 1933 on.

In 1936, Russia and Spain boycotted the Olympics. But, the Nazis anticipated putting on a big show on the international stage, allowing only Aryans to compete for Germany.  However, the English and the U.S. showed up, ruining their plans. According to Cantrell, Jesse Owens and eighteen black Americans won medals, and thirteen were won by people of Jewish descent.

Hannah Vogel, Cantrell's crime reporter, had fled Germany before this event. Rebecca said she has to come up with pretences for her to go back. The fifth book in the series will be set in Palestine. In the fourth book, she'll go back to Germany, dragged back against her will. In A Game of Lies, book three, Hannah is working as a reporter under an assumed name. However, people there know her, so she has to be careful. Cantrell said people only see what they want to see. There were 100,000 people at the opening of the Games, so if Hannah stayed out of sight, she could go undetected.

Hannah Vogel is covering the Games for a Swiss newspaper. She has begun smuggling documents out of Germany to Switzerland. And, she was there meeting an old friend.

Peters reminded us that Hannah's lover is a repulsive SS guy. But, Cantrell told us he's evolved in the books, and he realizes Nazism is wrong, and he's trying to subvert it. In this book, he's cracking under the strain of lying. He drinks a lot. He's unreliable as a partner, though. Rebecca said she keeps trying to kill him off. But, he's an interesting character, and he can do things Hannah can't. She's not evil.

Hannah is a lot like her creator, though, in that she doesn't like to be told what to do. She dumped her hot Swiss banker. And, she's committed to her job.

In discussing the history of this period and the anti-Semitic rhetoric, Cantrell and Peters wanted to make it clear that it wasn't unique to Germany. It was part of the ideology of the time. And, the economy was terrible in Germany. The country  had a crippling debt and war reparation. The Allies had been warned not to make the war reparations so bad after World War I. In fact, if they had paid off all the reparations, they would have finished paying them off this year. The U.S. had helped them, providing aid, until the economy crashed in the late '20s. The average German wanted to end this debt.

And, Germany had Adolf on one side, and a fear of Stalin on the other. People in Germany with money worried they'd get shot if the Russians took over. People will trade a lot of things for safety.

When Peters said Germany needed a scapegoat, and they found one in the Jews, Cantrell said Hitler was crazy like a fox. He targeted the Jews. Barbara said the usury debate in the Catholic Church had put banking in the hands of the Jews for years. They made a great target group because they had money. In the initial stage when Hitler was crafting his political agenda, he thought the Jews would be the best group to  scapegoat.

Rebecca said Hitler was effective, and he was good at what he did. He hired people who were good at what they did. They built the economy, had the trains running on time. They harnessed the potential of engineers and other scientists. They had the best in the world. He was effective, if evil.

And, Hitler inspired worship like no one else. The Germans were happy to give their children to him. In the time leading up to the Olympics, his propaganda campaign was effective. People had to buy flags. He made them get rid of anti-Semitic posters. Press coverage was supportive after the Games. Cantrell quoted the New York Times as saying, with this, Germany has rejoined the world nations. The German Press wasn't allowed to write racist articles during the two week period around the Games. There were Nazi fact checkers in place at the German newspapers.

There were some dissenting voices. William Shirer said it was all a facade. But, the dissenters were in the minority. Remember, sports reporters were covering the Olympics, not real reporters.

Peters asked Rebecca if there was a conflict with the characters in writing a historical thriller, since everyone knows how the events really played out. Cantrell answered that in writing the books with a first person narrative, the reader can only know what Hannah knows. She can't know the full scope of the Holocaust, for instance.

As a historical novelist, Cantrell tries to show readers what we don't already know. Her award-winning debut novel, A Trace of Smoke, deals with the gay subculture in 1931 Berlin. A Night of Long Knives deals with the night in which the leaders of the SA, and some of Hitler's other political opponents, were killed. However, there were as many as 950 other men killed that night, and we don't know who they were. Hundreds of people who were part of German society disappeared, and we don't know what happened. A Game of Lies is Cantrell's Olympic story.

The fourth book, A City of Broken Glass, will deal with Kristallnacht. Everyone knows Jews were sent to concentration camps after that night. But, they don't know how organized and personalized the plan was to get people. First, they cut off power and phones. Then SS cars went into neighborhoods, and the SS broke windows. They would even throw rocks through the windows, then go in, retrieve the rocks, and take them with them to the next house. This was personal violence against Jewish people. They deliberately destroyed property. They would take hammers to pictures. They would go into pantries, and throw glass jars of honey and jam on the floor to break them. This was more personal than the burning of synagogues, the events people know about. And, often it was someone you knew who was destroying your house.

Barbara asked how Cantrell knew these details. She answered that until 1939, there was a great deal of press in Germany. The press covered Kristallnacht, particularly correspondents for the American and British press. And, survivors told stories. Cantrell read a diary of a man who kept detailed information about living through the events.

Kristallnacht started on Nov. 9, 1938. It was the German government's response to the murder, two days earlier, of a German diplomat in Paris. He had been killed by a young Jew, and, radio broadcasts actually told the Germans to feel free to do whatever you wanted to in reprisal. But, it was very organized. The SS and the Nazis had schedules and maps. There were also boys of twelve to fourteen running around breaking windows. What we forget is that things were even worse in Austria for the Jews. And, Hitler was Austrian.

Romania and France were also anti-Semitic. The Dutch had a good record with the Jews. And, Denmark and Sweden said not here, and they didn't turn over their Jewish population. The Nazis allied themselves with the worst. Peters commented that, like Napoleon, their mistake was turning on Russia. Cantrell said Stalin was actually a worse beast than Hitler.

One question for Rebecca was about her research, the gray areas. What makes her focus on one idea? She said she has a vague idea of what she wants Hannah to do when she researches the era, what she finds interesting. For instance, Nuremberg uncovered the stories of the Night of Long Knives. How did over 800 men disappear, and no one knew what happened? What did the people living through it see that we don't know about? Everyone knows the Jesse Owens story. Cantrell wanted to tell what we don't know.

She loves to research. She researches all the time. She starts researching a month or so before beginning to write. She'll research until they take away the book. And, she'll write notes in the paperback edition. Her son had to tell her it was too late. It couldn't be changed.

Asked if she researches in Germany, Cantrell said the last time she was in Germany was in 2006. But, for A Game of Lies, every angle of the Games were filmed. And, the Germans submitted a lengthy summary to the Olympic Committee. In included information about the extra buses, police protection, pre-ticket sales. It was the first Games in which the Olympic torch was carried, and there were complete details of bringing the flame from Greece. There are diaries. If possible, she uses primary source material. The Germans kept terrific records. They wanted to open a big museum, showing how they wiped out the Jews.

The brief discussion of lack of privacy covered everything from Hugh Grant's BBC interview about hacking of cell phones and Rupert Murdoch's empire to Google and Apple. Cantrell told us Apple can track where we are every 20 minutes on our cell phones. Google tracks flu outbreaks faster than the CDC because people Google flu symptoms. Peters said the fact that every inch of London is covered by film footage is becoming a problem for crime writers. Rebecca countered with, then there needs to be better crooks, because there are ways to wipe out technology.

Rebecca Cantrell's books are about the years before, during, and, eventually, after World War II. Peters called it the war that will never die for novelists. She quoted Ken Follett as saying, "It's the only war where it's clear who was good and who was bad." No one can defend the Germans and the evil Nazis. They were evil, and evil has no lobby. And, essentially, it was a short war. The allies fought Napoleon for twenty years. World War II was actually coming to an end in 1944. But, there were all facets to this war, a war clearly about good and evil.

Rebecca sends Hannah to Palestine in book five. She likes to write about Hannah, because there are almost no books about women's experiences in Germany, and they were half the population. It's a voice that's not heard. Barbara said there were women spies. The British had a lot, but they were all forced to retire or become secretaries.

Cantrell told us she thinks she wants to do nine books, but, then, she thought she was only going to write one. She's covered '31, '34, and '36, pre-war. Her war trilogy will be '38, '42, and '45. And, then the post-war books will cover the airlift, the unification of families, and war crimes. The '42 book will find Hannah in Palestine. And, there's the story that the Russians didn't repatriate prisoners for years. Some men returned after ten years to find their wives had remarried and had families.

Asked if she always intended to tell the story in first person, Rebecca said when she first started writing, Hannah was a man, and a cop. But, that wasn't close enough. Cantrell wanted to make the story in someone's head, covering one person's life. Once she went to first person, she found Hannah's voice.

Cantrell is also working on another series, a YA one, under the name Bekka Black. Once she said it was about vampires, the conversation deteriorated until the plot was summarized as about a doctor who is an Hawaiian vampire who goes night surfing. True?

Rebecca researches for one or two months. Then, she tries to write five pages a day, after she drops her son off at school. If she gets to five pages, she eats lunch. If not, she keeps writing until time to pick her son up at 2, and then they go to lunch. And, she's an obsessive rewriter.

In answer to a question, Cantrell said she went to high school in Germany. The Germans then were open about talking about the war. The father of her first host family had been a Nazi. He had his uniforms, and he was proud of what he had done. By the '80s, most Germans had come to terms with their role in the war. They knew it was wrong. They had lots of exhibits about the war. There were survivor accounts in the '80s. Since reunification, the attitude is a little different.

Barbara Peters ended the program with the comment that there are still people who want to tell stories, and still discoveries to be made.

However, that really wasn't the end of our story that night. I had met Rebecca at Left Coast Crime. She is friends with a number of the people in the Desert Sleuths, the Arizona Chapter, Sisters in Crime. R.K. (Roni) Olson, Deborah J. Ledford and Chantelle Osman from the group. Before Roni, Deb, Rebecca and I headed off for ice cream at the Sugar Bowl, I managed to get a picture of them with Rebecca.

Left to right - Rebecca Cantrell, R.K. Olson and Deborah J. Ledford

We all decided it was just as well I didn't take pictures at the Sugar Bowl. We went for ice cream, not drinks. We ended the night with lots of laughter, and closed the ice cream parlor.

Rebecca Cantrell's website is

A Game of Lies by Rebecca Cantrell. Tor Books. ©2011. ISBN 9780765327338 (hardcover), 320p.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Sounds like a fascinating event where conversation veered off into many interesting areas! Wish I could have gone, but thanks for making me feel I was there, too. :)

Beth Hoffman said...

I so enjoyed reading about this event, you really brought it to life. Thanks so much, Lesa!

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Great recap, Lesa! You took very good notes! Thanks for posting it!

Liz V. said...

This series seems to be a good choice.

Visiting the museum at Dachau as a teenager imbued me with very rigid views of Nazis. I lack the magnanimity of Corrie ten Boom, described in The Hiding Place. With age, however, it is possible to see the quandary of people literally caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Kay said...

I'll have to tell my mystery group about this post, Lesa. We discussed Rebecca's first book last year. It was well received and some have already read book #2. Me, I'm behind, but this one is especially interesting to me. I loved hearing about her whole plan to have a trio of books during the war and after. So exciting!!

Kay said...

Oh, and you've done some very nice recaps in the last few days on events. I'm reading blogs a little hit and miss for a while. The whole moving thing looms! LOL

Lesa said...

You're right, Elizabeth. I didn't even go into the whole conversation about Rupert Murdoch. It was a fascinating evening.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Beth. And, now on to something else tomorrow. Done with recaps for a short time.

Lesa said...

My pleasure, Rebecca. Thanks for the evening - the entire evening, including the ice cream.

Lesa said...

You're right, Liz. Age (and reading!) does bring a different perspective, doesn't it?

Lesa said...

Thank you, Kay. I hope your book group does get the chance to pick up these books, particularly since they enjoyed talking about the first one.

Liz V. said...

Came back to say A Game of Lies, and other books by Rebecca, might be good additions to

kathy d. said...

Thank you for such a good write-up of the evening.

I think Rebecca Cantwell makes a lot of good points about German history, that reparations post WWI were needed, and much more.

There was huge political ferment in Germany in the early 1930s against the economic crisis that existed. The Nazis aimed to suppress that and they did.

She's right that starting in 1933, the opposition was suppressed. All groups wanting any rights or change were repressed, suppressed and smashed, be they labor unions or student groups or whatever.

Binnie Kirschenbaum says in "Hester Among the Ruins," that the first groups the Nazis went after were those which were organizing for their rights -- economic, political, social.

The Nazis scapegoated the Jewish people, but there had been anti-Semitism in Europe for centuries. Jews had been forced to be money-lenders because they were denied any other ways to earn a living.

Ariana Franklin in Mistress in the Art of Death talks about anti-Semitism in 12th-century England, which is historically true. And there were the Spanish, Portuguese and Italian inquisitions, aimed at Jews, and Moslems, too.

Because Jews had been ostracized and discriminated against, many were leaders and organizers of unions and other groups which fought for their rights. So the Nazis found it quite useful to scapegoat them; many were political opponents, and the Nazis were preying on and whipping up the historical anti-Semitism in Europe. It was very convenient for them.

I don't usually read about WWII. It's too disturbing to revisit all of the horrors, since half of my family is from a Polish city where Jewish people were eliminated during the war -- and I grew up with this knowledge.

I have no patience for anyone who was a Nazi. Their racial superiority propaganda was so bad that it should have turned off any thinking, caring individuals from the get-go.

I have met Germans who are totally anti-Nazi, whose parents were Nazis. There are a lot of good people in Germany today who abhor their past.

A Jewish friend of mine spoke in Germany about 8 years ago. She taught herself Yiddish to give her talk. Hundreds of people stood up and clapped and cried in support, knowing what it meant.

WWII is a tough topic for people of Jewish descent. Many would agree -- and I among them that Hitler and the Third Reich were the worst in history, responsible for the deaths of 40 million people, through genocide, starvation, hard labor, forced marches, and military assaults.

I don't give anyone a pass on this. No relatives or friends of mine do either. It's just that way. It's a horrendous historical reality, which supercedes an intellectual or academic-only perspective.

Sorry for the length of this, but my grandparents' city of Bialystok has less than 100 Jews. Before WWII, there were tens of thousands. It was an educational and cultural center.

kathy d. said...

One positive point which I am adding to the above post is that the New York Times reported a few years ago that during WWII there were 800,000 political prisoners in German jails.

I say positive because it meant that no matter what the Nazis did, how brutal they were, they could not stop the human spirit or the will to survive and push for the good of humankind vs. evil.