A Trace of Noir :: Rebecca Cantrell on Her ’Hannah Vogel’ Mysteries
With "A Trace of Smoke," Rebecca Cantrell introduced readers to Hannah Vogel, a woman crime reporter working under a male pseudonym in 1930s Berlin. The end of the Weimar Republic looms, and the Nazis are a very dark, very close cloud on the horizon. When Hannah’s gay younger brother turns up dead, his ties to a prominent Nazi, Ernst Röhm, come to Hannah’s attention as she sets about trying to uncover the truth about his murder, and about the small boy who might be her nephew... or who might become Röhm’s ace in fending off rumors of homosexuality.
Though Cantrell had not intended for "A Trace of Smoke" to turn into a series, the novel’s strong writing and faultless evocation of place and time, as well as its protagonist’s compelling mix of sensitivity and courage, made the prospect of further installments irresistible to readers. Cantrell returned to the world of Hannah Vogel with "A Night of Long Knives." Hannah has fled to Switzerland and now lives under an assumed name; Röhm’s villainy traps Hannah in Germany once again, with her adopted son, Anton, a pawn in a deadly political maelstrom.
Cantrell’s new novel in the series, "A Game of Lies," completes what the novelist says is a "pre-war" trilogy, and sets the stage for a wartime follow-up, due out next year. As is the case with the earlier novels, "A Game of Lies" finds Hannah in Germany -- intentionally this time, to cover the 1936 Summer Olympics, though still under an assumed identity -- when she becomes embroiled in a mystery: Her old friend Peter Weill dies under suspicious circumstances. Hannah is now part of an underground railroad for information, helping to funnel Hitler’s secrets to the wider world. Weill, knowing this, has made plans to entrust her with an explosive revelation, but figuring out the clues he’s left behind might lead Hannah to her death.
That’s not an acceptable prospect to suitor and fellow underground member Lars Lang, who himself is a highly placed Nazi official. Lang’s reluctance to allow Hannah to investigate as she sees fit only complicates an already perilous undertaking -- but Hannah, being on the trail, will not be swayed or slowed down. Step by step, and bruise by bruise, the book’s increasingly battered heroine eludes Nazi pursuers, works her contacts in the criminal and political; undergrounds, and navigates an increasingly complex relationship with a man who might be her protector -- or who might be cunningly directing her every move for reasons of his own.
Rebecca Cantrell spoke with EDGE recently about Hannah’s unfailing ability to throw herself into harm’s way, the intersection of real people from history and her elaborately plotted adventures, and the art of re-creating a world now vanished.
Of great interest to EDGE, of course, was Cantrell’s choice to bring gay characters into her novels. Hannah’s dead brother haunts her thoughts, and her conscience, but among the recurring characters there’s another young gay man -- once her brother’s lover -- who has now adopted the protective camouflage of the Nazis.
"We think our parents didn’t have sex, and we think nobody really had sex before 1960 and nobody was ever gay before 1965," Cantrell told EDGE. "But the fact remains that that just isn’t true, and if you do some research into Weimar, you’ll find that there was a thriving culture, or subculture, of gays.
"There were gay bars, there were more gay magazines in Weimar in the 1920s than there were in New York in the 1970s," Cantrell points out. "There were petitions for gay rights; there were a lot of clubs; there were a lot of people who were very open about their sexuality. And, obviously, that came to an end. Unfortunately, those petitions were used to round people up later.
"When I lived in Berlin it was the 1980s and the wall was still up," Cantrell, who now resides in Hawaii, recounted. "I had a gay host brother, the same age as me; we were in the same year in school. And we would go off and go clubbing, and there were some clubs that were gay-straight clubs, so we would go there. He would go and dance with his guys, I would go and dance with my guys, and at the end of the night we would take the bus home.
"When the following spring I went to Dachau, and I saw the ruins of the camp and I saw the pink triangles, I realized that, at that [earlier] point in history, what we had been doing would have been enough to send my host brother to a concentration camp. I was really just shocked and sad.
"I wasn’t ignorant," Cantrell added. "I was a fairly smart teenager, and I had read about the Holocaust, so I knew some stuff. But in the ’80s there really was very little information out there about the fact that the Nazis had killed gays or people they said were gays; they weren’t necessarily all gay [simply because they were accused of homosexuality for political purposes].
"I did a little research after that and found out that when we freed the camps, we sent the gays back to jail," Cantrell continued. "If you were in a concentration camp for being gay, you went straight back into prison [once the camps were liberated by the Allies]. And that was us! That was the Americans! That was a big eye-opener for me. There had been this whole world, and it had come crashing down.
"I knew that I wanted to show that," the novelist added. "I think a lot of what Hannah does is show things to us. She sees a lot things that aren’t necessarily a big part of popular history, but that were there."
Cantrell’s books are striking for the meticulous level of detail they contain about life in Germany in the 1930s. She attributed that enormous amount of detail to one thing: "Work!
"Lots and lots of research," Cantrell added with a laugh. "The good thing is there were a lot of people living in Berlin at the time who wrote extensive diaries or letters, and a lot of that stuff was published in the ’60s and ’70s, and some of it’s coming out again today.
For example, Count Harry Kessler was a member of the nobility, and he was communist, and he was gay, and he was a member of the diplomatic corps, so he was part of various negotiations," Cantrell told EDGE, adding that Kessler was "also the first German minister to Poland after the [first world] war and was responsible for the peaceful withdrawal of 100K+ troops from the Eastern front. It did not go well," the novelist added, dryly.
"He knew everybody," Cantrell added. "If you read his diary, it’s like a Who’s Who of everybody in Europe. He had everybody at his parties, from Einstein to Josephine Baker. A lot of thinkers and writers and artists came to his house. He chronicled everything that was going on. He would go out and explore stuff."
"When the Spartacists were trying to take over Berlin in 1918, at the end of the war, and there were troops out and there were police and protestors and they were shooting each other, he would just walk down and see what was going on," Cantrell explained. "And write about it!"
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