THE HINDENBURG MURDERS
By Max Allan Collins
Thomas & Mercer
This is one of writer Max Collins’ murder mysteries centered on outstanding historical events. Other books in the series involved the sinking of the Titanic and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In this tale, he sets his sights on the dramatic end of the magnificent German airship Hindenburg.
The Hindenburg Disaster, as it became known, occurred on May 6, 1937. The LZ 129 Hindenburg was a German commercial passenger-carrying rigid airship. The largest such flying machine designed and built by the Zeppelin Company. Filled with hydrogen, it caught fire and was destroyed during its attempt to dock with its mooring mast at the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst New Jersey. Of the 97 people on board, 35 died along with a one ground fatality. The disaster was captured on newsreels and radio eyewitness reports.
In plotting his tale of murder and sabotage, Collins’ muse was aided by the fact that sailing on the airship’s last trip was none other than the popular mystery writer and creator of the Saint, Leslie Charteris. The debonair Charteris is on his way back to America to finalize his divorce from his second wife. Upon getting settled into the spacious, beautifully furnished interior, he soon is made aware that the turbulent politics of the time have also come aboard. Hitler and his Nazi party are changing the climate of the country and not all Germans are thrilled with the fervor of this new nationalism. Attacks on Jewish citizens are rampant and an underground resistance movement fueled by communist agitators is rumored to be active.
Although neutral in his own opinions, the writer soon suspects that the fellow sharing his cabin is an agent of the secret police. When the man disappears soon after the ship’s departure, the only logical explanation points to murder. Someone, fearing exposure by the agent, managed to throw him overboard during the night. The veteran captain of the Hindenburg, being one of Charteris’ old acquaintances, seeks his aid in ferreting out the killer before the mighty airship reaches its final destination. Added to this challenge is the possibility that the killer is also a saboteur and may have planted a bomb somewhere on the giant craft.
As always, Collins research is meticulous and within the first few pages, we
readers are taken on a detailed tour of the Hindenburg’s wonders from its
stately dining rooms to its four gondolas containing its powerful Daimler
engines. As the journey progresses, Charteris does his best to surreptitiously
interview the most likely suspects, from a slapstick vaudeville entertaining to
even a young member of the ship’s crew. As the hours tick away, the ship moves
closer and closer to its destiny.
The final chapters detailing the horrendous explosion and burning of the Hindenburg are gut wrenching. Charteris was one of the survivors and in the end, he walks away with what his believes to be the actual cause of the tragedy. Over the years, a variety of theories have been put forth for both the cause of ignition and the initial fuel for the ensuing fire. The publicity shattered public confidence in the giant, passenger-carrying rigid airship and sounded the death knell of the airship era. For many aviation buffs, this reviewer included, it remains an everlasting loss.