I’m delighted to welcome Rebecca Cantrell as today’s guest blogger. She writes the critically acclaimed Hannah Vogel mystery series set in 1930s Berlin, including A Trace of Smoke and A Night of Long Knives. Her screenplays “A Taste For Blood” and “The Humanitarian” have been finalists at Shriekfest: The Los Angeles Horror/Sci-fi Film Festival. Her short stories are included the “Missing” and the upcoming “First Thrills” anthologies. Currently, she lives in Hawaii with her husband, her son, and too many geckoes to count. You can learn more at her website, http://www.rebeccacantrell.com.
The following essay first appeared as part of the Poisoned Pen Web Con last fall. I moderated two panels for the event as well, and I blogged about it on October 21st. You can still check out the proceedings online at www.ppwebcon.com – there’s lots of great reading there.
Where Do I Get My Ideas?
By Rebecca Cantrell
I went on a Spring Break trip to Munich. Unlike my more well-adjusted peers, I skipped out on the drinking and went to Dachau. Because everyone else was swilling beer and gulping pretzels, I had the place to myself.
Wind moaned through the open wooden barracks and I shivered in my 1980s fashionable black leather ankle boots as I clomped through the buildings. It gets dark early in Germany in the spring, especially on an overcast day, and I wished for a flashlight to drive away the shadows and ghosts.
But I had none, so I headed inside and stopped in front of a plain wall. It held a row of colored triangles worn by actual prisoners: yellow, red, green, blue, purple, pink, brown, and black scraps of fabric. Above each now faded triangle, thick Gothic letters spelled out the categories: Jewish, political prisoner, habitual criminals, emigrant, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, gypsies, and asocials (a catchall term used for murderers, thieves, and those who violated the laws prohibiting Aryans from having intercourse with Jews).
Even though I was just a teenager, I’d read enough to know what the Nazis did to the Jews, the Communists, the gypsies, and those who disagreed with their ideology. But I’d had no idea they’d imprisoned people for being gay.
I stuffed my hands deep into the pockets of my too light coat (with rolled up sleeves and the collar turned up in the back, because it was 1985) and thought about my host brother. He was the same age as I and we often went clubbing in Berlin until the wee small hours of the morning. The subways stopped running around midnight, and if you missed that last one, you were out until five unless you caught a night bus. Then you were on the night bus for hours as it wended its way through every tiny street imaginable. Without much adult supervision, my host brother and I spent what in retrospect was probably too many nights leaned up against each other like puppies sleeping on the top front seat of the night bus or on the benches at the subway station.
He had perfectly styled 80s bottle-blonde hair, an extravagant fashion sense, and he was gay into the marrow of his bones. We would snag a table at Metropol where we would both drink a Berliner white beer (his with a red shot of syrup, mine with a green) and then dance with an endless array of GIs. At the end of the evening, we’d hook back up and start our long journey home, talking about guys. Forty years before those innocent evenings would have been enough to send him to the camps.
As I took the train from Munich back to Berlin, I couldn’t stop thinking about how that could have happened. Thirty years later, I’m still thinking about that triangle. How did German history reach that point in time where they hung those triangles? I’ve grappled with it in nonfiction. I wrote my senior history thesis on it, where I discovered that when the Americans freed the camps we sent the pink triangles straight to prison. Because it was still against the law. And I’ve investigated it in fiction. I have a short story called ON THE TRAIN set on a train between Dachau and Auschwitz that comes out as part of an anthology of new and well known thriller writers called FIRST THRILLS.
When I sat down to write a novel a few years ago, a character at that point in history appeared, Hannah Vogel, a sarcastic and tough crime reporter searching for the murderer of her gay cabaret singer brother. I’ve now spent several years researching the grimmest time in German history to follow her from book to book, hoping to find a little light in all that darkness.