By Diane Holmes
Rebecca Cantrell is the kind of historical, thriller author you discover with a rush of admiration, awe, and a devilish delight. You feel lucky, as you sneak away to read, because she writes the kind of atmospheric, original, unexpected tale that takes an expert hand, and boy, does she have it.
This juicy thriller is set in the world of 1936 Berlin Olympics, Nazis, and hidden propaganda. Series character, Journalist and part-time British spy Hannah Vogel is back posing as travel reporter Adelheid Zinsli and lover of SS officer Lars Lang. Hannah has been collecting Nazi secrets from Lang and smuggling them back to Switzerland. Wanted by the SS, her travel in and out of Germany has always been fraught with danger, but this trip is especially treacherous as she reports on the Olympic Games (in both her roles).
Hannah agrees to meet her mentor, Peter Weill, at the Stadium, but before he can reveal information that will expose the Nazis, he dies in front of her. She must discover who killed Weill and get his secret package out of the country before the Olympics end and the Nazis tighten their noose…and before her true identity is revealed. And her partner may be the very one about to expose her…
“A Game of Lies does something some books fail to do, it successfully conveys the atmosphere of fear prevailing in Nazi Germany. It also relates, amidst the thrilling spy story with its twists and turns, the background story of an Olympics that is thankfully remembered more for Jesse Owens four gold medals than the Nazi propaganda. I can highly recommend the Hannah Vogel series, and A Game of Lies is a worthy addition.” — Crime Scraps
“Well-paced… Cantrell does a fine job evoking the period.” – Publisher’s Weekly
“Cantrell uses the Olympics backdrop to good effect here, setting Jesse Owens’ triumphs against the gathering storm…the prewar mood of uncertainty turning to terror remains palpable, and the climax contains some genuine surprises.” – Booklist
I recently had an opportunity to sit down with the author.
Tell us about Hannah’s other books. How did the series begin?
The first novel in the Hannah Vogel mystery series, A Trace of Smoke, won the Bruce Alexander Award and the Sue Federer Macavity award. It was nominated for a Barry Award for Best First Novel and an RT Award for Best Historical novel.
It was reviewed in the New York Times, received starred reviews from Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly, and was a Writer’s Digest Notable Debut. It was also the pick of various bookstores and mystery magazines.
The series recently appeared in a Wall Street Journal Berlin Noir article and a Booklist feature of pre-World War II and World War II novels (where I was the only female writer out of 24 profiled; ditto at the Wall Street Journal, where I was one out of 5 profiled).
The second novel in the series, A Night of Long Knives, was nominated for the Bruce Alexander award and the DBAWAHA Crossover (mystery/romance) award and was the Selection of the Month at dearauthor.com, bookbitch.com, and The Mystery Bookshop.
The third novel, A Game of Lies, comes out in July and is already garnering positive reviews.
Every author is driven by an idea or scene that drives them to write the book! Tell us about the ideas behind your novel.
I was an exchange student in Berlin in the 1980s, where history was as visceral as the bullet holes pocking buildings on the east side of the Wall. I have spent much of my life since trying to sort out how Germany, and particularly Berlin, came to that place—scarred, divided, and an island in Communist Europe.
The story started, for me, in the late 1920s and early 1930s. I decided to set each novel during a period of sharp transition for Berlin. The first novel, A Trace of Smoke, is set during 1931, the last year before Germany was lost to the Nazis. Some people suspect the horror that might be coming and flee, but many don’t. 1931 was the last year of freedom. I wanted to show what that was like, complete with the encroaching darkness.
The second novel, A Night of Long Knives, was set during the 1934 purge of the same name, when Hitler’s forces killed up to 1000 people over the period of a few days. Most died unmarked as the Nazi government forbad investigations into any murders that occurred during those days, political or otherwise, and also did not allow obituaries to appear in the newspapers. Hannah tries to bring out some of their stories.
The newest novel, A Game of Lies, is set during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It’s an uneasy time where Germany is trying to put on a façade of tolerance and prosperity to lull foreign visitors and press into believing that things are less dark than has been reported. Hannah, of course, sees the other side too.
Tell us about the journey in writing this story. Smooth sailing or more like a twisted prison escape?
Researching these books is very difficult. I spend a great deal of time immersed in some of the worst of human atrocities. Most of what I learn doesn’t make it into the books, but it’s all still in my head. A Game of Lies was no exception, but this one was the easiest to research so far, as few actual historical humans died during the those few weeks.
How can we see the influences of your life in this story?
I’m sure there is more of me in Hannah than I want to admit, such as a strong sense of justice and sympathy for the oppressed, but I don’t base any characters on real people in my life. The actual historical characters (such as Ernst Röhm or Bella Fromm) are based on the accounts of their contemporaries, so they’re as true to history as I can make them.
Research lover or hater?
Research lover. I spend hours reading diaries, newspapers of the era, watching videos on YouTube (I just recently found a cache of 1936 videos there, including a visit to the zoo during the Olympics), and browsing old photos. I even have a site that tells me the weather on most days in the Berlin in the 1930s. I want each book to be as accurate as I can possibly make it.
That said, I also don’t want my knowledge to get in the reader’s way, so most of that doesn’t make it into the final book. The Hannah Vogel novels are told in the first person, so I avoid mentioning anything that Hannah would take for granted. I can’t talk about how a light switch looks unless she turns one on, I can’t describe a car unless she sees it, I can’t go into a discourse about food unless she’s eating it, and then only as much as she would do. I often say that I write the books as if they were written in the 1930s and just now found in a suitcase in someone’s attic.
And what about your main character (or villain) makes that character so special to you?
Hannah Vogel is a tough and compassionate (and funny) woman stuck in a terrible historical time. I love seeing how she deals with that and what effect the political situation has on her and her friends. My favorite character is either her foster son, Anton, who is imaginative and funny and clever and a constant challenge to her or Lars Lang, who has the longest and darkest journey of anyone in the novels.
What’s the easiest way for Readers to find your book?
Give us the scoop on what you’re writing now.
I just finished the fourth Hannah Vogel mystery, A City of Broken Glass. It was by far the toughest to research and write. Hannah and Anton are dragged into Germany against their will and trapped their during the events of Kristallnacht, in November 1938.
And finally, if you could have any Thriller/Mystery author write a story just for you, who would that author be and what would he or she write?
I wouldn’t mind if James Patterson wrote me a nice check! Beyond that, I want every author to write exactly what they want. It’s a tough enough business without doing short order writing just to please me.