The Hindenburg Murders - By Max Allan Collins



DESPITE THE ELEGANT SURROUNDINGS, IT had all been vaguely demeaning—thirty-six well-heeled passengers scheduled to board the airship Hindenburg, herded into the main dining room of the Frankfurter Hof by Zeppelin Company representatives, quasi-military in their midnight-blue uniforms. There amid the hotel’s tall mirrors and burnished mahogany columns, under the unforgiving eyes of customs officials in Nazi-style black-and-gray uniforms, baggage was screened by bulky X-ray machines, suitcase linings frequently knifed loose; sealed packages were rudely unwrapped, shaving kits disassembled, bon voyage candy boxes slitted open, perfume bottles uncorked, flashbulbs and flashlights and other dry-cell battery-operated gizmos seized like contraband. The suspects at the end of a murder mystery were treated with more dignity.

That was a subject with which Leslie Charteris was well acquainted—murder mysteries—as the dapper Englishman was the creator of the popular “Saint” stories. At a muscular six-foot-two, with his monocle, Clark Gable mustache, and jet-black, brushed-back hair, Charteris could easily have posed for book-jacket representations of his fictional Saint—Simon Templar, the “modern Robin Hood” who extracted booty (and vengeance) from criminals.

Despite the urbane veneer, however, the man in the chalk-line oxford-gray herringbone two-button suit conveyed an unmistakable air of the exotic. His thirtieth birthday little more than a week away, Charteris had been born in the British colony of Singapore, his mother English, his father a wealthy Chinese surgeon, which lent his handsome features a distinctly Eurasian cast.

He’d been born Leslie Charles Bowyer Yin (a descendant of Shang dynasty emperors) but had legally changed his name to that of his literary pseudonym, ten years or so before; “Charteris” was an expansion of “Charles,” but also a nod to notorious gambler and rake Colonel Francis Charteris, founding member of the Hellfire Club.

Charteris was doing his best not to be annoyed; the day outside the hotel was a dreary, overcast one, drizzling intermittently, discouraging excursions to the Altermarkt or the Liebfrauenkirche or other Frankfurt tourist attractions. Several hours ago, the passengers had been gathered here and required to read and abide by a compendium of regulations far more restrictive than those of any ocean liner. And it was now four o’clock P.M., as this humiliating procedure dragged on—interesting treatment for passengers paying $400 one-way passage to America.

His two suitcases passed inspection, but there’d been a tense moment at the inspection table when the young Aryan customs agent had asked the author in perfect but stiltedly spoken English, “Are you a Communist or anarchist?”

And Charteris had replied, “Are there any other choices?”

This seemed to puzzle the lad, who was in the process of checking the author’s passport and tickets, and Charteris had done his best to amplify: “Communists rarely wear suits from Savile Row, and as for anarchists, everybody knows they can be identified by their untidy whiskers and the round black bombs behind their backs—the ones with the sputtering fuses?”

The young Aryan was frowning now, but a trim, somber gentleman in his early forties, his graying blond hair combed back on an oblong head, stepped forward.

“This gentleman is a friend of mine,” said the formidable fellow—whom Charteris had never seen before in his life.

The young customs agent nodded curtly, as if to a superior officer, though Charteris’s rescuer, despite an obvious military bearing, wore a nondescript three-piece brown business suit.

As the pair of bags were tagged and stickered (a bold “C” for Charteris), the author was passed through. He sought out his savior—some passengers were pacing, others had taken seats at the linen-covered tables—and spied the gent standing by himself near an ornately gilt-framed mirror.

“Thank you,” Charteris said to the man. “Comes in handy having a friend in high places, doesn’t it? By the way, what’s your name?”

“Erdmann, Mr. Charteris.” He extended a hand and the two men shook, firmly. “Oberst Erdmann… but my friends call me ‘Fritz.’”

“Well, thank you, Fritz, for the assistance.”

Charteris offered Erdmann a Gauloise from a silver cigarette case; the German accepted the smoke, Charteris plucked one out for himself, then—his lighter having been confiscated by the customs agent—reached for a book of Frankfurter Hof matches off a nearby table, lighting first Erdmann’s cigarette, then his own.

“That young man doesn’t have much of a sense of humor,” Charteris said, exhaling smoke. “You’d think a civil servant in a country run by a man with a Charlie Chaplin mustache might enjoy a laugh.”

The somber face creased in a smile, though the lines around the man’s pale blue eyes did not tighten. “Mr. Charteris, your wit may