As we all know, there’s at least as much real crime out there as there is fictional crime. And writers can’t help but be influenced by those crime stories. After all, crime writers follow the news like a lot of other people, and sometimes those true crime stories can be fascinating enough that they catch the writer’s interest. Something about them gets the writer thinking.
For example, the 1888-1891 Whitechapel murders – the so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders – have caught the imagination of lots of writers. These eleven murders of women have never been officially solved although there has been a lot of speculation about who ‘Jack the Ripper’ was. Possibly because the murders weren’t neatly solved, and because there was so much interest in them at the time, those killings have inspired many novels; I’ll just mention a few. In R. Barri Flowers’ historical thriller Dark Streets of Whitechapel, Dr. Jack Lewiston has been captured New York and arrested for the ‘Jack the Ripper’ crimes. But before he can be brought to trial, Lewiston escapes to London. Former New York City detective Henry Marboro comes out of retirement and travels to London to try to track Lewiston down before he can claim more victims.
Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger is also based on the Whitechapel murders. In this story, we meet Robert and Ellen Bunting, highly respectable middle-class Londoners who let rooms. They’re particular about the people they admit, but they are also facing financial difficulties. So when a man calling himself Mr. Sleuth agrees to pay in advance for one of the rooms, Mrs. Bunting is more than willing to have him lodge there. Besides, he speaks and acts like ‘a gentleman.’ All goes well enough at the beginning but soon, the Buntings begin to get an eerie feeling about Mr. Sleuth. After a time Ellen Bunting begins to suspect that he might be a mysterious and vicious killer known as The Avenger, who’s been making headlines in all of the newspapers. The more time goes by, the creepier Mr. Sleuth seems and the more danger the Buntings feel. But at the same time, Mr. Sleuth hasn’t threatened them and they desperately need the money he pays them. Part of the suspense in this novel comes from the dilemma of whether the Buntings will report what they suspect to the police (and give up that rent), or whether they’ll keep quiet.
And then there’s Glynis Smy’s Ripper, My Love, which tells the story of Kitty Harper, a seamstress who lives and works in Whitechapel at the time of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders. This novel’s been called romantic suspense and it is in the sense that the novel follows Kitty’s life and the way she deals with three young men who are vying for her. But at the same time there’s a strong thread of crime and danger as the Whitechapel murders are seen from Kitty’s perspective – and the murderer may be closer to her than anyone knows. There are dozens and dozens of other novels that refer to, are inspired by or are retellings of the Whitechapel murders.
Another murder that has generated a lot of interest (and inspired other crime writers) is what’s often called the Crippen case. American homeopathic physician Hawley Harvey Crippen was hanged in 1910 for the murder of his wife Cora. There was significant evidence against him too. A torso which could have been hers was found buried in his basement. He’d purchased hyoscine, a quantity of which was found with the remains. He had a new love, too, Ethel ‘Le Neve’ Neave and in fact, they were captured as they landed in America after leaving England together. There was other evidence too that Crippen had killed his wife. Although the verdict against Crippen has been disputed in the last few years, most people at the time thought him guilty. The story made a sensation and has influenced more than one crime writer. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead is the story of the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger James Bentley. Superintendent Spence doesn’t think so though and asks Hercule Poirot to look into the case. Poirot agrees and travels to the village of Broadhinny to do so. He finds that Mrs. McGinty had learned more than it was safe for her to know about one of the ‘nice’ people who live in the village; that’s why she was killed. One of the clues in this case is a story about four old murders, one of which is the murder of a woman by her husband. Like Crippen, this ‘Craig case’ features a body found in a basement and a man who was hanged for the crime while his lover left the country.
Martin Edwards’ Dancing For the Hangman is a fictionalised account of the Crippen case told from Crippen’s own point of view. The story begins just after Crippen is convicted for murder, and follows his thoughts as he awaits execution. Interspersed with reports and newspaper stories of the time, the novel tells of Crippen’s life in America, his move to London and his marriage to Cora. It then details how Crippen met Ethel Le Neve and tells the story of their plans to go to America together. In this novel, Edwards gives an alternative account of what exactly happened to Cora and why.
One of the most famous novels based on true crime is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. That novel is a re-telling of the 1959 murders of Kansas farmer Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie Mae and his children Nancy Mae and Kenyon. Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were arrested, tried and convicted of the crimes. The motive for the murders was money; Hickock and Smith had been in prison before the Clutter murders and heard from a fellow inmate that Herb Clutter had a lot of money at his farm. That wasn’t true but it didn’t stop Hickock and Smith from committing four murders and then going ‘on the run’ until the end of that year when they were caught. Capote’s novel tells the story of the victims’ lives, the relationship between Hickock and Smith and the devastating effects of the Clutter murders on the community. You could call this ‘untrue crime,’ as it is fiction but tells the story of a real crime.
So does James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. That novel’s focus is the still-unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, who was killed in Los Angeles in 1947. LAPD detectives Dwight ‘Bucky’ Bleichert and Lee Blanchard are on a stakeout when they discover Short’s body. The case starts to overwhelm the LAPD and becomes a media sensation. Bleichert becomes more and more obsessed with the case, especially when he meets the enigmatic Madeleine Sprague, who closely resembles the victim, and begins to have an affair with her. Blanchard too is obsessed with Elizabeth Short, in large part because his sister was also murdered. This case takes a heavy toll on both officers as they get more and more deeply involved in finding out who Elizabeth Short really was, what her life was like and why she died. Ellroy presents a fictional solution to the case but the real focus in this novel is on the way the murder case affects the cops who investigate it.
There are many other novels that are based on real crimes. For example, there’s Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep, which is based on the 1933 ‘trunk murders’ in which Winnie Ruth Judd was found guilty of murdering two of her friends. Abbott looks at the relationships and history that might have been behind those murders. Some crimes just take hold of the imagination and it can be fascinating to explore different aspects of them. And unlike journalists, novelists can create their own versions of how a crime might have happened and that can make for an absorbing story. In fact, that’s how Lynda Wilcox’s fictional crime writer Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport gets her inspiration. As we learn in Strictly Murder, KD’s assistant Verity Long researches old cases and KD uses those as the basis for her novels. It’s not hard to see how they might inspire her.
But what do you think? Do you enjoy reading true-crime books or ‘untrue crime’ stories? If you’re a writer, do you use real crime for inspiration?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Elton John/Bernie Taupin song.