Tell Me What the Papers Say*

True Crime and NovelsAs 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Glynis Smy, James Ellroy, Lynda Wilcox, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Martin Edwards, Megan Abbott, R. Barri Flowers, Truman Capote

18 responses to “Tell Me What the Papers Say*

  1. very interesting Margot – I think that if we discount prurient interest in real-life horrors and look at something more atavistic, there is certainly a lot to be potentially derived from such fictional retelling of real-life events. Ellroy’s BLACK DAHLIA is particularly fascinating because of the way that this unsolved crime was in a sense refracted through the author’s own desire to solve the murder of his own mother, which is certainly a startling position for a fiction writer.

    • Sergio – It is indeed isn’t it? And yet, one can understand that deep-seated need for closure too. You’ve got a point too that we can learn from looking into real-life crimes. They teach us about ourselves. They are also interesting in the sense of looking at psychology and sociology and a lot more too. I think there is an element of the ghoulish in some of the more lurid accounts of real-life crime but as for authors, I don’t think that’s the main point. Not that authors can’t be ghoulish but I do think that exploration of the human, or that need to exorcise personal ghosts, figures in too.

  2. Margot: John Douglas, one of the first FBI profilers, in his book, The Cases That Haunt Us, conducts a profiling of Jack the Ripper and reaches the conclusion that he was David Cohen or someone like him. It is an interesting book.

    More recently, the actual profile that Douglas did when he was a member of the FBI did of Jack the Ripper in 1988, a hundred years after the murder, is discussed in an article in the Daily Mail at In that profile he does not name who he thinks was the killer.

    Recently The Wall Street Journal ran an article on Truman Capote and In Cold Blood setting out evidence Capote changed some facts and exaggerated the brilliance of lead investigator, Alvin Dewey Jr. He further helped the detective’s wife get a job offer for $10,000.00 from Columbia Pictures as consultant on the film of the book. The article is located at

    Finding the truth is always a challenge.

    • Bill – You’re quite right. Sifting through what is real and what isn’t with these cases is really difficult. Thanks too for those really interesting links to the article about Douglas and the article about In Cold Blood. I once heard too that it was actually Harper Lee (author of To Kill Mockingbird) who did most of the writing for that novel. She did accompany Capote to Kansas and she did do some of the interviews. I’m not sure though – again, it’s hard to know exactly where the truth lies in some of these accounts.

      I think that’s part of why cases like the Clutter case and the Jack the Ripper’ case are still so interesting to a lot of people. We don’t know all of the facts, and we don’t even know all of the facts about the telling of those stories. Perhaps it’s our human urge to know.

  3. Margot, I know a great many mystery writers do use real-life stories at least as a starting point for their novels – they will see an article in a newspaper, and wonder, “What if…” They then go off on their fictional tangents; it’s a never-ending source of ideas.

    By the way, I can think of at least one occasion where it worked the other way. Back in the early 1930s, In “The Sands of Windee,” the Australian writer Arthur W. Upfield came up with a plot about committing a “perfect” murder (involving a method of disposal of a body in a way that was virtually untraceable). Before the book was published, an acquaintance of Upfield who knew about the “perfect” crime plot twist in Upfield’s book was arrested and charged with using that method to murder three people. Upfield was called to testify at the man’s trial. The case was called “The Murchison Murders,” If you look it up on Wikipedia (it has a separate article), you’ll find the fascinating details!

    • Les – That-s true; there’s certainly an element of that kind of inspiration. And thanks very much for sharing that really interesting story of the Murshison murders too. It’s a really incidence isn’t it of life imitating art. I’m sure Upfield must have been terribly upset about it; I know I would. And thanks for reminding me of The Sands of Windee. I’ve not read that one in toooooooooo many years.

  4. Usually I don’t like retelling or re-imaginings of real-life crime. Can’t say why. On the other hand, my husband is always interested in any mystery that involves Jack the Ripper. Different strokes, I guess.

    • Tracy – That’s true. I think we all feel differently about how much real-life crime we want in our crime fiction. For me it depends on how the story is written up. And I think since the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings are 130 or so behind us, there’s enough distance now that we may feel less eerie about them. Interesting point you make about the difference in people’s tastes.

  5. I think it’s quite logical for authors to turn their creative skills to real-world unsolved cases and ‘what if…?’ scenarios. I often think that one of the reasons so many ex-journalists make such good crime fiction writers is that they combine the best of both worlds in terms of having kernals of truth in their stories and applying a creative layer over the top – perhaps being able to explore some social or political issue with more depth and nuance than reporting in the modern age would allow. A book I read last year, Caroline Overington’s SISTERS OF MERCY, falls into this category I think as it depicted a woman who was accused of ill treatment of the disabled children in her care – I am sure there were real cases that prompted the inclusion of this theme and I am also sure that nowhere in the media coverage of those cases did anyone genuinely explore the kinds of ideas that Overington did in her novel – because to do so would be politically incorrect or offend advertisers.

    Another local novel that I thought did a good job of taking elements from the real world was Wendy James’ THE MISTAKE which tells the story of a woman who is tried in the court of public opinion mainly because she doesn’t conform to society’s notions of what a ‘proper’ or ‘normal’ woman ought to behave…we’ve had a couple of high profile cases here that displayed this kind of thing and James did a great job of holding up a mirror to our collective soul.

    • Bernadette – Oh, thank you for mentioning The Mistake! That novel does a beautiful job of exploring what happens to someone when she’s not thought of as ‘normal.’ There are lots of references in it to the Lindy Chamberlain case and in the novel you can see so clearly how James invites people to look at what happens when they judge. I thought about that novel when I was writing this post up but didn’t include it, so I’m glad you did.
      I’ve been wanting to read the Overington book as well. And you’re quite right that there have been some real-life cases where there was abuse of disabled children by their caregivers. As you say, in real life it’s hard to explore some of the issues that kind of case brings up. In fiction you can do that. And perhaps that’s another reason authors are inspired by those real-life cases. They see that the media can’t really cover all of the angles because of needing to be careful. And those angles can be tantalising.
      And yes, it gets the creativity going too when an author reads a real-life case. As you say, the ‘What if?’ question gets a writer thinking.

  6. kathy d.

    What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper is a marvelous work of fiction by Paula Marantz Cohen. Henry, Will and Alice James unravel the man behind the murders in a delightful book. What is quite interesting is the depiction of the horrendous poverty in London in the late 1880s where everyone had to do anything they could to survive. This, of course, forced many women into desperate acts.
    It’s contains good descriptions of this period in London for poor people. It’s a good thing that labor unions and all types of social aid organizations began to develop.
    However, the author’s writing is wonderful and what she puts into the James’ family members’ minds and dialogue is so interesting that you can’t put it down.
    I am not usually a fan of historical crime fiction nor of fictionalized “true crime,” but I loved this book.

    • Kathy – Thanks for this recommendation. I’ve heard several good things about this one actually and now that you describe it, it sounds really quite good. I do like historical novels too. OK, one novel added to my TBR…

  7. Skywatcher

    I mentioned Agatha Christie in the previous post, and she is relevant here. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is the obvious example of real crime being used for fiction (the Lindbergh Kidnapping), but she also used stuff like the real life death from cocaine addiction of Billie Carleton. Carleton was an actress who enjoyed fame as the star of a Victory Ball in 1918 London. She died the morning after the Ball and her death revealed the drug scene that was rampant amongst those who could afford it. Christie wrote the Poirot short story THE AFFAIR OF THE VICTORY BALL a few years later. It’s about a rising young actress who dies at the Victory Ball, her death revealing a sleazy underworld of hard drugs…I don’t believe that the contemporary audience can have failed to understand the connection.

    • Skywatcher – Right you are on both of those Christie counts. She uses real-life crimes and stories in several of her works and those two are definitely examples of it. And you make an interesting point about how those stories would have been perceived by contemporary audiences as opposed to modern audiences. That’s a fascinating thing to ponder. We think of Christie as ‘long ago,’ but at the time she was cutting edge.

  8. The so-called Finchley baby farm murders were an inspiration for Nicola Upson’s ‘Two for Sorrow’. The two women involved appear as characters and the book has some interesting comments about prison conditions at the time. I hadn’t realised the link between Crippen and Mrs McGinty’s Dead. It’s one of my favourite AC books.

    • Sarah – Mrs. McGinty’s Dead was the first Christie novel I read, so I have a real fondness for it apart from its quality. Thanks for mentioning Two For Sorrow too. I like what little I’ve read of Upson and I must read that one. I’m not surprised those murders would have inspired her.

  9. There’s a book called A Pin to See the Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse, based on the Thompson/Bywaters case, a famous UK murder trial. I read it years ago, but it has stayed with me ever since, a very sad and compelling story.

    • Moira – Thank you – I’d heard a bit about the Thompson/Bywaters case, but not about A Pin to See the Peepshow. Something more for me to look out for, for which thanks.

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