Mama, Just Killed a Man*

FamousCasesThere are certain criminal cases that capture people’s imagination, even years later. Sometimes they inspire crime fiction; but even when they don’t, they have a hold on our consciousness in some ways.

I’m not talking here of those rare cases of psychopaths who kill. Those stories may get the headlines for a while, but as a rule (with a few exceptions, of course), they don’t quite hold the public consciousness in ways that certain other cases do.

Not having a background in psychology, I don’t have the exact, definitive explanation for why certain cases get our attention. But if you read enough crime fiction, you see that they’ve certainly made their way into the genre.

Some cases, I think, hold our imagination because they’ve never really, conclusively been solved. The Whitechapel Murders – the so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ – killings in London at the end of the 19th Century serves (at least to me) as one example of this kind of case. There’ve been many, many attempts to learn who ‘Jack the Raipper’ really was, and several different theories.  But to my knowledge, no-one has yet posited a theory about the case that everyone agrees is probably the truth. As far as I know, there’s never been a credible confession.

This sort of case invites people to speculate about what really happened, which is part of why there’ve been so many fictional stories inspired by this case. For instance, Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger is said to have been inspired by the Whitechapel Murders case. And it’s not the only one, by any means.

Another case that remained open for a long time was the case of Azaria Chamberlain, who died as an infant in 1980. Her parents, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, claimed that she was killed by a dingo, but there was also evidence that implicated them. They were convicted and went to prison, but later evidence supported them; and they were eventually released and compensated. Yet there was debate for quite a long time about this case. Recent DNA evidence has shown, to the satisfaction of many people (including the Northern Territories coroner) that Azaria did die as a result of a dingo attack. Still, there are those who aren’t satisfied. It’s exactly the sort of case that people speculate about because it isn’t conclusive – at least at first. Little wonder it’s shown up in books such as Wendy James’ The Mistake, which concerns the case of Jodie Evans Garrow. She’s the wife of a successful attorney, and the mother of two healthy children; in short, she’s living a life many would envy. But then comes the shocking news that she had a child years earlier – a baby not even her husband knew existed. She claims the baby was given up for adoption, but there are no formal records to support what she says. That’s when the questions begin, and soon enough, talk begins that she might have had something to do with the child’s disappearance. There are several people who compare Jodie to Lindy Chamberlain.

Some cases fascinate people not because they are unsolved, but because they are unusual, or shocking (at least for the times). Here, there is sometimes ‘shock value,’ but there’s also the larger question: What would make someone do that? For instance, in 1928, Ruth Snyder was execute for the murder of her husband. Her partner in crime was her lover, corset salesman Judd Gray. This case got a lot of publicity in part because her execution was caught on camera, and a photograph like that gets people’s attention. But the question of what, exactly, would have driven Gray to participate in a crime like this is also interesting. James M. Cain speculated on just that sort of question in Double Indemnity, which is loosely based on the Snyder case. There, too, we have a woman who decides to kill her husband and takes out a double-indemnity insurance policy on his life. While other details aren’t the same, the novella explores that question of what makes people behave as they do.

We also see this in the 1931-33 case of Winnie Ruth Judd, a Phoenix medical secretary who was found guilty of killing two of her friends, allegedly over the affections of Jack Halloran. The case has been referred to as ‘the Trunk Murders case’ because the bodies of the victims were discovered in trunks that Judd took with her to Los Angeles after the murders. The case raised several questions. What would make someone commit murders like this? Could love be such an obsession? What would these people be like? These questions are addressed in Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep, which is based on this case. In the novel, she explores the relationships among the people involved, and shows how the whole thing might have come about.

And then there’s the case of James Bulger. He was killed in February, 1993, at the age of two by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who were both ten years old at the time. There was, of course, great public sympathy for the victim’s family and shock that he was so young. Just as shocking was the youth of his killers. There were many questions raised about how to deal with offenders who are this young. On the one hand, the two boys committed a horrendous crime. On the other hand, they were children. Most justice systems aren’t set up for such young offenders who are guilty of such horrific crimes.

Along with this set of questions is another set of questions about what would drive boys of this age to commit such a crime. And are children really capable of the kind of premeditation that adults are? Ruth Dugdall’s Humber Boy B addresses this sort of question. It’s not, per se, based on the James Bulger case. But it takes up the topic of juvenile criminals, and brings up the kinds of challenges that those who work with them face.

And that’s the thing about some famous cases. They capture our imagination, even decades or more afterwards, because they raise these difficult questions. Or they’re unsolved. Or they are of real psychological interest. There are also cases (which I’ve not had space to bring up here) that raise really important legal questions. All of these things can keep people interested in a case for a very long time.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.


Filed under James M. Cain, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Megan Abbott, Ruth Dugdall, Wendy James

34 responses to “Mama, Just Killed a Man*

  1. I liked that Humber Boy B didn’t try to duplicate the Bulger case entirely – it was more interesting that she used it as a jumping off point and then developed a different case. In fact, I don’t much like when an author sticks too closely to an original case unless it’s one from long ago. It’s odd, though, how some cases capture the public imagination. The Madeleine McCann disappearance, for example, is still regularly featured in the media, over here at least, and while I’m not for one moment minimising it, there are so many cases of missing children, also very young, that haven’t attracted anything like the same coverage…

    • I know what you mean about how closely authors stick to the real-life cases, FictionFan. Funny, in other crime fiction, I like a realistic story. My disbelief and I are very closely bonded. But when it comes to fictional accounts of cases, or better, novels inspired by real cases, I feel differently. I like it when the author uses the case, speculates credibly with that case as a ‘muse,’ and tells a good story. A tall order, I admit, but I like it when it’s done well.
      You’re right, too, about the way some cases just stay with us. There’s plenty of coverage of the Madeleine McCann case here, and even coverage of the almost twenty-year-old JonBenet Ramsey murder case (Don’t know if that gets press on your side of the pond). As you say, there are so many awful cases of missing and murdered children that don’t get that kind of coverage; yet, certain cases do…

  2. Margot, I just love that song. My son turned me on to Queen long ago, and the song and the lyrics are wonderful. Interesting topic for the post too.

  3. We had a real life instance of this here in Northern Colorado after a young woman was murdered and her body left out in a field. It was first discovered by a male teen who was questioned thoroughly. The police focused on him for years and eventually charged him with the murder when he was an adult. He served quite a few years in prison, and then was exonerated when DNA pointed to others who’d been in contact with the body. There has never been a final declaration of who murdered this woman…the other known suspect died years ago.

    • How terrible for the man who was convicted of her murder, Pat! And I’m sure it all must have been awful for her family, who still hasn’t gotten closure on what really happened to her. One wonders what the real truth is in cases like that…

  4. I’m always fascinated by the Wallace Case, a well-known 1930s crime in my home town of Liverpool – and one that has attracted the attention of Raymond Chandler, Dorothy L Sayers, PD James, and our own Martin Edwards! As a young reporter I worked on an attempt to solve the case 50 years down the line…

    • I didn’t know you’d worked on an attempt to solve the Wallace case, Moira! How fascinating! And you’re right, of course, that it still captures people’s imaginations even now. Funny how it’s had such influence…

  5. SteveHL

    In the Paddy Meehan books, beginning with Field of Blood , Denise Mina builds on two real cases. One is the case of Patrick Meehan, who was imprisoned for several years for murder before he was exonerated. (I must admit I had never heard of this until I read Mina’s books.) Mina uses Meehan himself as a character in her story. The other case is pretty clearly the story of James Bulger. The book has two children around ten years old killing a very young child. Mina actually develops one of the two ten year olds into a very sympathetic character.

    • Thanks, Steve, for mentioning the Paddy Meehan books. I’ve read Mina, but not those particular novels. They certainly do show the inspiration from real cases! Thanks for filling in that gap.

  6. You have chosen one of my favourite types of crime writing, those based on, or inspired by real events – one of my best finds this year was Dancing for the Hangman by Martin Edwards. I’ve also read a number of books that explore the killing of other children by children the best in my opinion being The Child Who by Simon Lelic which explores the fall out of defending such a case – it also starts with a brilliant quote from Blake Morrison’s book about the trial and society through the Bulger murder trial ‘The men…. had come wanting to kill the kids who’d killed the kid, because there’s nothing worse than killing a kid.
    A brilliant post and I’m going to check out Meg Abbot’s, Bury Me Deep as a result.

  7. Col

    Great post, Margot. I maybe read something years ago on the Lindbergh kidnapping, but I can’t remember what. Leif Persson did weave the killing of Swedish PM, Olof Palme into one of his books and James Ellroy has managed to do the same…..The Black Dahlia, the Kennedy Assassination.

    • Thanks, Col. Interesting that you would mention the Lindbergh kidnapping. That case is said to have inspired part of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. And you’re right about James Ellroy. He’s used some real-life cases quite effective. I especially like The Black Dahlia. Must spotlight that or one of his others at some point…

  8. Must admit, I tend to prefer oblique, fictionalised renditions (such as the co-opting of the Lindbergh baby case oi MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS), though there is no denying the appeal to real-life cases in our subconscious – thanks Margot, as always for the food for thought.

    • Christie did that very well, didn’t she, Sergio? She used the Crippen case, too, in part of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. I think there really is an appeal to those real-life cases, and it’s easy to see why an author would be inspired by one of them. That said, it is nice when an author tells a completely new story that has its own interest and merits. Thanks for the kind words 🙂

  9. Margot, what a fascinating post. When I worked as a journalist the only type of crime stories I read were all true crime. Your post made me think of the JonBenét Ramsey case in 1996. There was also a case in our town were the wife talked her lover into killing her husband (which he did) and she supposedly was going to kill his wife. But he was arrested shortly after the husband was killed. Now both are in prison. The two couples worked together in church and had just been together at a holiday cookout a day or so before the murder.

    • Oh, that is a chilling story, Mason! And yes, I remember the Ramsey case very well. There are still reports about it and speculation. I’d imagine that, as a journalist, you were very much ‘in tune with’ those kinds of stories. They capture people’s attention, and that goes for authors, too, I think.

  10. Whitey Bulger seems to have our permanent interest. He owns Boston crime for sure.

  11. Some really interesting cases her Margot and a much debated subject. My talk on cosy crime looks at the Victorian obsession with crime and how it hasn’t really left us at all. It’s one of the deadly sins and I think it will always both fascinate and repulse us on a very primitive level.

  12. Kathy D.

    I just don’t understand wives and husbands killing each other or having someone else do it. Haven’t they heard of divorce? It’s legal these days.
    But this post reminds me that as a teenager I read Compulsion, a novelized version of the terrible Leopold and Loeb murders of a teenager in Chicago.
    It was a famous book, and since I grew up in Chicago where the case was notorious, I wanted to read the book.
    I did so, but I think I was too young to really understand it. Not that we can really understand psychopathology like those two young men had nor their views that they were above the law and/or court outsmart the criminal justice system. Nor can we understand their compulsion to kill an innocent young person to commit a “perfect crime.”

    • Oh, yes, the Leopold and Loeb case! That was notorious, and there’s been a lot written about it, Kathy. It is hard to understand that motive for murder, or the way minds like that think. But it was a fascinating case, no doubt about it. As far as spouses go, I don’t know why they kill each other either, especially in today’s world of straightforward divorce. But those kinds of murders – committed by someone close to the victim – are among the most common.

  13. Keishon

    I think the murder of JonBenet Ramsey in 1996 is still unsolved. That case is truly baffling. I think they’ve had confessions and suspects, the latest, her brother but still the case remains unsolved.

    • I don’t think that case has been solved, either, Keishon. I think that’s a little of why it still has such a fascination for people. I don’t know if we’ll ever really know the truth about it…

  14. Another great topic. For me the most compelling of the capture-the-imagination variety is the unsolved murder, simply because the murder remains, well, unsolved.
    Though not exactly a murder, I recall the case of author Weldon Kees, who disappeared near the Golden Gate Bridge in 1955, presumably a suicide. However – there have been sightings over the years, in Mexico City and New Orleans, among other places.

    • Oh, that is interesting, Bryan. I always think those disappearances are fascinating. And I agree; a murder that’s unsolved has a real fascination as well. I suppose it’s that human urge to want to know…

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