As this is posted, it’s 61 years since mobster Albert Anastasia was murdered in a barber’s chair in New York. This particular murder caught the interest of Mayra Montero, whose novel Dancing to ‘Almendra’ takes a look at that murder, putting it into the perspective of Mafia activity in New York and Havana at the time. In that novel, journalist Joaquín Porrata hears of this murder, and believes it’s because Anastasia got too interested in other Mob bosses’ interests in Havana. But Porrata’s editor points him to another story instead. When that story proves to be related to the Anastasia killing, Porrata is more determined to find out more about Anastasia. It takes a change of employer, but Porrata finally gets the chance to look more deeply into the murder. When he does, he quickly finds that some powerful people want to shut him up.
Montero is by no means the only author to have been inspired by a murder or other news event that perhaps didn’t get worldwide press at the time, but is nonetheless of interest. And sometimes, those stories can make for an engaging novel. It takes skill, because such stories do need to be credible. But when it’s done well, it can make for an absorbing read.
James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential begins with a real-life incident. On Christmas Day, 1951, a day later called ‘Bloody Christmas,’ seven civilians were brutally attacked by members of the Los Angeles Police Department. It took a groundswell of protests and demands for action before the department investigated what happened. Discipline and indictments followed, but not until the department was basically forced into action by the public outcry. Ellroy explores this incident through the eyes of three very different police officers who play different roles in it. Then, he follows those officers’ careers, and shows what happens to them two years later, when there’s a late-night shooting at a diner. The novel follows the investigation of the shooting, and also shows the fallout from Bloody Christmas.
In 1998, Colorado police detective Dale Claxton was murdered by a group of right-wing militia activists. There was a massive hunt for the fugitives, and several law enforcement groups, including the FBI, were involved. But those responsible for Claxton’s murder were never apprehended. Many people believe that’s because of FBI bungling, although that’s never been proved. This real-life murder is part of the inspiration for Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger. In that novel, Navajo Tribal Police detectives Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn investigate a theft from a Native American casino. A group of right-wing militia activists have stolen the money to buy arms, and of course, the FBI and local police want to find them. At first, a part-time casino security officer, Teddy Bai, is believed to have been the ‘inside person’ in the job, but he claims innocence. It turns out that this robbery is connected to an old Ute legend, and to murder.
Damien Seaman’s The Killing of Emma Gross has as its inspiration the real-life 1929 murder of a Düsseldorf prostitute. At the time, Peter Kürten was arrested, tried and convicted of the crime. He even confessed to it. But, although he was guilty of other murders (he was dubbed ‘The Düsseldorf Vampire), he later recanted his confession. And there was no direct evidence linking him to Emma Gross’ killing. Kürten was executed in 1931, and Emma Gross’ real killer was never found. Seaman explores this case through the eyes of his sleuth, Düsseldorf Detective Inspector (DI) Thomas Klein. In the novel, Klein thinks he has finally found evidence that links Kürten to several murders. But there is one murder, that of Emma Gross, that is still unsolved. It could be that Kürten is guilty of that murder, but Klein has come to believe that’s not the case. It could also be that another man, Johann Stausberg, is guilty. The police originally arrested him for some of the crimes, but then Klein seemed like a more likely possibility. Or, Emma Gross could have been killed by a completely different person. Klein starts to ask questions; and, eventually, he gets to the truth about this murder.
There are other cases, too, that, perhaps, don’t get the media attention that the Crippen case in the UK, or the ‘Zodiac’ case in the US did. But that doesn’t mean they’re not interesting. So it’s not surprising that authors are inspired by them sometimes.
In fact, there’s even a crime fiction series that features this sort of inspiration. Lynda Wilcox’s protagonist, Verity Long, is assistant/researcher for famous crime writer Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport. Her job is to look up unsolved cases that might serve as the basis for a new novel. And sometimes that research gets her involved in solving those cases. Her work also gets her involved in solving present-day cases, some of which are tied to the unsolved cases she researches.
There are plenty of interesting cases that don’t necessarily make the headlines, but that are interesting, or thought-provoking. Those cases can serve as inspiration for crime fiction; and, when they’re done well, can keep readers engaged. These are only a few examples. Which ones have stayed with you?
ps. Thanks, Mob Museum, for the photograph of Albert Anastasia!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lin-Manual Miranda’s Finale (Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story)