Category Archives: Truman Capote

Use Your Freedom of Choice*

banned-books-week-2016In a recent post about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, I mentioned that it could be thought of as a crime novel. Certainly there’s an argument that it has several of the elements we often see in crime fiction, especially in noir stories. Whether you agree that it’s a crime novel or not, I think it’s safe to say that the book has earned its place as a classic of literature.

So, we could argue, has Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In one sense, it’s a coming-of-age story as Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch learns about friendship and about the consequences of judging people and events by appearances. She also learns important lessons about ethics and about justice from her father, attorney Atticus Finch. This could also be seen as a crime novel. After all, a main plot thread concerns Tom Robinson, a black man who’s been accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Robinson claims he’s innocent, and Atticus Finch defends his case. Because of the time and place that form the book’s setting, the proverbial dice are very much loaded against Robinson. The case, the trial and its outcome have become iconic, and you could certainly classify the novel on that score as crime fiction.

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood counts as crime fiction as well. This novel is the fictional account of the 1959 murders of Kansas farmer Herb Clutter, his wife, Bonnie Mae, and his children, Nancy Mae and Kenyon. Richard Hickok and Perry Smith were arrested, tried and convicted of the crime, and it turns out that their motive was money. The killers had heard during an earlier prison stint that Clutter had a lot of money buried on his farm. That wasn’t true, but Hickok and Smith believed that it was, and that was enough to seal the Clutters’ fate. This story explores the histories of the two killers, their relationships, and the impact on a small Kansas community of the Clutter murders. This novel has become iconic among what I think of as ‘untrue crime’ – fictional retellings of real murder stories.

There’s no debating whether John Grisham’s A Time to Kill is crime fiction. In this novel (Grisham’s debut), Clanton, Mississippi attorney Jake Brigance gets an extremely important and difficult case. Carl Lee Hailey has been arrested for shooting Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard, as well as for wounding a police officer. There’s no doubt about whether he did the shooting; there were witnesses. And it doesn’t help his case that he’s black and the victims are white. But the case is not at all simple. Cobb and Wilson had recently attacked, beaten, and raped Hailey’s ten-year-old daughter, Tonya. There’s a great deal of sympathy for Hailey, and many people say privately that they’d have done the same. At the same time, vigilantism can’t be condoned. Hailey knows Brigance, and asks for him specifically when he is arrested. Brigance likes Hailey, and certainly understands why he did what he did. And Brigance knows that this case will generate a lot of media attention – the kind that propels attorneys into very well-paying positions. So he agrees to defend Hailey. This novel proved to be the beginning of an extremely highly-regarded writing career for Grisham. And the story itself has gotten all sorts of praise.

So has David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. That novel’s focus is the murder trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, a Puget Sound fisher. He’s alleged to have murdered another fisher, Carl Heine, Jr. Alvin Hooks prosecutes the case; Miyamoto is defended by Nels Gudmundsson. As the trial proceeds, we learn that the histories of the two families involved goes back to the time before World War II. Miyamoto’s father had made a deal with Heine’s father to, in essence, protect his family’s land, since Japanese immigrants weren’t allowed to own land. The idea was that the Heine family would ‘officially’ own the land, but would return it to Kabuo Miyamoto (who was born in the US, and is therefore a citizen) when he turned 20, and could take possession of it. Things haven’t turned out that way, and there’s a great deal of anger, resentment, and prejudice involved in this case. This novel has won prizes and been adapted both for film and for stage.

All of these novels are well-regarded as literature, and as crime novels, too. But they have something else in common. They’ve all been banned or challenged. There’ve been different reasons for banning/challenging in each case, but the end result has been an attempt to keep those books from being circulated in libraries and in classrooms.

These are just a few of the many, many novels that have faced banning/challenging. Sometimes the challenge comes from individuals or local/regional groups. Sometimes it comes from governments. Here’s the thing about banning, though. It doesn’t just restrict access to a particular book, author, or topic. It’s an attempt to restrict thinking and critical reasoning. What’s more, it can prevent people from reading truly fine novels.

But banning doesn’t really stop people getting ideas. It doesn’t prevent curiosity, reflection on the human condition, or interest in certain topics. So banning doesn’t work in terms of keeping people from thinking.  It can, though, prevent open discussion and debate about what’s in a book. And that in turn keeps us from dealing with issues we need to face.

This week (25 September – 1 October) is Banned Books Week in the US. It’s intended to call attention to efforts to ban books, and to remind us to preserve our freedom to read what we wish, and our freedom to write what we wish. I, for one, cherish this right. That’s how ideas are created, shared, debated, and refined. And that’s what moves us forward. Yes, writers are responsible for what they write, with all of its consequences. But they should not be prevented from telling their stories. And readers should not be prevented from experiencing them.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Devo’s Freedom of Choice.


Filed under David Guterson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, John Grisham, Truman Capote

One Word From You is All I Need to be Inspired*

Writing InspirationIn Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver is talking to Hercule Poirot about how she gets inspired for her stories:

‘It does happen that way. I mean, you see a fat woman sitting on a bus…And you look at her and you study her shoes and the skirt she’s wearing and her hat and guess her age and whether she’s got a wedding ring on and a few other things. And then you get off the bus. You don’t want ever to see her again, but you’ve got a story in your mind…’

Later in the conversation, Mrs. Oliver points out (and I think, rightly, at least for me) that it would ruin the inspiration if she actually knew the woman she describes. Then the woman she created wouldn’t really be, well, her own creation.

Lots of fiction writers get asked if they base their stories on real people. And of course, there are plenty of authors who write fiction about real people (Hilary Mantel, Martin Edwards and Truman Capote, to name just three). But a lot of writers don’t quite do that.

What happens instead (well, at least for me) is that the writer may see an event, or read or hear about it. Or, perhaps the writer notices a stranger in a grocery store or restaurant or park. Whether it’s a person or event, it sparks the writer’s imagination. Then, the ‘what if questions’ happen: ‘That guy in the baseball cap is so wrapped up in his ‘phone that he’s not paying attention to anything. There could be a murder right behind him and he might not even notice! What would that be like?’  And the story starts to come together, just from that one scene.

Agatha Christie is said to have been inspired for Murder on the Orient Express by a personal experience in which she was caught on a train that was stopped because of snow. Of course, there wasn’t a murder on the train, and it wasn’t for three days, and…  But that one incident sparked her imagination. I can’t speak for her, of course, but my guess would be that she didn’t base the characters in that novel on specific people she knew. It’s possible that no-one on the train with her that day resembled any of the characters. Instead, it was the experience that got her thinking.

In October of 1999, two trains collided more or less head-on near Ladbroke Grove, a few miles from Paddington Station. There were 31 deaths and hundreds of injuries, and the incident left permanent scars. Ruth Rendell used that incident as the setting for her novel Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, in which three women’s lives intersect as a result of the crash. Two lose their partners in the wreck; the third meets her fiancé because of it. When these three discover that they’ve all been duped by the same con artist (who was ostensibly killed in the crash) the result leads to some dark places. Rendell didn’t, as far as I know, base those characters directly on people she actually knew who survived the crash. Rather, the event itself sparked the story.

You might say the same sort of thing about Michael Connelly. As he has told the story, he was at a baseball game and got to talking with another person who was there. That man was a lawyer who didn’t have an office in the conventional sense of that word. Rather, he used his car as an office. If you’ve read Connelly’s work and that sounds familiar, it should. Connelly used this person he met as the inspiration for Mickey Haller, whom he introduced in The Lincoln Lawyer. Fans of Haller will know that he uses his car as an office, and travels all over Los Angeles to pursue his cases. The man Connelly met at the baseball game wasn’t named Mickey Haller, and very likely didn’t resemble Haller either in character or appearance. My guess is that instead, Connelly was inspired to imagine a lawyer who works out of his car, and the kind of cases he might encounter.

In discussing the creation of his John Rebus series, Ian Rankin has said that Rebus came to him as a fully-formed fictional character. But he (Rankin) was inspired by the place where he was living at the time he was writing Knots and Crosses, the first Rebus novel. He has said that he wrote the story on a typewriter, sitting at a table by a window. From that window, he could see the tenement opposite, and decided that Rebus would live there – across the way. His living situation inspired the sort of home environment Rebus would have. Fans of this series will also know that Rankin has been inspired for several stories by other places in Edinburgh.

Here’s what Val McDermid says about the inspiration for her novel The Vanishing Point:

‘‘I was travelling with my son when he was about six,’ she says. ‘I’ve got replacement knees so I set off the detectors, and they literally put you in a box. While I was there, my boy was standing by the luggage belt waiting for our bags to come through and I thought that someone could just take him by the hand and walk away with him.’’

She took that moment of fear, with which any parent can identify, and used it to spark the story, even though fortunately, the events of the story didn’t happen in her personal life.

Some writers do use real people, of course. And if you’re interested in the legalities of that, please check out this fascinating post by Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan. That’s a great crime fiction blog, by the way, that deserves a place on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll.

A lot of writers, though, take those little ideas that come from people they see, events they watch (or learn about) or experiences, and use them to spark fictional stories. Admittedly it can be a bit difficult to explain the process. But when it happens to you, there’s nothing quite like it.


ps  It’s not just authors who do this. So do those who write songs. For instance, Billy Joel was, so it is said, inspired to write New York State of Mind by a bus ride he took to West Point. And Allentown was inspired by a comment he heard from a fan.

Wait, what? You wonder why I’d mention a rock star in a crime fiction blog post? But it’s Billy Joel!! And it’s his birthday. So happy birthday, Mr. Joel. And now I’m off to celebrate this important international holiday. Problem with that? Good! 😉


*NOTE: the title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Blonde Over Blue.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Hilary Mantel, Ian Rankin, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly, Ruth Rendell, Truman Capote, Val McDermid

And Now I Know You Will Satisfy Me*

Banned Crime NovelsCrime novels often deal with controversial subjects and difficult issues. They’re not always easy to read. Sometimes even high-quality crime novels that are very well-written can make the reader uncomfortable. So it shouldn’t be surprising that some novels that are arguably crime novels have also shown up on lists of banned or challenged books (by ‘challenged’ I mean cases where a formal request was made to remove a book from a library or a school). Some of these stories are more obvious examples of crime novels than others are. But either way, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at some of the titles that have made banned/challenged lists.

Interestingly, these novels haven’t been banned or challenged because they included crime (although in some cases, the reason cited has been violence). They’ve been banned or challenged at different times and in different places, so the circumstances aren’t the same for each story either. That said, here are a few examples.

Several of John Steinbeck’s novels and stories have been challenged or banned. Among them is Of Mice and Men. That novella tells the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two farm workers who are on their way from their former employer to a new ranch. Lennie is of limited intelligence, but he is a loyal (and large, strong) friend to George. They’ve had to leave their jobs because Lennie was accused of attempted rape when he wouldn’t let go of a young woman’s dress because he enjoyed stroking it. He and George are hoping to one day have a ranch of their own, but in the meantime, they take jobs at a new ranch. Trouble follows them though, this time in the form of an arrogant and dangerous boss’ son and his flirtatious wife. Matters get progressively worse until there’s a tragic death. Steinbeck doesn’t really end this story happily, either.

Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery was also banned for a time. It’s the story of a small town and the very unusual lottery that it engages in each year. Every family chooses one member to draw from the black carved box that’s been used for the lottery for as long as anyone can remember. As the story of that lottery and one family’s participation in it goes on, we see the real nature of the lottery. If you’d like to find out (or remind yourself) about this particular lottery, the story is right here.

Another book that’s been banned or challenged is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In that novel, Tom Robinson, who is Black, is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, who is White. It’s bad enough that this is an alleged rape; it’s worse that the events take place at a time and in a small-town culture where racism and segregation are rigidly enforced facts of life. Successful attorney Atticus Finch takes Robinson’s case despite the enormous public pressure to let the locals take the law into their own hands. As Finch investigates, he finds that this case is not nearly as clear-cut as it seems on the surface.

There’s also Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. That’s the fictional retelling of an actual murder case. In 1959, Kansas farmer Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie Mae and his children Nancy Mae and Kenyon were murdered at their home. Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were arrested, tried and convicted of the murders. In this instance the motive for the murders was money. The two murderers had heard that Clutter kept a large amount of money hidden on his farm. That wasn’t true, but the killers believed it was and killed the Clutter family. Then they went on the run until they were caught at the end of that year. Capote’s novel tells about these crimes as well as about the murderers’ lives.

More recently, Larry Watson’s Montana 1948 has been on banned/challenged lists. This is the story of the Hayden family of Bentrock, Montana. Wesley Hayden is the local sheriff; his brother Frank is the local doctor. When Marie Little Soldier, who lives in the area, falls ill, Frank is called in to assist, but Marie won’t allow him near her. Then it comes out that it’s because, as she alleges, Frank’s been molesting the local Native American women. Then Marie dies. Now Wesley has to investigate his own brother, both for the alleged rapes and for murder. His choice to go ahead with the case tragically divides the Hayden family. The story is told from the perspective of Wesley’s son David, who is reflecting on it as a grown man.

You could also argue that Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which has also appeared on banned/challenged lists, has several elements of the crime novel. This novel traces the life of Sethe, a slave who escaped from Kentucky to Ohio. But although she’s physically free of the plantation, she’s not really free. She, her daughter Denver and (until they leave home) her sons Howard and Buglar live quietly enough in Cincinnati, but are haunted, possibly quite literally, by a ghost. Some (especially Denver) say it’s the ghost of Sethe’s baby daughter – a child who was killed before she could grow up. As the story goes on, we learn about Sethe’s slavery in Kentucky, the events that led to her escape, and the tragic death that has everything to do with what happens later in the story.

These stories have all been highly regarded. They’ve won all sorts of prizes and awards, and their authors have gotten much praise and attention. At the same time, they’ve been placed, for various reasons, on banned/challenged lists.

Now of course, winning an award is no guarantee that a book is truly great. And it’s certainly no guarantee that an individual reader will enjoy it. At the same time, being challenged or banned says absolutely nothing about a book’s quality either, or about its appeal for an individual reader. Speaking strictly for myself, I’d rather take a chance that an award-winning book will disappoint me than not have the opportunity to find out for myself.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Rolling Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together. A song that was itself censored…..


Filed under Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, Larry Watson, Shirley Jackson, Toni Morrison, Truman Capote

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