By Maggie James
My second novel, Sister, Psychopath, was inspired by a real-life crime. At a writing workshop, our facilitator told us about a murder carried out by a mentally disturbed woman. She fixated on a male colleague, a married man who had a young child. They were never lovers but her obsession with him steadily grew, so much so that she decided to murder his wife and child, believing she could then marry him. She went ahead and killed his family, but her daughter became suspicious and contacted the police. The woman was arrested and convicted, receiving a life sentence.
When I heard this, my curiosity was piqued. How would it feel, I wondered, to be that woman's daughter? To make such a terrible discovery about her mother? The point our facilitator was making was that true crime is often a great source of inspiration for fiction writers. In this instance, it certainly was for me. Out of this premise came the character of Megan Copeland in Sister, Psychopath. I ended up taking the novel down a different path, away from Tilly Copeland's fixation on her boss, exploring instead the relationship between Megan and her sociopathic sister Chloe. However, I'll always be grateful to our workshop leader for sowing the seeds for my second novel.
My experience isn't unusual, of course. Many novels have been influenced by true-life crimes. In this week's blog post I'll continue my 'Five' series by giving some examples.
1. Psycho - Robert Bloch, 1959
Written in 1959 by Robert Bloch, Psycho was inspired by the real-life crime of Ed Gein, arrested in 1957 for the murders of two women in Wisconsin. When police searched his home, they found furniture and clothing made of skin and female body parts. Gein had raided graveyards to make a skin suit that he planned to wear while pretending to be his dead mother. Bloch's novel created the iconic character of motel owner Norman Bates, who murders his mother and takes on her personality. Even if they've not read the book, most people are familiar with the story from the famous Alfred Hitchcock film. Remember the shower scene?!
Here's the synopsis of the novel from Amazon:
'She was a fugitive, lost in a storm. That was when she saw the sign: motel - vacancy. The sign was unlit, the motel dark. She switched off the engine, and sat thinking, alone and frightened. She had nobody. The stolen money wouldn't help her, and Sam couldn't either, because she had taken the wrong turning; she was on a strange road. There was nothing she could do now - she had made her grave and she'd have to lie in it. She froze. Where had that come from? Grave. It was bed, not grave. She shivered in the cold car, surrounded by shadows. Then, without a sound, a dark shape emerged from the blackness and the car door opened. Psycho is not a tale for queasy stomachs or faint hearts. It is filled with horrifying suspense and the climax, instead of being a relief, will hit the reader with bone-shattering force.'
2. The Silence of the Lambs - Thomas Harris, 1988
The exploits of Ed Gein also served as the inspiration for Thomas Harris's 1998 novel The Silence of The Lambs. In the book, Gein morphs into a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill, a man who kidnaps overweight women, starves them for a few days and then kills and skins them. Like Psycho, most people know the story even if they've not read the book. Who hasn't seen the film clip of Hannibal Lecter expressing his preference for Chianti to accompany a dish of human liver?!
Here's the Amazon synopsis of the novel:
'An FBI trainee. A psychopath locked up for unspeakable crimes.
And a serial killer getting ever closer to his latest victim ...
FBI rookie Clarice Starling turns to Dr. Hannibal Lecter, monster cannibal held in a hospital for the criminally insane, for insight into the deadly madman she must find. As Dr. Lecter invites her into the darkest chambers of his mind, he forces her to confront her own childhood demons as the price of understanding, an unspeakable tuition he exacts to teach her how the monster thinks. And time is running out . . .'
3. The Black Dahlia - James Ellroy, 1987
James Ellroy based The Black Dahlia on one of Hollywood’s most infamous unsolved crimes. In 1947, waitress Elizabeth Short’s body was found mutilated and dumped in a car park in Los Angeles. The murder horrified the public; newspapers weighed in by sensationalising the case, nicknaming the victim 'Black Dahlia' because she always wore black clothing.
Ellroy's novel explores how the lives of the two detectives who investigate the case, Dwight Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, are destroyed by it. For Blanchard, the case revives memories of his sister Laurie, who vanished and was never found, fuelling his fears about what might have happened to her. Bleichert, however, develops an obsession with Black Dahlia, fancying himself in love and making connections between her troubled life and his own.
Here's the synopsis from Amazon:
'A neo-noir crime novel from the legendary crime novelist James Ellroy. Los Angeles, 15th January 1947: a beautiful young woman walked into the night and met her horrific destiny.
Five days later, her tortured body was found drained of blood and cut in half. The newspapers called her 'The Black Dahlia'. Two cops are caught up in the investigation and embark on a hellish journey that takes them to the core of the dead girl's twisted life...'
4. We Need to Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver, 2003
Lionel Shriver's 2003 novel We Need To Talk About Kevin was inspired by the 1999 shootings in Colombine, USA. The Colorado town is where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered twelve fellow students and a teacher at their high school. Shriver references the killings in her novel by making the Kevin of the title commit mass murder in a similar way.
The book is structured in the form of letters from Eva Khatchadourian to her estranged husband Franklin Plaskett, in which she charts her cold relationship with their son Kevin. Her maternal indifference and occasional violence towards the boy may, she fears, have contributed to his sociopathic tendencies. In the book, Shriver examines the age-old question of nature versus nurture to determine why Kevin acts the way he does. Lacking normal emotions and the capacity for love, he is contemptuous and manipulative, reserving special hatred for his mother. He's certainly a hard character to like, let alone love.
Here's the synopsis from Amazon:
'Eva never really wanted to be a mother; certainly not the mother of the unlovable boy who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker and a teacher who tried to befriend him. Now, two years later, it is time for her to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood and Kevin's horrific rampage in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her absent husband, Franklyn. Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails.'
5. Room - Emma Donoghue, 2010
Emma Donoghue wrote her acclaimed novel, Room, in 2010 after the Josef Fritzl case became news world-wide. In 2008, Elisabeth Fritzl, 42, told police she had been held captive by her father for twenty-four years in makeshift accommodation below the family home in Austria. Fritzl had raped her throughout that time and as a result she had given birth to seven children by him. Among them was five-year-old Felix, the inspiration for Donoghue’s Jack, held captive along with his mother in Room.
To me, Room is an incredible book. Emma Donoghue took a brave step in narrating its events from the perspective of a five-year-old boy and her gamble largely pays off. In places, it doesn't quite work - Jack sometimes acts with a maturity beyond such a young child's capabilities, but I still consider Room an excellent read. Had I written it, I'd have told the story from Ma's point of view, as I suspect many authors would have done. I admire Donoghue, therefore, for not taking the obvious route when writing the book. Her way is powerful because of course, Jack doesn't understand his situation, enhancing the suspense for the reader as the truth about Room is revealed. His childish perception also acts as a tool to inject humour into the narrative. It's gripping stuff!
Here's the synopsis from Amazon:
'Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra.
Jack lives with his Ma in Room. Room has a single locked door and a skylight, and it measures ten feet by ten feet. Jack loves watching TV but he knows that nothing he sees on the screen is truly real - only him, Ma and the things in Room. Until the day Ma admits there is a world outside.
Devastating yet uplifting, Room by Emma Donoghue is a luminous portrait of a boundless maternal love. It has sold more than two million copies, was a number one bestseller and was shortlisted for the Man Booker and Orange prizes. Few books have reached modern classic status so swiftly.'
Bonus - a sixth book! This one's a true crime story...
Whilst it's not a novel but a true crime story, I wanted to include Death in Disguise: The Amazing True Sory of the Chelsea Murders, by Gary Powell. I thought it would be interesting to add at least one real-life crime book to this blog post. Here's the synopsis from Amazon:
Victorian Chelsea was a thriving commercial and residential development, known for its grand houses and pleasant garden squares. Violent crime was unheard of in this leafy suburb. The double murder of an elderly man of God and his faithful housekeeper in two ferocious, bloody attacks in May of 1870 therefore shook the residents of Chelsea to the core. This volume examines this extraordinary case, one which could have leapt straight from the pen of Agatha Christie herself: the solving of the case relied on the discovery of a packing box dripping with blood, and the capture of a mysterious French nephew. This volume, compiled by a former detective, looks at the facts: no direct evidence to place the suspect at either of the crime scenes; no weapon recovered; no motive substantiated. It lets you, the reader, decide: would you, on the evidence presented, have sent the same man to the gallows?
Sounds fascinating! If you're interested, here's the link to Gary's book on Amazon or you can click the image. Isn't that a fantastic cover, by the way?
Let's hear from you!
What novels based on real-life crimes have you enjoyed? Leave me a comment and let me know!
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