The VERY Fine Line Between Fiction and Reality…
I’ve been obsessed with true-crime books since I read Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi as a twelve-year-old. (For the one person out there who doesn’t know, the book is about the 1969 Charles Manson murders.) I grew up in the suburbs of Denver and it was the safest place on earth, so reading about this bizarre and violent case fascinated and horrified me.
My mother, however, worried that I was a serial killer in the making, even though I exhibited none of the triad characteristics: I wasn’t a bed-wetter, a pyromaniac, or an animal torturer. But surely there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t stop reading true-crime fiction.
It took many years to understand what it was about true crime that gripped me. It wasn’t the gruesomeness, or the sensationalism, or the lurid details. It was the why, and these books attempted to answer that question.
Why would someone murder someone else? What circumstances had twisted this or that individual to the point of insanity and beyond? How did a person cross that line between ordinary life and a life of grisly crime? I’ve spent countless hours wondering about this, and these questions haunt my thoughts and my fiction.
I didn’t end up a serial killer, but I did end up a thriller writer.
Below is a short list of novels based on true crimes that have inspired my own writing, most you’ve heard of and one you may not have.
- In Cold Blood by Truman Capote isn’t a novel per se, but what Capote called a non-fiction novel. In Cold Blood is the true-crime account of the November 15, 1959, murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, at the hands of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, two former prison cellmates. When a robbery attempt turns up no more than fifty dollars, the thieves decide to kill the entire family.
Capote investigated the crime, got access to the police files and the perpetrators themselves, and put together a riveting story that dug into the minds of the criminals, giving us insight into what makes a murderer. With In Cold Blood, Capote elevated crime fiction from lurid pulp accounts to the level of literature.
- I read Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar long before I knew it was based on the 1973 case regarding a New York City teacher named Roseann Quinn who cruised singles bars at night. A man she took home for a one-night stand murdered her. The New York Times called the 1975 novel a “stunning psychological study of a woman’s passive complicity in her own death.” Rossner not only delved deep into the mind of the victim, she vividly evoked the 1970s singles-bar scene and the dangers of anonymous sex.
- Room by Emma Donoghue has its roots in many true crimes in which men abduct women and keep them prisoner for years, during which time the hostages bear their rapists’ children and must raise them in captivity.
These cases have always fascinated me, how someone like Jaycee Dugard can live in a soundproofed shed in Phillip Garrido’s backyard for eighteen years without detection. Donoghue was inspired to write this by the Fritzl case in Austria, where Josef Fritzl enslaved his daughter Elisabeth in their basement for twenty-four years, during which time he repeatedly beat, raped, and impregnated her, and she bore seven of his children. The truly unique thing about this novel is that it’s told from the point of view of the child born of rape. How do these women survive? How do they cope once they’re rescued or escape?
- The Godfather by Mario Puzo isn’t based on one crime but dozens. The sprawling epic of a Sicilian crime family’s rise to power and inevitable descent to obscurity is the story of the Mafia in America. Several of the characters are based on real people (Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, and, yes, Frank Sinatra), and many of the events really happened.
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson is based on the 1984 murder of prostitute Catrine da Costa in Stockholm, Sweden. The original Swedish title was Men Who Hate Women. Larsson apparently witnessed a sexual assault as a young man and became a vocal opponent of violence against women.
- An underexposed gem is Hell’s Half Acre by Nicholas Nicastro. It’s the story of the Bloody Benders, a family who ran a feed store and inn in 1870s Osage County, Kansas. The Benders are credited with twenty murders and are considered some of the first American serial killers.
Nicastro paints a bleak picture of the isolation of the Midwestern plains, the twisted motivations of the murderers, and their bizarre modus operandi. When a guest stayed at the Benders’ inn, he’d be given the “seat of honor” at the table, which was positioned over a trap door à la Sweeney Todd. Pretty daughter Kate’s job was to distract the guest until Pa, or John Bender, appeared from behind a curtain and smashed the guest in the head with a large hammer. Then Ma Bender or Kate would cut the victim’s throat before dropping him through the trap door into the cellar, where the Benders would strip the corpse of all valuables before burying it in their orchard.
We probably will never fully understand why people perpetrate evil on others, but crime books—both true crime and novels—will continue to help us search for the answers. And even though it will keep my mom worrying about me, I’ll keep reading them and asking why.