Stranger than Fiction
One morning last summer, seemingly everyone I’d ever met in my life got in touch to tell me the same thing: the plot I’d made up for my debut thriller had just happened in real life.
I’d written about an Irishman who discovers that his girlfriend has gone missing from a cruise ship in the Mediterranean Sea. Once a ship is in international waters, it’s governed by the authority of the country in which it’s registered. In practice, these are almost always “flags of convenience,” tax havens like Bermuda, Panama, and Barbados, and before they can begin any sort of criminal investigation, the police officers in question have to travel to the ship. It could be halfway around the world from them; the trip could take two, three days, maybe even longer. In the meantime, a potential crime scene sits unprotected and witnesses are free to disembark and go home, and, depending on when the alarm was raised, the ship could have already moved away from the spot where a body could’ve entered the sea. I thought, hmm, a cruise ship seems like the perfect place to get away with murder. So I wrote about a serial killer who figures that out.
Now, a man who resided in the same city in which I was living—Dublin, Ireland—had been arrested at an airport in Rome under suspicion of murdering his wife by allegedly throwing her off a cruise ship. They’d both boarded the Magnifica ten days earlier, but only he’d disembarked at the end of the cruise. He maintained that she’d gotten upset, decided to go home early, and left him on board with their two young children; however, the cruise operator maintained that she couldn’t have left the ship without swiping her security card and that she hadn’t done that. When my mother called to tell me the news (about ten people after the first person who had called me to tell me), she muttered, “I just hope you didn’t give him the idea…”
Um, yeah. Thanks, Mum.
For my second thriller, I decided to be lazy—I mean, to stay local. I live near the Grand Canal in Dublin’s city center. Walking over its various bridges on a daily basis and seeing how dark and foreboding it could look at night, I thought, hmm, that canal seems like the perfect place to dump a few bodies. So I wrote about a serial killer who figures that out.
A few weeks ago, I left my apartment to meet a friend, walked toward the canal, and then—What the…? There, in front of me, in actual real life, was a scene lifted directly from my book, the book that was currently being printed and bound and readied for publication.
White crime scene tape was strung between the trees that lined the canal’s banks. (An Garda Siochana, the Irish police force, likes to be different. And yellow is so last year.) Uniformed Gardaí in neon flak jackets were patrolling the sidewalks. A small white tent had been erected on the opposite bank and a white van with GARDA WATER UNIT was parked alongside, feet from the bridge where I’d killed one of my characters and then dumped her lifeless body.
On this occasion, the officers were investigating what appeared to be a tragic case of death by misadventure, but the scene was such a perfect re-creation of what I’d written in my book, it was eerie. (And distracting. I nearly created a second scene by stepping out onto the road before there was a break in traffic.) As soon as the news hit the local headlines a few hours later, my phone started beeping. Did you hear about the body in the canal? friends texted me. Are you making this stuff happen?!
Writers make stuff up for a living, but we never want to get caught in the act. We do our very best to convince you that our fiction is fact, that you are reading about real people, real events, and real emotions. We aim to be authentic and true. We strive to be convincing.
I’d worried that I hadn’t all the details of a cruise ship exactly right, and then I’d worried that I hadn’t rendered the streets of Dublin just as they are in reality. I’d never worried that months after I’d written a certain plot twist or scene, it would actually happen in real life. Stranger than fiction? Realer than fiction, in my case.
I’m planning on putting this dark magic of mine to the test with my next book. It’s about an author who hits #1 on the New York Times bestseller list overnight, discovers that no matter what she eats she simply cannot put on a pound, and then gets a call from Oprah who says she’s reviving her show and her televised book club because she simply has to share this author’s book with the world. There might also be a scene where said author convinces the people who make Oreos to bring back Oreo Cakesters, and where SpaceX offers her a free ride around the moon.
I’ll keep you posted.
The author of Stranger than Fiction:
Catherine Ryan Howard is an over-caffeinated writer from Cork, Ireland, who lives in Dublin, where she divides her time between the desk and the sofa. In addition to than Stranger than Fiction, Howard writes bestselling thriller novels. Her debut thriller, Distress Signals, was an Irish Times and USA Today bestseller. It was been optioned for TV by Jet Stone Media and was shortlisted for both the IBA Crime Novel of the Year 2016 and the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger 2017. Her second thriller, The Liar’s Girl, is out now. Find out more on catherineryanhoward.com.