Untrue Crime

There are some people you meet who are so prolific you can’t help but be inspired by them. Today’s guest is one of those people. Margot Kinberg is a mystery novelist with an impressive memory-bank of crime fiction. The tiny details she retains is absolutely mind-blowing! Don’t take my word for it; she’s written a fascinating post for us. If you are a reader or writer of crime fiction please take a moment to visit her popular blog Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. She’s also listed under crime writers on the sidebar.

Without further ado I’ll leave you in her very capable hands.

Over to you, Margot!


In a Word: Murder 

Thank you so much for hosting me, Sue!

One of the big differences between crime fiction and real-life crime is that most real-life crime is more or less straightforward. It’s ugly, often dirty, and devastating for those involved. But it isn’t usually the stuff of TV and film dramas or best-selling thrillers.

There are some real-life crimes though that have captured the imagination. Even when there aren’t reams of newspaper articles about them, they get people talking and wondering and speculating. They also inspire crime writers. That’s why there are so many well-regarded crime novels that are based on real events. Some people call this sub-genre ‘untrue crime.’  There’ve been many such novels; I’ll just mention a few.

The Victorian Era 

For more than 130 years, there’ve been stories told of the Whitechapel murders, the so-called, ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings. At the time, the murders made headlines in all of the newspapers. Since that time, they’ve inspired dozens of TV/film dramas and novels. To mention just one, Marie Belloc Lowndes The Lodger is based on these murders. In that story, we are introduced to Ellen and Robert Bunting, who have retired from domestic service and have decided to open their house to lodgers. They’re particular about the people they admit though, and haven’t had any lodgers for a while.

So they’re both very pleased when a man calling himself Mr. Sleuth applies for a room. He’s eccentric, but he has the bearing of gentleman, as the saying goes, and he is willing to pay well. So the Buntings take him in. At first, all goes well enough. And at any rate, the Buntings are distracted by a brutal set of murders committed by someone calling himself The Avenger. Bit by bit, Ellen Bunting begins to suspect that her lodger may be the guilty person. At first she tells herself that she’s being ridiculous. But the more time goes by, the more worried she becomes…

Another real-life crime that caught the Victorian public’s attention was the 1855 robbery of a large supply of gold being transported by the South Eastern Railway from London to Folkstone. The robbery, which was more or less masterminded by William Pierce and Robert Agar, resonated with newspaper readers of the day. And the story has been re-told both in film and in novel form. Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery, a very fictional version of the events, became a best-seller. Crichton directed and also wrote the screenplay for the 1979 film version of the story, starring Sean Connery.

B-Very Flat cover

B-Very Flat 

Turn of the Century 

The so-called ‘Crippen case’ also intrigued the public of the day. In 1910, American homeopathic physician Harvey Hawley Crippen was executed for the murder of his wife Cora. There was plenty of evidence against him, too, including the fact that he had taken a new love Ethel ‘La Neve’ Neave and left England with her.

They were captured by the authorities when they arrived in America and Crippen stood trial. Most people at the time thought he was guilty, although that verdict has been disputed. And in Martin Edwards Dancing For the Hangman, the case is examined from a new perspective. Edwards tells the story from Crippen’s point of view as he is awaiting execution. The novel describes Crippen’s childhood, his meeting with Cora, their relationship, and the events that led up to her death. It also offers an interesting alternative account of her death.

First Half of the Twentieth Century 

In 1929, a Düsseldorf named Emma Gross was found murdered. At the time of the murder, Peter Kürten was arrested for the crime and in fact, confessed to it. But he later recanted, and no direct evidence ever connected him with the crime. He was, however, guilty of several other sexual assaults and murders; in fact, the press dubbed him ‘The Düsseldorf Vampire.’ He was executed in 1931, but Emma Gross’ real killer was never found. Damien Seaman used those events as the basis for his novel The Killing of Emma Gross.

In the novel, Düsseldorf DI Thomas Klein begins to be convinced that Kürten is in fact innocent of the Emma Gross murder. So he looks into that case more closely to find out who would have wanted her dead. In this version of the events, more than one person might have wanted to kill her. Seaman provides a timeline of the real murder as an Afterward to this novel (at least in my edition).

And then there are the 1933 ‘trunk murders.’ In that famous case, Winnie Ruth Judd was found guilty of murdering her friends Agnes Anne LeRoi and Hedvig Samuelson because all three were interested in the same man. According to the reports of the day, she stuffed their bodies in trunks (hence, the name these murders were given). The story behind these murders inspired Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep, which tells the story of Marion Seeley, whose husband Everett flees to Mexico after losing his medical license due to a drug scandal. He sets her up in a Phoenix apartment and arranges for her to work as a filing clerk in a medical clinic. There, she meets a nurse, Louise Mercer, and Louise’s room-mate Ginny Hoyt. The three strike up a friendship that ends up having tragic results.


Publish or Perish 

And of course, I couldn’t do a post about ‘untrue crime’ without mentioning Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. That novel is based on a brutal set of murders that were committed for what turned out to be no gain at all. In 1959, Kansas farmer Herb Cutter, his wife Bonnie Mae and his children Nancy Mae and Kenyon, were all murdered. Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were arrested, tried and convicted. It came out that the reason for the murders was that the two killers had heard that Clutter had a great deal of money on his farm. It wasn’t true, but that didn’t save the family’s lives.

Some real-life crime stories are so powerful, or capture the imagination so much, that they provide inspiration for fiction. These are just a few examples. Are there any that have stayed with you? Which real-life stories could you see becoming the next ‘untrue crime’ novels?

Thanks again for hosting me, Sue! 

Picture1 of Margot Kinberg

Margot Kinberg is a mystery novelist (she writes the Joel Williams series) and Associate Professor. She has been blogging about crime fiction since 2009. She has written three Joel Williams novels and is currently revising the fourth. She is also the editor of In a Word: Murder, an anthology of short crime stories. Margot blogs at Confessions of a Mystery NovelistYou can learn more about Margot and her books by visiting her author’s page here. To buy one of her books click the title under the cover. Connect with her on Twitter and Google +.




33 thoughts on “Untrue Crime

  1. Great article, Margot and Sue.

    It always fascinates me how true crimes sometimes find their way into fiction. Especially when they are still opened. I think fiction helps us find some ‘comforst’ in the possibility of a solution. You know, I’m the kind of woman who doesn’t like unfinished business ;-)

    For example, I’m fascinated with the story of Jack the Ripper. I know we will never know who he really was, but at least fiction can offer some realistic resolutions.

    As for true crime inspiring fiction, I understand the film ‘Changling’ (fantastic one, I should add) is based on a true fact.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Margot and Sue: I enjoyed the post a great deal. I am never surprised when an author finds inspiration in a real life case.

    Josphine Tey’s book, Daughter of Time, involves a modern investigation of the purported crimes of Richard III.

    From Judith Flanders book, Murder – How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime, I learned that Dickens in Bleak House and Wilkie Collins in The Woman in White both drew upon the murderess, Maria Manning.

    Robert Harris in An Officer and a Spy provided a brilliant re-telling of the Dreyfus Affair.

    Lastly, Canadian lawyer Robert Rotenberg has utilized some Canadian cases to inspire his legal mysteries set in Toronto. An example took place In a Guilty Plea where his fictional lawyer has to deal with a bloody knife delivered to him by a wife which had been used to murder her husband. In real life, Canadian criminal lawyer, Eddie Greenspan had once received a gun, used in a crime, in a paper bag from a client.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You really know your stuff, Bill! I’ve never heard of Robert Rotenberg, but will certainly look him up now. Whenever I read one of Margot’s posts I always add to my TBR pile and now, I find myself adding even more from the comments. So many books; so little time. I’m so glad you decided to stop by, Bill. Hope to see more of you in the future.


    • Bill – Thanks for the kind words. There certainly is no lack of real-life crime that can spark a story. And of course, thanks for those terrific examples of other real-life cases that have inspired fiction. I also appreciate the nudge about Rotenberg. I plan to spotlight one of this novels. About tiime I did so, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think the Judith Flanders book was published in the UK as The Invention Of Murder – it told of famous Victorian murders, and their use as inspiration in the popular entertainment of the day, which has led to our modern obsession with murder. Funny you should mention An Officer And A Spy – I read it not long ago – truth really is stranger than fiction! I must look out for Robert Rotenberg books – fingers crossed their available in the UK!


  3. Great post Margot – I enjoy reading about true crime, not the trashy books, but the better ones. That Joseph Wambaugh mentioned above will go on my TBR – I’m a big fan, and think he should be better known in the UK. Crippen had the dubious honour of being first to be caught by the new fangled telegraph – the ship’s captain recognised him from the description telegraphed to all transatlantic ships – despite his lover disguising herself as a boy – telegraphed back, and the police got a faster boat to be there and arrest him! Re the case Cleo mentioned, which shocked Britain – Ruth Dugdall’s new Humber Boy B was also inspired by that. I’ve read Ian Rankin say in interviews that he cuts news stories out of the paper that could inspire books – one story, about an old, possible murder of a lawyer who was involved in the anti-nuclear power protests, inspired one of the most recent Rebus books. The whole story is very creepy and reminds one of something that might happen in Russia, not in the UK. So anyone looking for inspiration could do worse than keep an eye on the news…And thanks Sue, another blog to follow!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a fabulous idea, to cut articles about crime out of the newspaper for inspiration later. I think I’ll start doing that myself. Glad to have you here! Anyone with a username of Crimeworm is my kind of gal. Welcome aboard!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Sue! Looks like there’s lots of great stuff on your blog, so I’ll be doing some browsing – so glad you hosted Margot and I had the good fortune to discover you through her! Newspaper stories are a great idea, even if it sparks off something that ends up going in a totally different direction – and, as they say, truth is stranger than fiction! (And if it works for Rankin, has to be worth a bash!)

        Liked by 1 person

    • Crimeworm – Thanks for the kind words. And I agree about Wambaugh. In fact, I must spotlight one of his books soon. I like that story about Ian Rankin; it is interesting the way authors use real-life stories for inspiration, and that particular one is intriguing. And thanks for the interesting detail about the Crippen case too. That one really does continue to haunt us more than 100 years later.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Wambaugh seems to be a writer’s writer, at least in the UK – he may be bigger in the US. The TV series Southland – which I loved – sort of reminds me of his books, just “day on the job” stuff. I’ve read 3 or 4 of his, but must look out for The Onion Field. Great post, as ever, Margot – you never fail to entertain AND educate (you must’ve been wonderful as a teacher/lecturer!)

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Good stuff Margot & Sue. Here’s three true crime books that stuck with me – the type of stuff that you can’t make up.

    “The Onion Field” by Joseph Wambaugh is the story of two armed robbers that take two LAPD detectives hostage, murdering one in an onion field, however the second officer escapes and suffers a life of PTSD. It’s set in the early sixties and is a thoroughly chilling read as it develops the four characters.

    “Helter Skelter” by Vincent Bugliosi is about the Manson murders. Need not say more.

    “To The Grave” by Mike McIntyre is lesser known but an equally fascinating story about a true RCMP Mr. Big undercover sting where the suspect had murdered his girlfriend and buried her in an existing grave. How they got this guy to confess is amazing and how they got him to turn over the body is mind-freaking.

    They say truth can be stranger than fiction>

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the kind words, Garry. Couldn’t agree more about Helter Skelter. And yes, The Onion Field is also really powerful. Reading those stories does remind one that real-life crime can be at least as compelling as anything you read in fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post, as always, Margot! Unlike yours, my memory is shocking, but am I right in thinking that one of Poe’s Auguste Dupin stories was based on a true crime? Possibly not the one where it turned out the murderer was a gorilla… though you never know! ;)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. A brilliant post by one of my ‘must-read’ bloggers! I have just read a book about Spilsbury who was an expert at the trial of Crippen so even when you aren’t ‘at home’ you make me add more books to the TBR, this time with Dancing For The Hangman. I read a spate of books about child killers a few years back which were inspired by the horrific killing of a two year old boy by two ten year olds the best of which by far was The Child Who by Simon Lelic which perfectly captured the public’s reaction to the killing in part fuelled by the media coverage.

    Liked by 1 person

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