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!
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.
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.
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!
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 Novelist. You 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 +.