Tuesday, February 15, 2011

True Crime in Fiction

HALLIE: Rosemary's blog last week about "An American Tragedy" got me thinking about how true crime appalls and inspires. Every day I'm pulling some detail, consciously or otherwise, from the news.

So today, I offer a quiz. See if you know the book and the author of these crime novels based on true crimes. (Answers are at the end.)

1. In postwar LA, burnt-out New York cop and former prizefighter becomes obsessed with a real (and still today) unsolved 1947 torture-murder case.

2. This wildly imaginative novel is based on a true crime, the shooting of a young hustler that took place in Mercer House, one of the Savannah’s grandest mansions.

3. This novel intertwines true stories about an architect who built a shining white dreamscape of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a murderer who lured victims to gas chambers and crematoriums.

4. The story of an arrogant but oddly likable cad who lives in exile on a Mediterranean island. His wife and child are kidnapped when a debt he owes comes due, and he returns to Ireland to get the money to pay it off. While stealing a painting from an old friend, he brutally murders the household maid with a hammer—not because he has to, but because he can.

5. This novel tells the story of Henry Hill, a gangster who turns evidence on his mafia family and ends up in witness protection.

6. The story of perky, aspiring newscaster Suzanne Maretto who persuades her teenage lover and his buddy to kill her straight-arrow husband.

1) The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy. It is based on the murder of Elizabeth Short, Los Angeles, 1947. In a poignant afterword, the author discloses that his own mother was the victim of an unsolved murder.

2) Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. A young druggie/hustler named Danny Hansford was shot to death by a wealthy Jim Williams, a wealthy socialite who hosted Savannah's most lavish parties.

3) Devil in the White City by Erikk Larsonnn. It's characters are based on architect Daniel Burnham built the "White City" and serial killer Dr. H. H. Holmes used it to lure victims to his World's Fair Hotel.

4) The Book of Evidence by John Banville is loosely based on a notorious true crime. In 1982, Dubliner Malcolm Edward MacArthur murdered a young nurse, Bridie Gargan, with a hammer in order to steal her car. Eventually he was arrested in the home of a friend who was the Irish government’s chief adviser on legal matters and with whom he was reputedly having a homosexual relationship. Because he admitted to the killing, he was sentenced to life and was never tried, protecting powerful government officials from embarrassment. The incident gave rise to the Irish slang GUBU (Grotesque. Unbelievable. Bizarre. Unprecedented).

5. Wiseguy by Nicholas Pilleggi. The novel was turned into the movie Goodfellas. The real Henry Hill claimed he never killed anyone. Interesting aside: Hill's mother was named Carmela Hill.

6. To Die For by Joyce Maynard. The story is based on Pamela Smart, who conspired with her 15-year-old lover William Flynn and 3 of his friends to kill her husband Gregory Smart in Derry, NH in 1990. She was tried and found guilty of being an accomplice to first-degree murder, and sentenced to life.

So how many did you know? What would you add to the list?


  1. What a fun quiz! (I actually covered the Pamela Smart story..)

    There's the Dominick Dunne's "An Inconvenient Woman" right? And Tom Tryon's Blood and Money, which is terrific.

    Off to work, but more later on those..

  2. Wow, I actually knew three of these, which probably says something about my proclivities and companions, doesn't it?

    I don't remember the authors, but wasn't Girl On A Swing based on the Sanford White case in the early 20th Century, and didn't Anatomy of a Murder stem from a case in Michigan in the 1950's?

  3. Spill, Hank! Did you see her in person? What was she like.

    Right! "An Inconvenient Woman" -- based on the scandal when Alfred Bloomingdale got sued by his mistress Vicki Morgan for palimony (remember that?). Bloomingdale was part of Reagan's inner circle, and his wife one of Nancy Reagan's closest friends. After Morgan was murdered, there were rumors of videotapes implicating other members of the Reagan coterie in kinky sex games. An acquaintance of Morgan's was arrested and the "tapes" disappeared. Dunne said in an interview about this book:'One of the themes that goes through all my work concerns people who go underpunished because of privilege,''

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  5. Steve - I don't know Girl on a Swing, but the murder of Stanford White inspired part of the plot of Doctorow's Ragtime.

    YES! "Anatomy of a Murder" (the novel, not the Otto Preminger film) was written by Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker under the pen name Robert Traver. He wrote in a prologue in the first edition: "This is the story of a murder, of a murder trial, and of some of the people who engaged or became enmeshed in the proceedings. Enmeshed is a good word, for murder, of all crimes, seems to posses to a greater degree than any other that compelling magnetic quality that draws people helplessly into its outspreading net, frequently to their surprise, and occasionally to their horror."

  6. "Devil in the White City" is not a novel.It is, alas, true crime.
    EJ Wagner. (The Science of Sherlock Holmes")

  7. Alas is right. Dr. H. H. Holmes was one scary dude.

  8. I only got two right, proving that I shy away from brutal, violent or sensational crimes.
    I did read Devil in the White City, however, and was about to chime in that it was a true crime--I was interested because I set Death of Riley in the same situation at the assassination of President McKinley

  9. I got The Black Dahlia and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. My aunt used to live in Savannah. I love that city.

  10. The only one I didn't get was The Book of Evidence - I may need to read that! Love Anatomy of a Murder. I probably watch that once a year. The judge was great and he was the lawyer who famously asked Sen. McCarthy "have you no decency?"
    Girl on the Red Velvet Swing was a movie with..if I'm not mistaken Farley Granger and Joan Collins..maybe Ray Milland? Now I'll have to google..scary if I'm right. Ro

  11. "Black Water" by Joyce Carol Oates. Definitely based on Chappaquiddick.

  12. OH, this is so off topic, kind of, but only you all will get it.

    I was at breakfast,this weekend, with a group, including 4 1/2 year old Georgia. Adorable, beyond adorable, blond hair, little wire-rimmed glasses. ANyway--she says:

    Aunt Hank, do you know the movie High Society?
    Yes, I say, I love it.
    She nods, sagely. Me too, she says. But what is the name of the land where it takes place?

  13. I only knew the first two, and haven't actually read the books. I suppose that's an indication that I've never had much interest in sensational crimes, being more intrigued by "ordinary" murders, if there is such a thing.

  14. That's so cute, Hank--my daughter used to think the city where I worked, Maynard, was in France.

    I agree, Deborah - greed and lust do it for me.

    Ruth, I'd forgotten about that one. And Oates often draws from real crimes -- I know she's got a short story based on Andrea Yates who drowned her 5 kids in a bathtub. She's drawn to despair.

  15. I guess I like to read true crime. The only one I didn't get was #4 Book of Evidence.

    What recently released mystery was about who stole the paintings in the Isabella Gardener museum Heist.

    Clue: it's a local author.

  16. I remember! But I'm not telling... Last name starts with "H" -- and wasn't the author at last year's Crime Bake?

  17. Okay I knew none of them. Greed and lust must be my "cup of tea" too.

  18. I know I know!! And he's one of my favorite favorite authors. I do NOT understand why he's not more famous I really don't. DH, right?

    Maynard. Near France. SO funny.

    And what I remember about Pam Smart? Bad hair, sadly. And this attidude like--she couldn't believe there was all this criticism. Or that anyone could believe she'd done anything wrong. YOu could tell she felt like she was a VICTIM. She sort of radiated that she felt the whole thing was so unfair to her.

    I have her face conflated with NIcle Kidman's in my brain, also sadly...but she was not as gorgeous as Nicole. Not even close. What a sad and pitiful story.

  19. And, because we're pals...and yo understand. I just found a HUGE mistake in my current ms. Wow wow wow how could I have DONE that??

    I fixed it. But yikes. CHAPTERS later, I realized--OH NO!!!

    This mystery stuff is difficult.

  20. I was aware of 1,2, and 6.
    To add to the list, both my "Partners" and "Homesteader" have true crime stories included. In both cases I moved the date so it would fit in with my story, but other than that the crimes and results (or lack of same) were as I describe.

  21. Bad hair? Really?

    I think that "I'm a victim" thing is what a lot of criminals do to justify their crimes. Most, anyway, don't see themselves as evil.

    Getting back to Deborah's point, that's the more interesting criminal for me, too, rather than some nefarious evil killer.

    Thanks for the comment, Dave - will look them up!

  22. I only knew one...Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.