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8 crimes that inspired fiction

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Did you know Emma Donoghue’s Room was based on the Fritzl case? Here are the stories behind the world’s most popular books. Inspired to pen your own chilling debut? Enter our Crime Fiction competition and win a publishing deal.

THE TELLTALE HEART by Edgar Allan Poe (1843)

In 1830, a brutal crime inspired author Edgar Allan Poe. The murder of Captain White, a retired shipmaster, rocked the small town of Salem, Massachusetts. In the dead of night, a hitman – hired by White’s nephews who were set to inherit his wealth – stabbed 82-year-old White to death. It provided inspiration for Poe’s gothic short story in which an anonymous protagonist stows his murder victim (thought to be his father) beneath the floorboards but can still hear the corpse’s beating heart, a sign of his guilty conscience.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS by Agatha Christie (1934)

Snowstorms and midnight murders may have been embellishment, but Christie’s famous novel has its grounding in real-life crime. In the book, the murder of a three-year-old girl by fugitive Cassetti is based on the actual 1932 kidnap and murder of the son of aviator Charles Lindbergh. A maid employed by Mrs Lindbergh’s parents was suspected and after being harshly interrogated by police, committed suicide. But ex-convict Bruno Hauptmann was eventually sentenced to death for the murder.

PSYCHO by Robert Bloch (1959)

Both Thomas Harris’ The Silence Of The Lambs (1988) and Bloch’s Psycho were inspired by the real-life crime of Ed Gein – arrested in 1957 for the murders of two women in Wisconsin. A police search of his home uncovered furniture and clothing made of skin and female body parts. He had been raiding graveyards to cultivate parts for a ‘woman suit’ which psychologists believed he planned to wear while pretending to be his dead mother. Inspired by this, Bloch felt compelled to write his novel about motel owner Norman Bates, who murders his mother and takes on her personality.

THE GODFATHER by Mario Puzo (1969)

While Puzo found the main inspiration for his gangster tale in the ‘Five Families’ Mafia organisation of New York, the novel also includes many allusions to other real-life mobsters. Johnny Fontane is based on Frank Sinatra and Moe Greene on gangster Bugsy Siegel. Don Corleone, however, is said to be inspired by Puzo’s mother, an illiterate Neapolitan matriarch who raised Puzo and his siblings in New York’s slums. “When the Godfather opened his mouth, I heard the voice of my mother,” said Puzo. “She was a wonderful woman, but a ruthless person.”

THE BLACK DAHLIA by James Ellroy (1987)

Ellroy’s classic novel is based on one of Hollywood’s most infamous unsolved crimes, a case he became obsessed with as his own mother was murdered. In 1947, waitress Elizabeth Short’s body was found mutilated and dumped in a car park in LA. Newspapers soon sensationalised the case; she was nicknamed “Black Dahlia” (because she always wore black) and portrayed as an “adventuress” who “prowled Hollywood Boulevard”. This fictional novel explores how the lives of two detectives working on the case are destroyed by the investigation.

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN by Lionel Shriver (2003)

In 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado, It was in the weeks following that Lionel Shriver decided to write Kevin. In fact, Kevin’s fictional murder spree supposedly takes place 12 days before the Columbine shootings, and Shriver even references the event in the book, with Kevin, who opens fire at his fellow pupils, repeatedly calling Harris and Klebold “weenies” and “morons” and grumbling from his prison cell that “any idiot can fire a shotgun”.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO by Stieg Larsson (2008)

Long before Larsson wrote his novels, a gruesome crime shook Sweden. In 1984, the remains of prostitute Catrine da Costa were found in a bin bag. Three weeks later, another bag of her body parts was found less than a mile away. The case piqued the interest of then-journalist Larsson, a life-long opponent of violence against women. In fact, the novel's Swedish title was Men Who Hate Women. Two men were charged with murder, but were later acquitted due to lack of evidence.

ROOM by Emma Donoghue (2010)

The acclaimed author conceived the award-winning Room after reading about the Josef Fritzl case. In 2008, the world was appalled when Elisabeth Fritzl, 42, told police she had been held captive by her father for 24 years in a dungeon below their home in Austria. Fritzl had assaulted and raped her several times and as a result she had given birth to seven children by him – among them was five-year-old Felix, who became the inspiration for Donoghue’s Jack, who is held captive along with his mother in Room.

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