Stranger Than Fiction
Fact Meets Fiction
By Dean Jobb
How did Edgar Allan Poe’s surroundings inspire his dark vision? Which movies really are “based on a true story”? And how do crime writers craft plots and characters? From the sensational murders that have inspired Hollywood classics to the tricks of the crime-writing trade, here’s a roundup of new books that sort crime fact from crime fiction.
Poe, the father of the detective story and the master of gothic horror, was a vagabond. In his short life he changed his address an astonishing thirty-five times, spending much of his forty years moving between or within the cities of Baltimore, Richmond, New York, and Philadelphia. In The Man of the Crowd: Edgar Allan Poe and the City (Princeton University Press), Scott Peeples explores how Poe’s restless nature and constantly changing surroundings influenced his writing.
“Poe was not so much uprooted as unrooted,” notes Peeples, a professor of English at the College of Charleston and the author of two previous books on the writer. Orphaned at age two, Poe was raised by a foster family (the Allans) and never seems to have found a place he could call home. That’s led some critics to portray him as a “nowhere man” who was “oblivious to his surroundings.” Many of his stories unfold in unspecified locations—try finding the House of Usher on a map—and he set his Dupin detective stories in Paris, a city he never visited.
Peeples argues that Poe was deeply influenced by the many places he lived and worked. The horrors of enslavement he witnessed as a youth in Richmond, for instance, undoubtedly resurfaced in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and other tales of victims who are confined and tortured. A chimpanzee exhibited in Philadelphia in 1839, during his sojourn in that city, was erroneously identified as an orangutan in the press and likely inspired “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” And in the early 1840s, when he wrote “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat,” stories of murderers haunted by a guilty conscience, he was living a few blocks from the imposing walls of Philadelphia’s gloomy Eastern State Penitentiary.
Poe fans (well, who isn’t one?) will welcome this fresh approach to understanding the great author and his works. A collection of photographs of Poe-related locations today, supplemented by vintage images and maps, add a visual element to the book. And Peeples’s writing is engaging and accessible. He invites readers to pull up a chair and follow him as he follows his footloose subject’s wanderings—the geographical journeys as well as the literary ones.
“Hard-boiled” is not a term that would describe Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin, a Sherlock Holmes prototype who solves crimes through logic and deduction. It evokes images of the streetwise, tough, iconoclastic private eye that has been a fixture in American detective fiction for a century. In Detectives in the Shadows: A Hard-Boiled History (Johns Hopkins University Press), Georgetown University professor Susanna Lee examines the origins and many guises of this enduring character, from Race Williams—who first appeared in Black Mask magazine in 1923—to today’s incarnations on movie and television screens.
“The hard-boiled hero,” Lee writes, “is both an individualist and a national icon.” She sees this archetype as a distinctly American invention, combining the sharp mind and sleuthing skills of a Holmes or Dupin with the ready-for-action ruggedness of the likes of Wyatt Earp and other Old West lawmen. The result is a crime-fighter who can cut to the chase, restore order, and ensure justice is done—a superhero without the superpowers. Writer Carroll John Daly, the creator of Race Williams, declared his character’s independence and staked out his turf in a 1927 novel, The Snarl of the Beast. “The police don’t like me. The crooks don’t like me,” the detective explains. “I’m just a halfway house between the law and crime; sort of working both ends against the middle.”
Williams was a product of the Roaring Twenties, when mobs ruled, officialdom was rife with corruption, and Prohibition made it fashionable to take a drink and flout the law. The stock market crash, the Great Depression and the Second World War ushered in new authors and a new, more cynical—but just as honorable and upright—fictional detective. Dashiell Hammett, who actually worked as a Pinkerton detective, created Sam Spade and Humphrey Bogart cemented the image of the heroic outsider in the trench coat and fedora when he portrayed the character in the movie version of The Maltese Falcon. Raymond Chandler offered an apt description of his version of the character, Philip Marlowe, who debuted in 1939 in The Big Sleep: “the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.”
Lee explores the hard-boiled incarnations that followed, from Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer to James Garner’s wry, bemused television version, Jim Rockford of The Rockford Files and the world-weary sleuths of The Wire and True Detective. At every step she grounds the character in the events and culture of the times that produced it. “The hard-boiled tradition has always been about one person showing up where others hesitate to tread,” she concludes. And those kinds of heroes are always in short supply.
We’ve all seen the note that flashes on the screen at the start of many movies, promising that what follows is “Based on a true story” or “Inspired by true events.” The 2018 heist flick American Animals, about a group of friends who hatch a plan to steal rare books worth millions from their college library, even played with the well-worn introduction, declaring: “This movie is not based on a true story. It is a true story.” Veteran true crime writer Harold Schechter assembles 40 of these courtroom-to-big screen stories in Ripped from the Headlines: The Shocking True Stories Behind the Movies’ Most Memorable Crimes (Little A).
“Real life offers stories, characters, and situations far more fantastic than anything even the most imaginative screenwriter can dream up,” he argues, before cueing up the movies to prove it. He offers an A-to-Z guide that kicks off with 2007’s Alpha Dog, based on the kidnapping and murder of a teenager in Southern California, and ends with a bloody battle between gangs of New York City teenagers that spawned the 1961 film The Young Savages.
The usual suspects are here (but not The Usual Suspects, a movie plot that idea-challenged Hollywood screenwriters apparently were able to dream up). Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder’s 1944 noir classic, is based on the James M. Cain novel of the same name and both are fictionalized accounts of the case of Ruth Snyder, a New York woman who conspired with her lover to murder her husband in 1927 and collect a hefty life insurance payout. In the movie, as in real life, the plot quickly unravels. Snyder was convicted and executed—a photo showing her in the electric chair, taken with a hidden camera and published on the front page of the New York Daily News, is almost as well-known as the movie.
Agatha Christie’s novel Murder on the Orient Express has been made into movies three times – in 1974, 2010 and 2017—and there’s no mistaking that the child-abduction case that compels a trainload of suspects to take revenge on the kidnapper was inspired by the snatching and murder of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh’s son in 1932. Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy came to the big screen in 1951 as A Place in the Sun, a tale of a social-climbing young man who kills his pregnant girlfriend so he can pursue a wealthy debutante that mirrored Charles Gillette’s 1906 murder of Grace Brown in Upstate New York.
Schechter reveals the murders that Alfred Hitchcock transformed into Psycho and Frenzy and how Beulah Annan got away with murder in 1924 and was immortalized as Roxie Hart in Chicago. He is an astute critic, pointing out flaws in the movies he dissects as he tracks the sometimes obscure and often surprising real-life events reflected in the plotlines. Movie buffs and true-crime fans will find this an intriguing look at the truth behind the fiction.
Martin Edwards, the prolific British crime writer and anthologist, is one of the leading authorities on the craft—Ian Rankin describes him as “ridiculously knowledgeable about the field of crime and suspense fiction.” Who better, then, to enlist the world’s top crime writers, past and present, to discuss everything from plots and characters to researching and publishing. To mark the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the London-based Detection Club, Edwards conceived and edited a collection that’s a must-read for fans of crime writing and would-be authors alike.
Howdunit: A Masterclass in Crime Writing by Members of the Detection Club (Collins Crime Club) brings together some of the biggest names in the business. Len Deighton, Ann Cleeves, and Peter Robinson are among those on the guest list, and Edwards has dusted off craft advice from genre giants Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Father Brown creator G.K. Chesterton. Edwards, in the introduction, likens the 500-pages plus compilation to the array of opinions on writing and the writing life one would be likely to hear at a major literary festival: “The contributors have diverse opinions about everything from writer’s block to the crime novelist’s vision.”
Rankin weighs in with “Why Crime Fiction is Good for You,” a thoughtful overview of a genre as serious and illuminating as its well-bred literary cousin. “The main ingredients of crime fiction—violence, sudden reversals, mystery, deception, moral dilemmas and so on—can be found everywhere, from the Greek epics to contemporary Booker Prize winners,” he writes. And there’s a question at the heart of every crime or detective story: “why do we humans continue throughout history to inflict terrible damage on each other?” Cleeves, who put the Shetland Islands on the crime-writing map, explores the role of place—what she calls “human geography”—in forming characters who are “concrete, rounded beings.” Other writers tackle transforming real crimes into fiction, injecting humor into stories, and deciding whether a detective should be an amateur or professional sleuth. And who better to offer inspiration on turning an idea or chance encounter into a plot than the master of mystery and misdirection, Agatha Christie?
Edwards is the glue that binds these fascinating and insightful essays together, offering brief passages to introduce each writer or subject. He’s also the current president of the Detection Club, founded in 1930 to bring together eminent crime writers (Christie was president for almost two decades) to socialize, swap ideas, and discuss all things crime writing. Through the pages of Howdunit, the rest of us have been invited to join the party.
Dean Jobb’s new book recreates the crimes of Victorian Era serial killer Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who preyed on women in Chicago, Canada and England and became known as London’s feared Lambeth Poisoner (coming in July 2021 from Algonquin Books). He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb