There is often a stark divide between mystery and true crime fans among readers and movie watchers. A true crime fan may find mysteries too quaint, or a mystery fan may be disturbed by the grit of a real case. But for authors, sometimes the best inspiration for a mystery novel comes from an all-too-real murder.
These eight murders inspired a variety of mystery novels and movies over the years from the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers, Patrick Hamilton, and Denise Mina.
Edith Thompson and Freddy Bywaters
At first, the 1922 murder of Percy Thompson by his wife Edith’s lover seemed like the most mundane of crimes. Then the discovery of Edith’s erotic letters to Freddy Bywaters turned it into a nationwide sensation. While there was little evidence that Edith had anything to do with Bywaters’ decision to stab her husband, these passionately explicit missives gave the police and prosecutors the chance to portray Edith—a lower middle class suburban housewife—as an unlikely femme fatale.
At a time when female sexuality was considered as dangerous as nitroglycerin, Edith’s letters were enough to convict her of the murder alongside the actual killer. Despite protests from public figures such as Virginia Woolf, both Thompson and Bywaters were hanged.
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In an era when attitudes towards women were slowly beginning to shift, the story resonated. James Joyce sprinkled quotes from the trial documents throughout his great experimental work, Finnegans Wake. Over the following decades the trial would inspire dozens of more conventional novels, too, including A Pin to see The Peep Show by F. Tennyson Jesse, The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers, and Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield.
British writer Patrick Hamilton is best known for writing plays that inspired movies (George Cukor’s Gaslight—the origin of the expression “gaslighting”—and The Rope directed by Alfred Hitchcock). The 1946 trial of sadistic sexual predator, conman and self-styled playboy Neville Heath for the murder of two women, inspired Hamilton to create his anti-hero Ernest Ralph Gorse.
Like Heath (who posed as a privately educated gentleman, though he’d actually spent most of his schooldays in Borstal—the UK equivalent of juvenile detention), Gorse is a suave, well-dressed sociopath who poses as a blue-blooded former army officer in order to seduce and swindle vulnerable women, occasionally killing them, as mood or necessity dictates.
Hamilton effortlessly conjures up a Britain of sexual repression and class snobbery, which Gorse expertly exploits for thrills and financial gain. A British prototype for Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, Gorse would appear in three darkly comic 1950s novels: The West Pier, Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse, and Unknown Assailant.
Hawley Harvey Crippen
Homicidal American homeopath Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen is one of Britain’s most infamous murderers, his name a byword for cold-blooded killing. Crippen’s crime—for which he was executed in 1910—was to poison his wife, Cora, and bury her in the basement of their London home. He then escaped on an ocean liner with his mistress, Ethel Neave, bound for Canada with plans to disappear.
Luckily for law enforcement, Dr Crippen had reckoned without the newly invented wireless telegraph. The ship’s captain recognized the fugitive. A telegram was sent to Scotland Yard. Crippen was arrested when the ship entered the St Lawrence Seaway.
Brought back to London, Crippen’s trial, complete with tales of adultery, a poison known as Devil’s Breath and Ethel’s habit of dressing in the murdered woman’s clothes, kept the British public buzzing for weeks.
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The case would inspire Ernest Raymond to write the classic 1920s crime novel We, The Accused and later Peter Lovesey’s Golden Dagger-winning comic-caper The False Inspector Dew and John Boyne’s more serious Crippen.
With his dark, side-parted hair, small mustache, and intense staring eyes, John Haigh’s resemblance of Adolf Hitler would have been enough to convince any British jury in the 1940s to convict him, even if the evidence of his grisly crimes hadn’t been compelling.
Haigh had murdered six people, then dissolved the bodies in sulphuric acid. The murders were committed for financial gain, but at his trial, Haigh would attempt to escape the death penalty by claiming to be a vampire who feasted on human blood and pleading insanity. The strategy added an even more gruesome note to proceedings, but failed to convince the jury who took less than five minutes to find Haigh guilty of premeditated murder.
The Acid Bath Murders would inspire Margery Allingham to write Hide My Eyes (originally published as Tether’s End in the US) in which a case of a missing corpse is investigated by her famous sleuth Albert Campion.
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Francis Rattenbury was a British architect best known for his work in Canada (he designed the British Colombia parliament buildings in Victoria, for example). In the 1920s, his apparently serene life hit a stormy patch. He made a series of bad investments and, evidently in the grip of a midlife crisis, ditched his wife of 25 years and went off with a woman half his age, Alma Pakenham.
Francis and Alma returned to England where he continued to lose money on speculation... and she began an affair with their 19-year-old chauffeur, George Stoner. In 1935, Francis Rattenbury’s body was found in the sitting room of the family home. He’d been bludgeoned to death.
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Alma and George stood trial for the crime. George was convicted and sentenced to hang (later reduced to life in prison). Alma was acquitted, but committed suicide a few days later.
Welsh writer Sarah Waters, best known for Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith used the story of the lovers as the basis for her novel The Paying Guests.
Described by Charles Dickens as “the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey”, William Palmer was a medical doctor in Staffordshire who poisoned one of his best friends, John Cook, with strychnine tipped into a bottle of gin. He was also suspected of poisoning many others, including his wife, mother-in-law, his brother, and four of his own children.
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Though many in his home town of Rugeley believed the popular Palmer to be innocent and no evidence of strychnine was found in Cook’s corpse, there was little doubt the doctor was a hard-drinking womanizer who’d gambled away a small fortune at horse races. Tried and convicted in London in 1856, Palmer (nicknamed The Prince of Poisoners by the British press) was publicly executed.
Inspired by the case and Palmer’s mother’s conviction that her son had been falsely accused, Robert Graves—the novelist best known for historical fiction set in Ancient Rome and during the American Revolutionary War—wrote They Hanged My Saintly Billy.
Herbert Rowse Armstrong
Herbert Rowse Armstrong was a country attorney in the Herefordshire town of Hay-on-Wye. A pillar of the local community, he was widely respected by all who knew him. The only problem in Armstrong’s life seemed to be the weeds that sprung up in his garden and which he killed with arsenic bought from a local chemist.
Then in 1919, his wife, Kitty went down with a mysterious ailment. She recovered in hospital, but when she came home the strange illness returned. She died in 1921.
A few months later, Armstrong got into a dispute with another local attorney, Oswald Martin. He invited Martin to his home for afternoon tea, to iron out the problem. That evening Martin became violently sick. He suspected—and how British is this?—that his scones had been poisoned. The police investigated.
Armstrong was charged not only with the attempted murder of Martin, but of poisoning his wife. Tried in Hereford in 1922, Armstrong—who protested his innocence—was convicted and hanged. Dorothy L. Sayers used the case as the basis for her Lord Peter Wimsey novel Strong Poison in which the aristocratic sleuth races to prove the innocence of Harriet Vane.
The "Beast of Birkenshaw"
In a 1957 “Trial of the Century” in the Scottish city of Glasgow, Peter Manuel, the Beast of Birkenshaw, was convicted of the murders of seven people (though it’s likely he killed at least two more). Manuel was a compulsive criminal with connections to Glasgow’s gangland and a fascination with guns.
After the killing of his last victims, a family of three in the town of Uddingston, Manuel lived in their house for several days, eating the food they’d bought to celebrate New Year and feeding the family cat.
In her prize-winning novel The Long Drop, Denise Mina brings the violent, booze-sodden world of the 1950s Glasgow underworld vividly to life, while her portrayal of the chilling, yet strangely pathetic, sociopath at the centre of the case will send a shiver down the spine of even the toughest reader.
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