I recently watched the latest Elvis film, titled, um, Elvis, featuring Austin Butler in the lead and Tom Hanks as the villain, Colonel Tom Parker.
While Butler is a terrific Elvis, Hanks pulls off a remarkable transformation from beloved actor to the compellingly grotesque figure of Colonel Parker. “Explore Entertainment” describes Hanks as “trussed up under layers of costuming and make-up, bloated and reptilian, with a strange, slightly Dutch accent, and pulling the strings as the carnival barker-turned-talent manager who made Elvis into a star.”
Elvis got me thinking about crime fiction based on actual historic events.
Most famous, perhaps, is Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express. Inspired by the 1932 Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping, Christie imagined a long-delayed plot for justice that has become one of her most admired stories – and the perfect set-piece for detective Hercule Poirot.
Dorothy Sayer’s Strong Poison, the whodunit-howdunnit, introduces readers to Harriet Vane who is wrongly accused of poisoning her lover with arsenic. Lord Peter Wimsey ultimately proves Vane innocent and, well, you really must read the book to see what happens. Strong Poison is based on the trial of the only UK solicitor ultimately executed for murder in 1922. When Herbert Rouse Armstrong was arrested on New Year’s Eve, he actually had a packet of arsenic in his pocket – a detail Sayers’ borrows in her novel.
No literary true crime list would be complete without Truman Capote’s 1966 “nonfiction novel” about the brutal murder of a Kansas family in 1959. In Cold Blood is a page-turner that honors the victims while also displaying empathy for the perpetrators.
My own mysteries are based on actual environmental events and crimes. For example, Secrets Haunt The Lobsters’ Sea is based on the rough-and-tumble domain of the state’s signature fishery in which lobstermen sometimes practice their own rule of law.
I’ll end with Into The Wild, Jon Krakauer’s tale of a young man, the well off Christopher Johnson McCandless, who hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness. Months late moose hunters found his decomposed body. How McCandless came to die is the remarkable story of Into The Wild. A Hampshire College alum (where I taught for over 20 years), Krakauer was awarded an Academy Award in Literature. Into The Wild became a #1 New York Times bestseller and was translated into more than twenty-five languages. It was also Time’s Book of the Year, and was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.