8 Essential Books Based on Real Crimes

LAPD bulletin seeking information on the "Black Dahlia" case. Jan. 15, 1947.
Inspired by some of the most notorious murders (and one assassination attempt) dating back to 1947, these novels are must-reads for crime and mystery lovers.By David Adams

Truth is stranger than fiction, and sometimes only fiction can make sense of the truth. That’s certainly the case with these eight extraordinary novels, which take the bizarre, often contradictory, facts of real-life crimes and transform them into richly satisfying narratives. From the attempted assassination of a music icon to the shocking murder of a schoolteacher with a secret double life, these unforgettable stories explain the inexplicable.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Winner of the Man Booker Prize, this monumental, multilayered, saga is built around the true story of the 1976 assassination attempt against reggae legend Bob Marley. Two days before a scheduled performance at a concert meant to forge peace between rival political parties, Marley, his wife, his manager, and a band employee were shot by seven gunmen who stormed the singer’s property on 56 Hope Road in Kingston, Jamaica. Miraculously, no one was killed. Although the crime was never officially solved, it was long rumored to have been the handiwork of a gang loyal to the right-wing Jamaica Labour Party, which in turn was funded by the CIA. Roughly a decade later, that same gang would control the crack trade in New York City and Miami. From this factual basis, A Brief History covers thirty years in the tumultuous lives of its dozens of sharply-drawn characters, including the would-be assassins and “The Singer,” to offer a stunning evocation of postcolonial Jamaica and its place in the world.

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

It might be the most famous unsolved murder in American history: On January 15, 1947, a woman’s body was found cut in half and drained of blood in a Los Angeles park. Identified through fingerprint analysis as Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress from Boston, the victim would be forever known by the name the L.A. press gave to her: “The Black Dahlia.” The bizarre circumstances of the murder have inspired myriad books, films, and TV shows, but few storytellers have as deeply personal a connection to the case as James Ellroy. As a young man, Ellroy became obsessed with the Black Dahlia, viewing her tragic fate as a stand-in for his own mother’s unsolved rape and murder. His fictional retelling strays far from the known facts of the investigation to include wide-ranging corruption in the LAPD, a pair of hard-charging detectives caught in a disastrous love triangle, and the horrors of World War I trench warfare. Like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, The Black Dahlia is pulp fiction elevated into a genuine work of art.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar by Judith Rossner

The 1973 murder of Roseann Quinn, a 28-year-old New York City Catholic school teacher who led a secret double life picking up men in the city’s single bars, was the inspiration for this #1 New York Times bestseller. Stabbed to death by a one-night stand, her killing gave ammunition to critics of the sexual revolution, who blamed the movement for coarsening society and encouraging women to engage in risky sexual behavior. Judith Rossner initially covered the story as a journalist, then fictionalized it to create this penetrating psychological study of a young woman whose childhood traumas and early sexual experiences lead her to mistake anonymity for control. Rich with insight and suspense, the novel was adapted into a popular film starring Diane Keaton, Richard Gere, and Tuesday Weld.

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

In July 1954, Dr. Sam Sheppard, an Ohio osteopath, was accused of brutally beating his wife to death while his son slept in the next room. Sheppard claimed that the real murderer had knocked him unconscious before escaping. Sheppard was convicted in a sensational trial that attracted worldwide media coverage and served 10 years of a life sentence before the verdict was overturned on appeal; no one else has ever been arrested for the crime. Author Adam Ross turns that case into a mind-bending suspense novel, featuring Sheppard as a detective investigating David Pepin, a video game designer accused of murdering his wife by triggering her deadly peanut allergy. Sheppard on the other side of the law is not even the trippiest of the novel’s twists and turns—there’s also a professional wife-killer named Mobius along with excerpts from Pepin’s novel-in-progress (which just might be the book we’re reading). It’s no wonder the title page features an M.C. Escher illusionMr. Peanut is one of the most imaginative and puzzling mysteries you’ll ever read.

Freedomland by Richard Price

Acclaimed novelist and screenwriter Richard Price drew inspiration for this gritty, virtuosic thriller from the case of Susan Smith, a South Carolina mother who claimed that her two young sons were kidnapped by a black man during a carjacking. In Price’s retelling, a New Jersey housing project is put on lockdown when a white woman claims that a black man from the project stole her car with her 4-year-old son sleeping inside. The shocking accusation and heavy-handed police response turn neighboring towns—one predominantly black, the other predominantly white—into the latest epicenter of racial tensions in America. Meanwhile, a veteran detective and a rookie reporter suspect that there is more to the young mother’s story than meets the eye. A page-turning mystery wrapped in a brilliant work of social realism, Freedomland is a tour-de-force from our finest chronicler of the urban landscape.

To Die For by Joyce Maynard

You might remember the story from Gus Van Sant’s acclaimed 1995 black comedy starring Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, and Joaquin Phoenix: A local TV reporter fixated on stardom seduces a lovestruck teenager and manipulates him and his friends into murdering her husband. The film and its wicked skewering of tabloid culture was first a novel by Joyce Maynard that she based on the infamous Pamela Smart case, but crucially changed her anti-heroine from a high school media coordinator to a weather reporter determined to be the next Barbara Walters. The result is a stinging satire of ratings-obsessed journalism and celebrity worship that grows more prescient by the day.

Libra by Don DeLillo

Based on a close reading of the Warren Commission Report and titled after Lee Harvey Oswald’s astrological sign, Libra seamlessly blends fact and fiction to explore how the most plausible conspiracy theory about the assassination of John F. Kennedy—that anti-Castro elements of the American government plotted to have him killed—might have played out in real time. Oswald is the melancholy heart of the novel, a drifter in search of an identity, but the sprawling character list also includes his wife, Marina; Jack Ruby; a cohort of ex-CIA officers and Bay of Pigs veterans; and a writer working on a secret history of the assassination. National Book Award-winner Don DeLillo has said that he intended Libra as a “refuge” from “the tide of speculation that widens with the years.” And while the tide shows no signs of receding, he did give us the most comprehensive, psychologically astute, and satisfying chronicle of the JFK assassination in American literature.

The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani

It was a parent’s worst nightmare: In October 2012, Marina Krim returned with her 3-year-old daughter to her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to find that her part-time nanny had stabbed her two other children, ages two and six, to death. At the time of the murders, French-Moroccan novelist Leïla Slimani was looking to hire a nanny for her six-month-old son. Most parents in a similar situation would have tried to forget the case as quickly as possible, but Slimani was inspired to write this slim, disturbing, and altogether extraordinary novel, winner of France’s most prestigious literary prize. Set in the home of an upper middle-class Parisian couple, the story unfolds with an almost unbearable tension. We know from the first sentence— “The baby is dead”—that the family’s new babysitter morphs from “miracle worker” into something much more sinister. By taking an unapologetic look at the intersection where the anxieties of motherhood and the inequalities of race and class collide, Slimani has delivered one of the most unforgettable thrillers of the past decade.

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