Five Authors Who Wrote Too Close to the Flame

Alice Blanchard, author of Trace of Evil, takes a look at 5 famous crime writers who found themselves a bit too close to their terrifying subject matters for comfort. Plus, comment below for a chance to win a copy of Trace of Evil!

I am in awe of Truman Capote’s work. He is an exquisite writer. If you read Other Voices Other Rooms, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Music for Chameleons, which includes the brilliant novella “Handcarved Coffins,” you’ll see what I mean. They are literary classics.

However, Capote is most famous for In Cold Blood, widely considered to be the first true crime novel. His masterful reenactment of the savage killings of a Kansas family reads like a bestselling mystery, and it catapulted him to stardom.

But he paid a price.

On November 14, 1959, ex-felons Perry Smith and Richard Hickok entered the home of Herb and Bonnie Mae Clutter following a tip that there was $10,000 stashed in a safe. After ransacking the farmhouse, once they realized there was no safe, they became so enraged that they bound and gagged the family of four and brutally murdered them. The news sent shockwaves across the Midwest.

Read More: Did In Cold Blood Miss a Third Killer?

After hearing about the quadruple homicide, Capote traveled to Kansas to write what he believed would become a serious new art form—the “nonfiction novel.” He focused on Perry Smith as the subject of his book and spent five years interviewing him in prison, earning his trust and filling his notebooks with private details about the man and his motivation for the horrific murders.

The book was an instant success, but things didn’t end well for Capote. Some say he took advantage of Smith’s vulnerability in order to obtain literary fame; others insist that Smith played on Capote’s gullibility, portraying himself as a sensitive guy who’d had a tough life in order to get his sentence reduced from death to life.

Regardless, Capote became so emotionally involved that he cried for two hours in his car after Smith’s execution in 1965. The author’s life went into a downward spiral from there. He became addicted to painkillers and never finished his long-promised novel, Answered Prayers.

Capote infused the critically acclaimed In Cold Blood with keenly observed details that resonate with insight and emotion, but he paid a heavy price for getting inside the head of a killer.

Here are four other gifted writers who got too close to the flame.

 

Ann Rule

Ann Rule was a police-officer-turned-reporter who wrote true crime books that read like novels. Her most famous work, The Stranger Beside Me, was about her real-life friendship with the infamous serial killer Ted Bundy.

The two met as volunteers for a suicide hotline, working the same night together, and Bundy would escort Ann back to her car and warn her to be careful. She liked his smile and his easy charm.  Rule was 40, and Bundy was an intelligent young law student who appeared to be going places. She thought that he—like herself—was saving lives by talking troubled people out of harming themselves.

However, Bundy lived a Jekyll-and-Hyde existence. Half the time he could be charming and personable, but he also targeted pretty young women and gained their trust before kidnapping and killing them. He was a serial killer who mocked authority and impersonated a policeman or an injured skier in order to lure and entrap his victims. He got away with it for a long time, and even after he was caught, he managed to escape from his jailers twice.

Meanwhile, Ann had been commissioned to write about a string of unsolved murders occurring across the northwest. All of the victims were attractive co-eds with long dark hair, parted in the middle, just like Bundy’s ex-girlfriend.

After his final murder spree in Florida, where Ted entered a college dormitory and bashed sleeping co-eds with a log, leaving behind tooth-mark evidence that eventually convicted him, Bundy was sentenced to death in the state of Florida.

In her writing, Ann is honest about her relationship with Bundy. She admits she liked him, considered him a friend, and trusted him to the point of imagining one of her daughters marrying him.  And yet, at one point, she was driven enough by suspicion to call the police hotline and give them Ted’s name.

In the end, she realized she’d been charmed by a sociopath. Ann Rule’s book came out in 1980 and was an immediate bestseller. All told, Bundy killed 30 women, maybe more. He was executed in 1989.

 

James Ellroy

Novelist James Ellroy achieved bestseller status with his critically acclaimed L.A. Quartet—The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz. In interviews, he traced his interest in crime fiction all the way back to his own personal tragedy—the 1958 murder of his mother when he was ten years old.

Geneva “Jean” Ellroy divorced Ellroy’s father and moved with her son to El Monte, California. Described as bad-tempered and promiscuous, Jean couldn’t seem to keep a job. Shortly after James’ 10th birthday, she went out drinking one night and never came home. Her body was found behind the local high school. She’d been raped and strangled, and the case was never solved.

Read a Review of Ellroy’s Latest Novel This Storm

Ellroy admits he had mixed feelings at the time, because he preferred living with his father, but this traumatic event haunted him for years, leading to his fascination with other murder cases, such as the 1947 cold case of Elizabeth Short, a young woman who came to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune, but who ended up in two pieces on a dew-soaked Los Angeles lawn. Ellroy wrote both The Black Dahlia and My Dark Places with the intent of solving these decades-old cases, and also as a means of coping with his personal loss and grief.

 

Norman Mailer

In 1948, Norman Mailer rose to literary prominence with his first novel, The Naked and the Dead. Years later, he won a Pulitzer Prize for The Executioner’s Song, a masterful chronicling of the life and death of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore. It was during the writing of this book that Mailer helped a convicted killer get out of jail, and as a result, an innocent man died.

Jack Henry Abbott’s troubled childhood and criminal history led him to be locked up in a federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois in 1979. There he began corresponding with various authors he admired, including Norman Mailer.

Mailer was so impressed by Abbott’s erudite, insightful letters about his incarceration that he helped Abbott get a publishing deal and was instrumental in getting him paroled. Mailer went so far as to promise to hire Abbott as his research assistant once he was released from prison.

Abbott was paroled in June 1981 with Mailer’s help. Several weeks later, he was dining at a restaurant in the Village when he got into an altercation with a young waiter who tried to explain that only employees were allowed to use the restrooms—it was restaurant policy. Abbott became so enraged that he stabbed the young man to death.

The victim’s father forgave Norman Mailer, blaming the criminal justice system instead; but if Abbott hadn’t attracted the attention of New York’s literati, then the young man might still be alive.

 

Thomas Harris

Stephen King once called Hannibal Lecter “the great fictional monster of our time.” Thomas Harris’s brilliant prose runs through his terrifying series about a charismatic, cannibalistic serial killer. But who or what was the inspiration for this monster?

Surprisingly, the character had its origins in an unnerving encounter Harris had as a young reporter back in the 1960s. While working on assignment, he visited a Mexican penitentiary to interview an American mental patient named Simmons who’d slaughtered three people and was confined there for life.

See More: The Best Cat-and-Mouse Thrillers in Crime Fiction

After interviewing Simmons, Harris was introduced to the prison doctor who’d saved the killer’s life after an escape attempt gone awry. Harris describes Dr. Salazar as “a small, lithe man (with) a certain elegance about him… (his) eyes were maroon with grainy sparks like sunstones.”

Sound familiar?

Dr. Salazar and Harris hit it off and discussed Simmons’ murderous ways for a while. They were alone together in an unguarded room, which Harris assumed was Salazar’s office. Eventually, Salazar began to pick Harris’ brain, asking him pointed personal questions reminiscent of the chapter in which Hannibal dissects Clarice with psychological precision.

It was only after Harris had left the room that he was told the truth. The good doctor was a prisoner of the hospital—an insane surgeon who used to cut up his victims and pack the body parts into a surprisingly small box.

About Trace of Evil by Alice Blanchard:

From Alice Blanchard, the author of the New York Times Notable mystery novel Darkness Peering comes Trace of Evil, first in an evocative new series about a small New York town, its deeply held secrets, and the woman determined to uncover them, no matter what the cost.

There’s something wicked in Burning Lake…

Natalie Lockhart is a rookie detective in Burning Lake, New York, an isolated town known for its dark past. Tasked with uncovering the whereabouts of nine missing transients who have disappeared over the years, Natalie wrestles with the town’s troubled history – and the scars left by her sister’s unsolved murder years ago.

Then Daisy Buckner, a beloved schoolteacher, is found dead on her kitchen floor, and a suspect immediately comes to mind. But it’s not that simple. The suspect is in a coma, collapsed only hours after the teacher’s death, and it turns out Daisy had secrets of her own. Natalie knows there is more to the case, but as the investigation deepens, even she cannot predict the far-reaching consequences – for the victim, for the missing of Burning Lake, and for herself.


Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Trace of Evil by Alice Blanchard!

To enter, make sure you’re a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

Trace of Evil Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at http://www.criminalelement.com/five-authors-who-wrote-too-close-to-the-flame/ beginning at 12:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) December 2, 2019. Sweepstakes ends at 11:59 a.m. ET December 16, 2019. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 120 Broadway, New York, NY 10010.

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Comments

  1. lasvegasnv

    sounds interesting

  2. Cleo

    Trace of Evil by Alice Blanchard: This looks intriguing!!

  3. Erika H

    This sounds like such a great read! Thanks for the chance!

  4. Anne

    Excellent and informative post. Wonderful mystery.

  5. Pearl

    Unique and intriguing mystery.

  6. ELLEN FRANCIS

    I remember reading In Cold Blood as if it were yesterday, even though in fact, it was many years ago. It was superbly written and from then on, true crime has fascinated me to realize that true psycopaths etc. walk among us.

  7. Susan Meek

    Oh, sounds good!

  8. Deborah D

    Very interesting.

  9. Rena

    Very compelling. Would love to win this.

  10. Deborah Lane

    Very interesting look at stark killers, and authirs

  11. Margaret Sandys

    Wonderful article, it makes me want to read all books mentioned, thank you!

  12. Ingvild

    Sounds like an interesting read!

  13. Sally Schmidt

    Fascinating. I especially enjoyed reading all of Ann Rule’s work. Thanks for the giveaway.

  14. Wendy

    I never knew some of those details about the authors. Very interesting information. Trace of Evil sounds really good!!

  15. SeattleReader

    I live in Seattle and I find the Ann Rule story totally creepy. Would love to win!

  16. Shana Skaletsky

    This looks like an outstanding book—I’d love to win a copy. For the record, I’ve long been intrigued by the mind and work of James Ellroy.

  17. Maureen Wynn

    All of these stories are terrifying – it’s hard to realize that there may be serial killers living next to us and we may never know about it! Would love to read Trace of Evil – it sounds like a good story.

  18. Alice Glover

    Dr. Salazar sounds almost as creepy as Hannibal Lecter.

  19. Frances Neagley

    I must admit to having read the authors in Blanchard’s essay and look forward to reading her latest book

  20. paul klumbach

    sounds like a very good read-can hardly wait for it

  21. John Davis

    Discovering the truth is not always a good thing. I greatly appreciate writers who capture this trope in ways we’ve never seen before. Sounds like a very engrossing book!

  22. Kaye Sheets

    great article! Can’t wait to read more!

  23. Ash

    Trace of Evil sounds very intriguing.

  24. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  25. gary fritch

    It is almost frightening to think how close contact we may be in, to those who have these desires and thoughts! I’ll enjoy it, Ty

  26. HCmillican

    Ooh 😮🤔 one more to add to my TBR list!

  27. Andrew Jensen

    Always intrigued by crime fiction.

  28. Karen Terry

    Sounds like a great read.

  29. Robin Weatherington

    Wow! Can’t wait.

  30. Laurie Wood

    I knew about Ann Rule and Truman Capote but not the other three authors. Thanks for the chance to win the giveaway! It sounds like a perfect mystery. Love female detectives.

  31. Lori P

    Over the years I’d learned various facts about each of the profiled authors, but this piece added many I’d never known. Also, ‘Trace of Evil’ looks like a very captivating read!

  32. Lana Maskus

    Looks very, very interesting.

  33. Lana Maskus

    Very interesting.

  34. Anne Hardy

    Very informative post, and the book sounds interesting

  35. Michael Carter

    Great!
    Yes, please enter me in this sweepstakes.
    Thanks —

  36. susan beamon

    So many serial killers and just plain murderers are such nice people with this one little flaw. They think they are more important than anyone else.

  37. Susan Johnson

    Enjoyed the article – so very creepy. Especially creeped out by the Thomas Harris section.

  38. Libby Todd

    Sounds like a very interesting read!

  39. Techeditor

    Capote was in love with Perry Smith and, as a result, wasn’t completely honest in his non-fiction novel.

  40. Rebecca Wilson

    I have always been fascinated by true crime and true crime writers. This book sounds fascinating.

  41. Brandy Ybarra

    What an interesting article! And I can’t wait to check out this book.

  42. Rose Jones

    I have read books by all these authors, except Ms Blanchard. I would love to include her in this list.

  43. Rhonda Stefani

    Wonderful article, I definitely need to read some of these! I’m not entering for a copy, was lucky enough to read an ARC of Trace of Evil and it’s a fantastic book. Highly recommend!

  44. Kate Reynolds

    I remember hearing about Ann Rule’s and Norman Mailer’s real criminal experiences. I did read “In Cold Blood (scared the heck out of me!) but didn’t know about Truman Capote’s experiences. Guess I’m proof we learn something new everyday. Another something new is hearing of This author. This book sounds really interesting and I love mysteries with strong female characters. Whether I win the book or not, I will be reading it. Thanks for the opportunity of discovering a new author.

  45. David L Morgan

    Interesting article, great insight!

  46. sue weatherbee

    Sounds like a good one!

  47. John Smith

    Thomas Harris’s encounter with the mental patient sounds pretty chilling!

  48. Tracy Nicol

    Trace of Evil sounds fascinating!

  49. sassywitch

    sounds like a great book!!

  50. Deb Philippon

    Yeah, one needs to be pretty grounded to look into that particular abyss. Anyhow, I’d love to read Trace of Evil, so wish me luck!

  51. Christine Smiga

    This book sounds very exciting.Thanks for the chance to win it!

  52. Saundra K. Warren

    I’ve read some of these and as I’m from Kansas the Clutters were pretty much a household word

  53. Donald Bruce Manes

    I think the concept behind the article should be expanded into a book. I knew about Capote, Ellroy, and Mailer, but not the other two. I think a further and deeper examination would be a fascinating read.

  54. Susan Morris

    Thank you for the chance to win “Trace of Evil”. I love reading about the inspirations behind the true crime novels. Super scary!

  55. Mitzi Bowman

    All of these stories are fascinating! I would love to receive a copy of A Trace of Evil, it’s exactly my kind of book! Thanks for the chance to receive a copy free!

  56. Diana Hardt

    It sounds like a really interesting book. Thank you for the chance.

  57. Christal M

    Looks like a good read

  58. Stacy P

    Very interesting article. I look forward to reading her book.

  59. Sherri Ashburner

    Silence of the Lambs was a chillingly-amazingly terrifying read. I never knew the story of Harris and Salazar. WOW. Talk about drawing from real life.

  60. Lida Bushloper

    Great article. I love true crime, and this is an interesting take on the best writers who have taken on the genre. Lida

  61. Daniel M

    always like a mystery

  62. Scott Daunheimer

    This should be an interesting read. Given the context of the preceding column, will we hear something about origins of this story?

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