Four Beloved Novels and Their Real-life Unsolved Mystery Inspirations

The Haunting of Leigh Harker by bestselling gothic horror author Darcy Coates is a chilling story of a quiet house on a forgotten suburban lane that hides a deadly secret... Join Darcy as she shares her list of four great novels and the downright creepy real-life stories that inspired them.

Humans are curious by nature. We want to see mysteries resolved. The bigger the mystery and the stranger the clues, the deeper our craving for answers. Nowhere is this more on display than in the true crime community when faced with a death or disappearance that has gone unsolved.

Authors aren’t immune to this. Sometimes, the frustration of simply not knowing is enough to drive a writer to create their own ending. To reimagine events with a suitably dramatic conclusion—the kind not always provided by reality.

Real-life mysteries aren’t always credited for a book’s creation, and you might be surprised by some of the authors who have dabbled in true crime reimaginings.

 

The Wych Elm by Tana French (Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?)

Tana French’s The Wych Elm is a strikingly powerful character study wrapped around a skeleton in a tree. While Toby is staying at his uncle’s family estate, bones are discovered in one of the property’s enormous wych elms, plunging the family into an extended police investigation.

Tana French is open about her inspiration. Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm is a very old and very famous unsolved mystery. In 1942 four children discovered a woman’s skeletal remains in a wych elm—a tree that often grows with a hollow centre—while hunting for eggs in the small village of Hagley, England.

This was during World War Two and police resources were stretched thin. Despite a myriad of clues—a wedding ring, scraps of taffeta stuffed into the skull’s mouth, her severed hand found some distance away, and unique dental imprints—the woman’s identity or exact cause of death could not be determined.

Two years later, the case was close to being forgotten when a spraypainted message appeared on a wall in a nearby town: Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?

Public curiosity rose as the spraypainted messages continued to appear across towns over the following decades. Theories range from “Bella” being a parachuting spy who became tangled in the tree and fell into the hollow, an occult sacrifice, or, most likely, a tragic murder victim.

While The Wych Elm novel has a solid conclusion, the real mystery is left open. Bella’s true identity remains a mystery, as does the person behind the spraypainted messages.

 

The Catacombs by Jeremy Bates (the Paris Catacombs Footage)

This horror-thriller by Jeremy Bates explores the infamous catacombs beneath Paris and paints a grisly picture of what might actually be hiding inside.

The catacombs are well-known for their confusing and seemingly endless nature, and their structures built entirely out of bones. More than two hundred miles of tunnels contain an estimated six million sets of human remains. The caves are so complex and difficult to navigate that visitors can easily become lost inside. In 2017, rescue teams saved two teens after they had spent three days wandering in the dark.

That leads us to our mystery: A video, supposedly discovered deep in the catacombs by an explorer in the early 1990s. The footage shows an unknown man running through the tunnels, breathing heavily and apparently panicked, before dropping his camera, which continues to record until the tape runs out.

Opinions are divided on the film. Some believe it’s a hoax. Others think a group of teenagers filmed it as a joke. One expert analysed the walls in the footage and matched them to landmarks nearly three hundred feet deep—not somewhere a common tourist or prankster would be likely to find themselves.

If the film is genuine, why was the unknown individual running? Why did he drop the camera when it appeared to be his only source of light? Did he eventually find a way out, or, more likely, is his body still down there, lost in one of the unexplored corners of the catacombs?

 

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (the Lindbergh Kidnapping)

One of the best-known novels by the queen of the cozy mystery, Murder on the Orient Express sees Poirot on a train with a murder victim and thirteen possible guilty parties.

While the actual murder itself has not been repeated in reality (as far as I know!), the motive for the killing was certainly based in reality.

In 1932, two years before Agatha Christie penned Murder on the Orient Express, Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr., just twenty months old, was abducted from his crib through a second-floor window. A ransom for $50,000 was demanded and paid, but, tragically, the child was later found dead on the side of the road.

This is the only case on this list that is truly solved. At least… partially. Bruno Richard Hauptmann was arrested after spending bills that had been marked as part of the ransom payment. Further evidence was found in his home, including pieces of wood matching the ladder used to pull the baby from the upstairs bedroom.

What is in doubt is whether he worked alone. Many believe Hauptmann must have had an accomplice. If he did, he took that secret to his grave.

In Orient Express, the murdered traveller, Samuel Ratchett, was responsible for the abduction of a toddler through a bedroom window. Christie, deeply affected by the Lindbergh kidnapping, carried the story into her novel, where fictional justice of her own devising could be meted out.

 

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse (Women’s Institutions)

This final entry on the list is perhaps the most harrowing. Sarah Pearse’s sharp murder mystery set in the Swiss alps sees its central mystery revolve around the hotel’s dark past.

This is not based on a single tragedy, but thousands. Through decades and across multiple countries, women were committed to asylums by male relatives. The infractions included being seen as too energetic, too emotional, or simply inconvenient. Once admitted, women had very few chances of ever leaving again.

Infamously, Rose Marie Kennedy, John F. Kennedy’s sister, spent most of her life in an institution after being given a lobotomy that left her unable to speak coherently. She was only twenty-three years old.

Rose Marie Kennedy’s story is finally known after decades of secrecy, but so many others have faded as the years pass. Many of these women’s records have been lost, destroyed in fires, or simply vanished. They have often left very little behind beyond a name on a family tree.

Sarah Pearse’s novel may be fiction, but it tugs at dark roots that run deep, and remind us to not forget the women who were lost to a world that cared too little.


About The Haunting of Leigh Harker by Darcy Coates:

Leigh Harker’s quiet suburban home was her sanctuary for more than a decade, until things abruptly changed. Curtains open by themselves. Radios turn off and on. And a dark figure looms in the shadows of her bedroom door at night, watching her, waiting for her to finally let down her guard enough to fall asleep.

Pushed to her limits but unwilling to abandon her home, Leigh struggles to find answers. But each step forces her towards something more terrifying than she ever imagined.

A poisonous shadow seeps from the locked door beneath the stairs. The handle rattles through the night and fingernails scratch at the wood. Her home harbours dangerous secrets, and now that Leigh is trapped within its walls, she fears she may never escape.

Do you think you’re safe?
You’re wrong.

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