Read this exclusive guest post from Rachel Howzell Hall, author of the Detective Elouise Norton Mystery series, discussing how real-life crimes have inspired many of her novels, and then make sure you're signed in and comment for a chance to win a copy of Land of Shadows, Skies of Ash, and Trail of Echoes!
In 2014, there were more than 1.1 million violent crimes committed in America. The FBI estimates that over 60 percent of those reported crimes were aggravated assault.
That’s a lot of blood.
What caused that guy to inflict serious bodily injury to that other guy? Why didn’t she value her boyfriend’s sister’s life? And for the 1.2 percent of those 1.1 million—what made that person commit the ultimate sin? Those reasons are why I and my mystery-crime writing brothers and sisters will never run out of stories to tell.
Some of the most jacked-up tales that we love derived from the real thing:
- Mexican doctor Alfredo Ballí Treviño was the inspiration behind Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter.
- Serial murderer Ed Gein’s story led to the creation of Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
- And Heat—that awesome heist movie with both Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, that famous gun battle, and Val Kilmer when he was hot? Pacino’s character, that famous coffee shop scene…real.
We cannot turn away from the truly awful. That’s why news broadcasts start with stories like “Married Couple in Oxnard Died in Murder-Suicide.” That’s why there’s so much traffic on the 405—we have to see, if only a glimpse, that big-rig three-car pileup. Why?
Some theorize it as “excitation-transfer,” equating it to riding a roller-coaster, with the true horror of injury combined with adrenalin and the shock of witnessing something so brutal as death, injury and twisted metal.
Even the Bible leads off with violence. The first sons Cain and Abel were good kids—Cain grew veggies and Abel tended the animals. God preferred Abel’s lamb over Cain’s carrots, and BOOM! Cain skips right over aggravated assault into the murder of his brother. Their parents were no better—when your mom’s caught stealing apples and your dad throws her under the bus and blames God for making her in the first place…
Envy, wrath, theft, snitches. 1 B.C. to 2016 C.E.—nothing’s changed.
In my stories, I also turned to real life as a jump-off point. The View from Here starts with a husband disappearing while scuba diving and his widow mourning his loss—while not completely convinced that he’s dead. Olivia Newton-John’s ex-boyfriend fell off a boat during a fishing trip. Five years later, cops found him living near Puerto Vallarta. He’d faked his death.
For No One Knows You’re Here, a monster is killing prostitutes in South Los Angeles. This story came from the Grim Sleeper murders in Los Angeles, where an ex-LAPD mechanic was killing prostitutes and was recently found guilty of murdering more than nine women and a teenaged girl.
The Detective Elouise Norton Mystery series gave me the opportunity to solve the case—and the issues always go beyond the toe tag.
In Land of Shadows, a girl is found hanging in a condo—a case that seems related to the disappearance of Lou’s big sister. The story was partly-inspired by a former LAPD Chief’s granddaughter and her drive-by, gangland style murder. But, it was also about teenage girls, the secrets they keep, and clueless parents left in the dark.
A marriage comes tragically undone in Skies of Ash. Alas, there are always stories of men killing their wives and children. Just last month, a man stabbed his wife before shooting his son. Which man? Which wife? Which story? This seems to be in the news cycle every day. As I was drafting this story, I thought of the guy dressed in a Santa suit showing up at his ex-wife’s home with a gun, flammable liquid, and a pressurized fuel tank.
My newest novel, Trail of Echoes, didn’t come from one case—unfortunately. It was inspired by African American girls being kidnapped and murdered and not receiving the same media coverage or concern as Elizabeth Smart and Natalee Holloway—aka Missing White Female Syndrome.
Someone asked me what’s next after the fourth Lou Norton novel, City of Saviors, is published next year. I’m still trying to figure that out, since narrowing down a subject is so difficult—writing crime is like eating at a Vegas buffet. But, I’m sure humanity will provide the inspiration.
What true-life stories inspired your favorite fiction?
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Rachel Howzell Hall is the author of the Detective Elouise Norton series. The third novel in the series, Trail of Echoes, will be published this May. Land of Shadows and Skies of Ash (Forge) were included on the Los Angeles Times’ “Books to Read This Summer” for 2014 and 2015, and the New York Times called Lou Norton “a formidable fighter—someone you want on your side.” A featured writer on NPR’s acclaimed “Crime in the City” series, Rachel also served as a mentor in AWP’s Writer to Writer Program and is currently a member of the Mystery Writers of America. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.