Headlines to Book Spines: Real-Life Crimes Inspire Your Favorite Mystery Novels

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.

See Also: Tales of the Grim Sleeper: 25 Years of Killings and Looking the Other Way)

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?

Comment below for a chance to win 3 Detective Elouise Norton novels from Rachel Howzell Hall!

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

TIP: Since only comments from registered users will be tabulated, if your user name appears in red above your comment—STOP—go log in, then try commenting again. If your user name appears in black above your comment, You’re In!

Rachel Howzell Hall 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 https://www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2016/05/headlines-to-book-spines-real-life-crimes-inspire-your-favorite-mystery-novels-comment-sweepstakes beginning at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) May 26, 2016. Sweepstakes ends 1:59 p.m. ET June 10, 2016. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.


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.


  1. Adan Ramie

    Tragedy is so prevalent in modern society, it’s no wonder most of us get our kicks through violence in books, movies, and games. We need a way to cope with the chaos around us that doesn’t put us directly in the line of fire.
    This was a great article, Rachel, and I can’t wait to read Trail of Echoes!

  2. Barbara Fish

    These sound very intriguing. I hope I win.

  3. lasvegasnv

    interesting sounding

  4. L

    It’s amazing what human beings are capable of doing to each other. Although I admit that stories of true crime or inspired by true crime are interesting reading, it’s still sad to realize there’s just about no atrocity we can imagine that hasn’t really happened. I knew about the characters Ed Gein inspired, but I hadn’t heard of the doctor that inspired Hannibal. Likewise for the inspirations for Ms. Hall’s books, which I’d like to read. It is a guilty pleasure.

  5. Michael Carter

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

  6. Robert Grieco

    My choice would have to be The Godfather by Mario Puzo.

  7. Janice

    Interesting interview. The summaries of the books sound interesting as well.

  8. Carol Kubala

    Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is a haunting fictional story about a woman facing her own mortality in the year of 1828 in Iceland. It is based on the true story of the last person to executed in Iceland,
    Agnes Magnúsdóttir.

  9. Susan Pertierra

    The true life story of Mexican doctor Alfredo Ballí Treviño that was the inspiration for [b]Thomas Harris’s[/b] Hannibal Lecter is one of my favorites.

  10. Beth Talmage

    Coming from Southern California, so often the stories that are “ripped from the headlines” came from my hometown paper, the LA Times. Even though I’ve moved away, I still read the paper online and follow the stories from home. I remember when the LAPD Chief’s granddaughter was murdered, the story that helped spark “Land of Shadows”.

  11. john frost

    The Black Dahlia case which inspired James Elroy’s novel of the same name

  12. Sandie Kirkland

    I read a lot of true crime and it’s always fun to see when a real crime inspires a mystery. Thanks for the give-away!

  13. Jeanette Jackson

    Not quite sure if The Conjuring is really based on a true story but they claim it is based on the Warrens’ real life dealings with the paranormal.

  14. Jeanette Jackson

    Not quite sure if The Conjuring is really based on a true story but they claim it is based on the Warrens’ real life dealings with the paranormal.

  15. Faye Gates

    I liked the story line of the husband missing while scuba diving.

  16. Karl Stenger

    Would love to read these books.

  17. Tad Ottman

    I love mysteries surrounding historical tragedies, like what was in the vaults of the Titanic in Raise the Titanic.

    These books look great, and I love the covers!

  18. pearl berger

    These mysteries are intriguing and compelling.

  19. Cathy Sparks

    Psycho, inspired by Ed Gein.

  20. Cindy Hipolito

    Always enjoy reading novels based on a true crime. Majority of the time, have not heard of a particular crime before and it is so fascinating to read how a story is pulled out and is the basis of a fictional story. Am ready to read these new books.

  21. ellie lewis

    Fascinating giveway. Excellent mysteries.

  22. Bev C

    excellent selection

  23. bill norris

    love the covers, makes me wanna read for sure

  24. Barbara Bibel

    I love the use of true cases as inspiration.

  25. Esther Whatley

    This is a new author for me. Winning 3 books would be a great way to get to know her writing.

  26. AmyH

    I do like fictional stories based on true crime but interestingly enough, I’m not a big fan of the true crime genre. Maybe I like to comfort myself with the thought that it didn’t really happen. When I was a teenager, I was fascinated by an account of the Lizzie Borden case. I also read and enjoyed In Cold Blood, mostly because I’m from Kansas. But the fictional book based on a true crime I’ve most enjoyed is Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood.22

  27. lasvegasnv

    how interesting

  28. Amy Hageman

    I do like fictional stories based on true crime but interestingly enough, I’m not a big fan of the true crime genre. Maybe I like to comfort myself with the thought that it didn’t really happen. When I was a teenager, I was fascinated by an account of the Lizzie Borden case. I also read and enjoyed In Cold Blood, mostly because I’m from Kansas. But the fictional book based on a true crime I’ve most enjoyed is Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. Repeat comment because I’m not sure I was logged in the first time.

  29. Lana Hood

    These sound right in my circle of interest. Good luck everyone!

  30. Darlene Slocum

    Based on real life happenings these are sure to be good reading.

  31. Sharon Haas

    I lived in Milwaukee during the Dahmer horror so I’ll read any true crime EXCEPT that.

  32. Laurent Latulippe

    I can’t wait to read these.

  33. Barbara Lima

    Reality is stranger than any story that could be created.

  34. Kristin Austin

    Your books started showing up for me on a couple of different websites recently. I am intrigued and would love to read them.

  35. Susan Mahaffey

    Your books intrigue me. Thanks for the chance to win your books. Thanks for the information in the above article too — interesting!

  36. Sharon Shumway

    Love a mystery that has a lady detective solving it.

  37. Jackie Wisherd

    Sounds like an inteiguing book which I would like to read.

  38. Ellen

    Always like to try a new author.

  39. danny

    This sounds AWESOME!!!

  40. Andrew Gordon

    so cool

  41. Joy Isley

    Thanks for the info on all olf these books. They all sound really interesting.

  42. Jaime Cummings

    I have to get these books! They sound so good!

  43. Martina

    This author is new to me. I’m looking forward to reading her books.

  44. rich bart

    the shinking of a ship near bermuda and Teh Tempest

  45. Rudy Wright

    As a librarian curating the mystery/thriller section I really appreciate the expanse of titles covered here.

  46. Penny Snyder

    Love trying new authors – would love to read these!!

  47. Shannon Baas

    I would like this.

  48. Richard Hicks

    Some good reads for sure!

  49. kathy pease

    Thanks for the chance 🙂

  50. Susan Smoaks

    thank you for the chance to win

  51. JULES M.

    thanks, would love to read them!

  52. Tarah Manning

    Thank you for the chance to win! These sound like page turners!

  53. Sandy Klocinski

    These sound like intriguing reads! Please enter me in the sweepstakes. Am ready to read!



  55. Daniel Vice

    This looks great

  56. Kyle Johnicker

    Looks like a good series.

  57. Kelly Rodriguez

    Great article! The books sound so interesting!

  58. Janis Milford

    Reality is definately stranger than fiction – there are a few local crimes that the trials revealed sound like a movie plot. True crime can be a bit depressing – but fiction based on a true event that’s a great read!

  59. julie hawkins

    I’d like to read these

  60. Ed Nemmers

    “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”

  61. Sheila Cohen

    These books sound great. Many of Laura Lippman’s novels are based on real crimes that took place in the Baltimore area. I love reading her books.

  62. Tammy Z Evans

    I would love to read these! I hope I win.

  63. Jerry Marquardt

    I think that Headlines to Book Spines should be a great book. Thanks for the chance to win it.

  64. azarymullierjack

    They sound like great reads. Thanks.

  65. Kim Keithline

    sounds great sign me up

  66. Lily

    Thanks for the great giveaway!

  67. Kimberly Hilbert

    I’m always looking for a new favorite author. These books sound great.

  68. Tim Moss

    Good deal, count me in!


    Hey thanks!

  70. Philip Lawrence

    Sounds interesting!

  71. Laura Shangraw

    Thanks for offering these great books.

  72. Kimberly Dull

    I’d love a chance to read these books.

  73. Mildredmayo

    This is a new genre for me. Thank you for the chance to try it out.

  74. Nedra Whittemore

    Would love to win this one.

Comments are closed.

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