Tour February 1 – February 29, 2020
True Crime as Inspiration for Fiction and Creative Nonfiction
by JT Hunter
Crimes, particularly violent crimes, and especially brutal, bloody crimes, have captured our attention for as long as they have been committed. From the Old Testament tale of Cain’s murder of Abel; to the baffling murders of Jack the Ripper; to the gory, media-frenzied double murder by OJ Simpson; to the brazen killings of modern serial killers such as Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer; homicidal acts have fascinated and shocked us throughout history. Ironically, while these acts of ultimate destruction (the destruction of human life) horrify and repel us, they also evoke a deep sense of wonder, so powerfully impacting our psychological and emotional core that they ignite the imagination, and in doing so often inadvertently spark literary creation.
In Cold Blood
In November 1959, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, both recently released from prison, broke into the Clutter family farmhouse in Holcomb, Kansas, in the mistaken belief that the Clutters kept a safe full of cash in their home. After binding and gagging Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and their teenaged son and daughter, the two assailants shot the Clutters one-by-one. All four family members were killed at close range by a shotgun blast to the head. After a jailhouse informant identified Hickock and Smith as the Clutter family killers, the two men were captured in Las Vegas on December 30, 1959. They confessed to the Clutter murders, and following their conviction of the crimes by a jury, Hickock and Smith were executed by hanging on April 14, 1965.
Published in 1966, In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s in-depth account of the Clutter family murder and its aftermath, helped pioneer a new literary form, the “nonfiction” novel. Capote’s book has stood as the seminal true-crime novel for half a century. Capote was inspired to write his novel after reading a brief summary of the Clutter murder in the New York Times. Entitled “Wealthy Farmer, 3 of Family Slain,” Capote did not find the story compelling at first glance, but after reflecting on it he realized that the “human heart being what it is, murder was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time.”
Published in 1974, Helter Skelter is the best-selling true crime book in history, eclipsing even Capote’s In Cold Blood, which it pushed to number two. Written by the chief prosecutor from the 1970 trial of charismatic cult leader Charles Manson, Helter Skelter provides a detailed account of the brutal murders of seven people in August 1969, including actress Sharon Tate, who was stabbed 16 times when she was eight months pregnant.
The seven murders — all committed at Manson’s behest – were the result of his belief in an impending apocalyptic race war, which he referred to as “Helter Skelter” due to the fact that the belief sprang from the Beatle’s song of the same name. Manson hoped that the murders would be the spark that would ignite the race war. Instead, they propelled Helter Skelter to phenomenal sales figures as readers tried to understand a seemingly senseless spree of violence and a shocking loss of life.
The Silence of the Lambs
In 1988, Thomas Harris published a novel in which a serial killer is just as much a central character, if not an outright protagonist, as the traditional hero of the story. The Silence of the Lambs, and the 1991 film version starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, established serial killer Hannibal Lecter as one of the most terrifyingly memorable fictional villains of all time.
Harris was inspired to write the novel after meeting FBI agent John Douglas, one of the pioneers of the science of criminal profiling and a founder of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit at Quantico. Harris attended one of Douglas’s lectures on criminal profiling, where he heard about three infamous serial killers who inspired him to create the true antagonist of The Silence of the Lambs: deranged serial killer Buffalo Bill. Harris created Buffalo Bill as a composite character, blending traits of Ted Bundy, Gary Heidnik, and Ed Gein.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
In 1994, John Berendt published Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It became a New York Times Best-Seller for 216 weeks following its debut and it remains one of the longest-standing New York Times Best-Sellers of all time. The book was subsequently made into a 1997 movie, directed by Clint Eastwood.
Southern Gothic in tone, the book’s plot is based on real-life events that occurred in the 1980s in Savannah, Georgia. The story revolves around the killing of Danny Hansford, a local male prostitute, by respected antiques dealer Jim Williams. In perhaps another instance of an author getting too close to his subject, Berendt’s narrative characterizes the killing, which occurred in Jim Williams’s home, as self-defense, the result of a lovers’ quarrel between Hansford and Williams, not premeditated murder.
Jack the Ripper is perhaps the most famous criminal in the English-speaking world. Over a century after the murders of five prostitutes in the Whitechapel area of London in 1888, Alan Moore wrote a graphic novel about their notorious killer. Moore’s fictional narrative uses real people and events to explore the theory that the Ripper murders were part of a conspiracy to conceal the birth of an illegitimate baby fathered by Prince Albert Victor of England’s Royal Family. Fortunately, Moore included over 40 pages of notes and references specifying which parts of the novel were based on authentic sources and which parts were fictional.
The Devil in the White City
Set in Chicago in 1893, Erik Larson‘s 2003 non-fiction book, The Devil in the White City, blends the story of Daniel H. Burnham, the architect behind the 1893 World’s Fair, with that of Dr. H. H. Holmes, perhaps the first serial killer in America, a man who murdered untold numbers of people in a hotel dubbed the “Murder Castle,” which he equipped with an assortment of secret rooms, including a gas chamber, a dissection table, and a crematorium.
In an interview, Larson shed some light on why true crimes continue to inspire him and other writers.
[Interviewer]: The stories you’ve chosen involve the worst of crimes. What draws you to tales of murder?
LARSON: I don’t necessarily hunt for dark subjects. It just happens that the darker events of history are often the most compelling.
In Larson’s discussion of the “darker events of history,” we can hear the echo of Capote’s assessment of “murder not darkening with time.”
The novels I’ve touched on are just some of the books that made waves in the ever-deepening pool of fiction and nonfiction works inspired by true crime, crimes offering characters and conflicts that often stretch the boundaries of imagination.
While he stalked the streets hunting his unsuspecting victims, the residents of a quiet Florida town slept soundly, oblivious to the dark creature in their midst, unaware of the vampire next door.
John Crutchley seemed to be living the American Dream. Good-looking and blessed with a genius level IQ, he had a prestigious, white-collar job at a prominent government defense contractor, where he held top secret security clearance and handled projects for NASA and the Pentagon. To all outward appearances, he was a hard-working, successful family man with a lavish new house, a devoted wife, and a healthy young son.
But he concealed a hidden side of his personality, a dark secret tied to a hunger for blood and the overriding need to kill. As one of the most prolific serial killers in American history, Crutchley committed at least twelve murders, and possibly nearly three dozen. His IQ eclipsed that of Ted Bundy, and his body count may have as well.
Genre: True Crime
Published by: RJ Parker Publishing
Publication Date: October 11th 2014
Number of Pages: 365
ISBN: 1500909491 (ISBN13: 9781500909499)
Purchase Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads
Read an excerpt:
Chapter 2: You were a vampire . . . Nineteen-year-old Christina Almah was still a virgin, and a bit naïve when it came to matters of sex, but like most teenaged girls on the verge of womanhood, she enjoyed receiving attention from good-looking, romantically inclined men. Yet, even she was surprised when, after a handsome, slightly older man took an interest in her, she found herself traveling all the way across the country to see him again. Christina first met twenty-two-year-old Carl Von Bane several months earlier while he was visiting a friend near her hometown of Westminster, California. She immediately noticed him when he walked into the Drug Emporium where she had been working for the past year as a clerk, and they had quickly hit it off. His rugged, bad-boy looks and confident disposition combined to render her fully smitten. But the budding romance had barely begun before “Von” returned home to Florida. Their brief time together had passed much too quickly for the love-struck Miss Almah. Since Von’s departure, they had continued their blossoming relationship by telephone racking up steep long distance bills. All the while, Christina had meticulously saved her meager Drug Emporium pay so that she could afford to purchase a plane ticket to visit him. When Von had called her a few weeks ago, Christina hinted at wanting to see him again by casually mentioning that she had some vacation time that needed to be used. When he suggested that she catch a flight to Florida to visit him, she had immediately agreed. After all, this was not some fly by night infatuation. She thought that she might be in love. Christina had been counting the days until this trip—a weeklong vacation certain to be a memorable one if for no other reason than the fact that it would be the first time she had ever traveled alone. She booked a direct flight on Eastern Airlines from Los Angeles to Orlando International Airport, and Von had picked her up there nearly a week ago. Since then, she had been staying with Von in his mother’s mobile home at Lot 12 of the Enchanted Lakes Mobile Home Park on Malabar Road, near the eastern edge of the City of Palm Bay in southern Brevard County. Named for the lush palm trees that lined the bay at the mouth of Turkey Creek, the nearly 100-square-mile Palm Bay had experienced a period of rapid growth in recent years fueled by an influx of retirees, northern transplants, and space industry workers. As part of the “Space Coast,” Palm Bay benefited from its proximity to Cape Canaveral, home to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s space shuttle program. To the west of Palm Bay, just past Interstate 95, a vast expanse of swamps and marsh grass stretched beyond the horizon, home to an endless assortment of flora and fauna. Under the blinding gaze of the eternal Florida sun, cold-blooded creatures swam silent and unseen as they had for ages past, ancient predators stalking their unsuspecting prey. Immediately to the east of Palm Bay sits the Town of Malabar, a small, quiet community only thirteen square miles in size. Its eastern edge meets the Intracoastal Waterway in a subtropical paradise of palm trees, sailboats, and spectacular sunsets. The area’s abundant seafood, perennial sunshine, and constant sea breeze reminded Christina of her favorite parts of California. That familiarity was reassuring. It felt comfortable. She felt safe. A petite girl standing about five feet, four inches tall and weighing a little less than 110 pounds, Christina was not a beauty queen, but she was not unattractive either. Indeed, her green eyes and brown hair combined in an inviting way that most men found sensual and appealing, and she had enjoyed her fair share of suitors. Although she had shared a few intimate moments with boys in high school, she had never found one with whom she felt comfortable enough to sacrifice her virtue. Still sexually inexperienced, she had the classic Libra traits of compassion, innate gentleness, and a genuine caring for others, traits that were sometimes misconstrued by men. Still, it never dawned on her that Von’s testosterone-driven brain would expect something more than a kiss hello, or that he would interpret her willingness to fly across the country to visit him as a green light for sleeping together. Von had tried to take that next step during her first night in Florida, and when she told him that she was not ready, he had reluctantly played the part of the understanding boyfriend, but he could not wholly hide his irritation and mounting frustration. Von worked at Gator Chrysler in nearby Melbourne, and he had to leave Christina alone for much of the day. That had been the routine for most of the week, and the excitement of staying with someone in another state had long-since faded away. On this particular morning, she passed some time by listening to a worn down cassette tape of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” album, popping it into the cherry red Sony Walkman that Von had given her. She played several songs, rewound the tape, and played them again, but after a while she tired of listening to the provocative singer purr about being “touched for the very first time.” She tried watching television after that, but quickly lost interest in the mindless game shows and melodramatic soap operas that dominated the channels. Growing bored, she decided to walk to Melbourne a few miles away to visit several friends that she had met through Von. She would be flying back to California the next morning and wanted to say her good-byes and make the most of her final day of vacation. Wearing blue jeans, sandals, and a black t-shirt with a Harley-Davidson insignia splashed across the front, she left the trailer shorty after 1:00 p.m. It was the twenty-first day of November, 1985. As she walked out of the entrance of the mobile home park, a light rain began to fall. She could see dark clouds gathering in the distance and a westerly wind promised that they would soon be present. Somewhere beyond the visible horizon, thunder rumbled ominous and angry, its source hidden behind an approaching wall of grey and black clouds. Christina turned left and started walking faster as the rain increased, heading east on Malabar Road toward U.S. 1 and the Intracoastal. She planned to stop at the Jiffy Mart at the corner of Malabar Road and U.S. 1 to buy a pack of cigarettes before walking north into Melbourne. She had not gone far when a small, light-colored car pulled up beside her. Behind the wheel of the two-door automobile sat a clean-shaven man wearing a stylish, navy-blue sports coat, a black-and-white striped tie, and a nice pair of dress slacks, not the cheap K-Mart kind, but the higher quality cloth and cut of a more fashionable men’s store. The man looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties. He had loafer style shoes, but he was not wearing them while he drove. Christine thought it slightly odd that the well-dressed man’s bare foot operated the gas and brake pedals, but she gave it no more than a fleeting thought. She had certainly seen much stranger things during her time in Florida. The man’s eyes were concealed behind darkly tinted sunglasses and his face was framed by a mane of medium-length, dirty blonde hair. He had a thin build, and though slightly pale in complexion, his handsome facial features held an undeniable allure. She could not help feeling an attraction to him. Flashing a broad, inviting smile, he leaned over, rolled down the passenger door window, and greeted her in a friendly, reassuring voice. “It’s a bit wet today for a walk, isn’t it?” he asked with a wry, disarming smile. “Can I give you a lift?” Although Christina was initially wary of his invitation, he looked harmless enough and it was the middle of the day in broad daylight in a public place, so she did not wait long before responding. “Well,” she said, deliberately drawing out her reply as she decided how much to trust the seemingly friendly stranger. “I’m on my way to Melbourne to meet some friends. Are you going anywhere near there?” “Sure, I have to go that way to get to my office. I just need to stop by my house real quick to pick up a notebook for work, but it’ll only take a minute or two. Go ahead and hop in.” She hesitated for just a moment, studied her Good Samaritan one last time, and then grabbed the passenger side door handle of the car. As she opened the door, she heard Sting’s new song, “Russians,” playing on the car’s radio. The country had long since fallen into the depths of the Cold War, and the perpetual threat of nuclear holocaust loomed in the back of most people’s minds like some amorphous boogieman lurking in the shadows. As Christine pulled the door closed, Sting’s voice flowed out of the car’s speakers, echoing what seemed to be the universal mood in America and Western Europe, the growing fear of a nuclear attack by the Russian-controlled Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The song sought to appeal to the good in what President Reagan dubbed the “Evil Empire,” expressing a desperate hope that the Russian leaders loved their children enough to avoid the horror of a nuclear holocaust. Suffering from the same state of uneasiness expressed in the song, Christina found herself captivated by the sense of calm that seemed to radiate from the man behind the wheel. They drove for a little while making small talk. While they chatted, she caught a glimpse of the man’s eyes behind his sunglasses. Their azure shade of blue added to the aura of assuredness he projected, and it seemed to Christina that the man’s eyes had the power to peer into her very soul, not in any unsettling way, but in an understanding, comforting manner that disarmed her naturally cautious disposition. He seemed genuinely interested in learning about her, and she was impressed with how articulately he expressed himself. He was charming, witty, and exuded self-confidence, and Christine felt relieved that he seemed to be normal. Some of Von’s friends that she had met were more than a little on the odd side. After about five minutes, the man turned his car onto a bumpy, dirt road, and then continued on for a few minutes more before exiting onto a gravel driveway obscured by a tall row of hedges. Planted across the inner edge of the yard, the hedges had grown high enough to block a clear view of whatever was behind them. As the car continued down the driveway, a well-kept lawn, dotted sporadically with pine and oak trees, came into view. At the far end of the lawn stood a redbrick, Colonial style house with four white columns framing a large front door painted the same shade of white as the columns. The gravel driveway ended at a double-length carport on the left side of the house. The man pulled into the carport and parked. Two motorcycles stood at the opposite end of the parking area. “I’ll be right back,” the man told her as he took the key out of the ignition and slipped on his shoes. He stepped out of the car and walked to the side door of the house, where he paused and glanced back at her. “Hey, you want to come inside for a drink?” She smiled politely. “Oh, no thanks, my friends are expecting me and I don’t want them to worry.” “Suit yourself,” he said, before unlocking the door and disappearing into the building. After a few minutes, the man emerged and announced with an embarrassed laugh that the notebook was not in the house after all. “It must be in the back of the car,” he said, an amused smile spreading across his face as if he had just remembered an irresistibly funny joke. He walked to the passenger side of the car and opened the door, flashing her the same smug alligator smile. He crawled into the back seat and began looking around, grinning all the while. Suddenly, the back of Christina’s seat shot forward, slamming her violently against the dashboard. Stunned by the force of the impact and shocked by the unexpected attack, she was barely able to register the sound of something rustling behind her. Then something brushed against her forehead. Before she could react, her neck jerked back painfully, and she began to choke. Frantically, she reached for her purse, attempting to grab something – anything – to try to defend herself. Her fingers brushed against the top of a can of OFF insect repellant. Desperate, she thought that if she could spray her attacker in his eyes, she might be able to blind him long enough to get away. But as her fingers closed around the spray can, the man’s voice, angry and powerful, startled her into submission. Stop it or I’ll kill you!” As her initial impulse of self-defense gave way to a paralyzing feeling of despair, her hand retreated out of her purse and her arm fell numbly to her side. Then the rope tightened and everything went black.
J.T. Hunter is an attorney with over fourteen years of experience practicing law, including criminal law and appeals, and he has significant training in criminal investigation techniques. He is also a college professor in Florida where his teaching interests focus on the intersection of criminal psychology, law, and literature.
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This is a rafflecopter giveaway hosted by Partners in Crime Virtual Book Tours for JT Hunter. There will be two (2) winners. Each winner will receive an Amazon.com Gift Card. The giveaway begins on February 1, 2020 and runs through March 2, 2020. Void where prohibited.