Ten of the Best Fictional Crime Novels Inspired by News Stories
Megan Abbott, The Fever (2015) The inspiration for Abbott’s The Fever was a 2011 mass-hysteria case in LeRoy, New York, when Tourette-like symptoms afflicted a dozen high school girls. Abbott’s novel explores both communal hysteria and the fevered delusions of adolescence, which magnify everything that happens in ways that could never have been anticipated. The Fever creates a lyrical, suspenseful, and disturbing evocation of adolescent sexuality and all of its attendant confusions.
Duane Swierczynski, Revolver (2016). Beginning with the murder in mid-1960s Philadelphia of two policemen, one black and one white, Swierczynski’s Revolver follows the repercussions among subsequent generations of cops. While he was writing Revolver, the media reported the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In this powerful, gripping novel, we can see the grim news about contemporary killings in the context of a half century of conflict and of cities torn apart by racial violence.
Gillian Flynn, Dark Places (2009). Flynn’s Dark Places draws on the cult hysteria that swept the US in the 1980s: the “Satanic Panic” that encouraged a belief that anyone—next-door neighbors, schoolteachers—could be involved in devil worship and ritualistic abuse. In Flynn’s immensely skilled hands, the front-page sensationalism of the decade is infused into the bleak and riveting story of Libby Day, seven-year-old survivor of a family massacre—a subtle, deeply moving examination of family bonds, grief, loss, and desperation.
Robin Wasserman, Girls on Fire (2016). Wasserman’s novel is also set against the “Satanic Panic” of the ’80s and early ’90s, but her interest is in a quite different kind of encounter with small-town America’s moral hysteria. Girls on Fire is an extraordinary, deftly constructed, and utterly gripping story, centering on the intensity and obsessiveness of female friendship in the context of a society that, in Wasserman’s words, is “terrified of teenage sexuality. Especially teenage girl sexuality.
Emma Cline, The Girls (2016). Cline’s The Girls is based on the infamous Manson murders at the end of the 1960s. Her focus is not on the Manson figure Russell Hadrick but on the experiences of fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd, who falls in with “the girls,” an amorphous group not unlike Manson’s Family. The Girls is a beautifully written novel that memorably captures the longings and confusions of adolescent girls.
Lynn Kostoff, Words to Die For (2014). The headlines behind Kostoff’s Words to Die For report the 1986 political events of Reagan’s second term, at the time of the Iran-Contra affair, including a glancing reference to Dan Rather on the evening news, explaining to bemused viewers the “welter of competing narratives full of gaps…misjudgments and cover-ups.” In Kostoff’s wonderfully skillful, nuanced plot, the small-time deviousness and dishonesty of his protagonist are mapped onto the political duplicity that is corrupting the life of the nation.
Helen Fitzgerald, The Cry (2013). In Fitzgerald’s tense, emotionally involving novel, The Cry, a young couple’s baby goes missing. As in her later novel, Viral, Fitzgerald tellingly represents the ways that women, in particular, can be hounded in the media. Here, the cases she had at the back of her mind were those of Madeleine McCann in 2007 and Azaria Chamberlain, the baby taken by a dingo in 1980. In both cases, front-page newspaper stories were themselves a disturbing part of the narrative.
Alex Marwood, The Darkest Secret (2016). Marwood’s The Darkest Secret, which also echoes the case of Madeleine McCann, has at its center a three-year-old twin who vanishes in the night from a luxury holiday home. It is compulsive reading: a moving exploration of loss and desperation in the midst of the most lavish indulgence, but also a dark, wickedly funny story about the corrosive relationships among a collection of grown-ups who “had their friends coming, and…are not people who like their children to interfere with their fun.”
Lou Berney, The Long and Faraway Gone (2015). Berney grew up in Oklahoma City and, in his superb book, The Long and Faraway Gone, he intertwines fictional versions of two separate events that made the news decades earlier: the 1978 Sirloin Stockade murders and the abduction of two girls from the 1981 Oklahoma State Fair. Through the intersection of these unsolved crimes, Berney’s novel develops powerfully realized themes of loss, memory, the search for answers, and the guilt of the survivor.
Laura Lippman, What the Dead Know (2007). Lippman’s What the Dead Know also looks back from a decades-long perspective toward an unsolved abduction, that of the Lyon sisters, aged ten and twelve, who vanished from a Maryland shopping mall in 1975. Adroitly moving between past and present, Lippman’s thoughtful, compelling novel imagines a possible solution to just such a mystery. Supposing, for example, one of the girls who went missing was suddenly to reappear thirty years later, what might be revealed about the truth of the story?
Kate Horsley is the author of the ripped-from-the-headlines psychological suspense thriller The American Girl (William Morrow).