Which famous mystery novel was actually inspired by a true crime? Discover the backstories for books by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and more! Warning: Spoilers ahead!
No reader of Dame Christie’s novel can fail to see how the 1932 Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping planted the seed for this remarkably unusual ‘locked room’ mystery. The kidnapping was widely covered and referred to by newspaperman H.L. Mencken as the “biggest story since the resurrection.” Although Richard Hauptmann was arrested, tried and executed for the crime, there have long been questions about this case. Christie took this heartbreaking event and imagined a long-delayed plot for justice that has become one of her most dramatized and admired stories, a perfect set-piece for her detective Hercule Poirot.
Tey, perhaps best known as the author of The Daughter of Time, tapped into one of the most notorious crime stories of the 18th century for this complex tale. In 1753, an English maidservant named Elizabeth Canning returned to her home after a month, emaciated and wretched. She claimed to have been held captive in a hayloft by a woman who may or may not have been a brothelkeeper. Following a dramatic trial in which several people were convicted, the Lord Mayor of London undertook a further investigation, and discovered that Canning’s claims were dubious. Later Canning was convicted of perjury and the convicted were acquitted. In The Franchise Affair Tey updates this framework from the 18th century to post-WWII England, in a beguiling puzzle made even more delightful by the presence of her spirited detective, Inspector Alan Grant.
Already read this? Try Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes for a completely different puzzle drawn from her own experience as a teacher at a girls’ boarding school.
There really was a staggering robbery, but Crichton’s action-packed novel takes it all full-steam ahead. The historical case, better known as the Great Gold Robbery of 1855, involved the substitution of lead for gold bars and coins in three locked trunks somewhere between being stowed aboard a train in London and arrival in Paris. Unlike Crichton’s novel’s hero—a dashing thief—the perpetrators were not dreamy; they were discovered, tried and convicted. Tourist tip: one of the strongboxes and a sack of the lead shot is on display in the National Railway Museum in York, England.
The central question in Sayers’ novel is not just whodunnit but howdunnit. It’s a puzzle, and she slowly untangles the motives as the charismatic Wimsey races to clear the accused, Harriet Vane. Throughout the novel there are echoes of notorious crimes for which Herbert Rouse Armstrong was convicted: he was the only UK solicitor tried, convicted and ultimately executed for the crime of murder in 1922. When he was arrested on New Year’s Eve, he actually had a packet of arsenic in his pocket – a detail Sayers’ borrows in this novel.
Perhaps one of Christie’s saddest and touching novels, The Mirror Crack'd showcases Miss Jane Marple investigating the death of a gossipy local woman at a local fete hosted by a new-to-St.-Mary-Mead movie star. When gently astute Jane peels back the layers of both women’s histories, the motive becomes clear. Christie took inspiration from the story of Hollywood star, Gene Tierney, whose life was irrevocably changed when she, in the early stages of pregnancy, had a brief meeting with an avid fan who infected her with rubella. This had a devastating effect on her unborn child, who was born with disabilities and remained institutionalized all her life. Tierney hadn’t known what had happened until years later when the same fan again attended a meet-and-greet and told Tierney they had met before and boasted of her actions. Rage-inducing, no?
This 1949 novel is criminally good, involving an inheritance, a disappearance and aptly-timed return of a prodigal twin … or is he? The clear inspiration for this dark family mystery is the Tichforde case. In 1825, Richard Tichforde, heir to a fortune and baronetcy, was in a shipwreck and reported missing. His grieving mother refused to believe he was dead, and for years followed rumors to locate her beloved son, going so far as to advertise around the world. Then in 1866, a man came forward in response to one of these ads, claiming to be the long-lost Richard. While Lady Tichforde immediately accepts him, the extended family remained dubious. What do you think happened?
Bonus: Fiction That Inspired a Criminal
In 1961, the inimitable Christie published A Pale Horse, featuring a terrifying blend of insidious poisoning and supernatural forces. Are the mysterious deaths a result of spells cast by three women, or something darkly human? That same year, Graham Young, aka the Teacup Murderer was arrested for the serial poisoning of several colleagues and family members. He used thallium, a relatively rare but deadly poison… the very same one that featured in Christie’s novel. Both the public and Christie’s husband expressed concern that her captivating novel inspired Young’s unusual selection.
- Anagrams and cryptograms
- Logic, linguistic, and mathematical puzzles
- Map puzzles
- Coded and visual puzzles
- Hidden messages
- And more (answers are provided in the back of the book)!