Writers of fiction based on real-life events lay themselves open to charges: sensationalism, exploitation, cheap thrills. Let’s be honest: sometimes the thrills on offer are cheap. But they don’t have to be. The form of the thriller—fast-paced but with moments of intense reflection—lends itself to exploring big questions, often from new and unexpected angles. Edgar Allan Poe, Truman Capote, and Patricia Cornwell have all used mystery stories to reinterpret real events. Was Jack the Ripper actually English painter Walter Sickert, as Cornwell claims in Portrait of a Killer? I don’t think so, but Cornwell is such a high-octane storyteller that I enjoyed being pulled along for the ride. And sometimes a writer wants to go further, to frame an alternative outcome, or to dramatize aspects of a case that are not inherently dramatic (we know from FBI transcripts that most of what goes on in a serial killer’s head is unendingly mundane). Sometimes only fiction will do.
Murder disturbs us, and murder trials do not bring closure. They raise questions that nonfiction accounts often can’t answer, such as How could this happen here, and to these people? And because motive can be the hardest thing to determine, Why? Perhaps fiction can’t provide definitive answers, but it can certainly map out the terrain. In the U.S., Ed Gein, a killer who made keepsakes from bones and skin, casts his long shadow over Robert Bloch’s Psycho and Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs. And almost 30 years after it happened in my home country of Britain, we still struggle with the Jamie Bulger case, in which two 10-year-old boys murdered a toddler in cold blood. Alex Marwood’s The Wicked Girls and Laura Lippman’s Every Secret Thing take their inspiration from this horrible little murder. They are works of entertainment, yes, but honorable, thought-provoking, and deeply compelling. Here are 10 exceptional thrillers based on real-life events.
1. The Long Drop by Denise Mina
Sixty years after Peter Manuel’s death, people in Scotland still shudder at his name. Mina takes an event known to have happened—Manuel’s 11-hour drinking session with William Watt, the man whose wife, sister-in-law, and daughter he had bestially killed—and intercuts that night with Manuel’s trial for their murder the following year. For both men the stakes are high. The police suspect Watt of murdering his own family; Watt believes Manuel to be the killer. This is true crime reimagined as fiction and marketed as a novel. It’s a superb trawl through the razor gangs and illegal bars of the 1950s Glasgow underworld—horrifying, but at times very funny. Traces of that world are still there, as anyone who grew up in Scotland will tell you.
2. The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani
It’s easy to see why this is an international bestseller. What the opening pages describe is so repellent that you’re left wanting to put down the book, but Slimani writes with such persuasive brilliance and such compassion that she hooks you in. She based the novel on a notorious double child-murder in New York in 2012, but she moves the characters to Paris, and subtly flips the ethnic balance between family and nanny. Look at these people, this book seems to say. They could be you and your family. Slimani plays all kinds of tricks with the conventions of the crime thriller—we are never in any doubt about who did it, or why—and yet it is a breathless, compelling, and terrifying read that takes hold of your deepest fears and draws them subtly to the surface.
3. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Speaking of openings: “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.” If there is a better first sentence in a thriller, I don’t know what it is. Those 16 words terrified me as a child—they still do—even as they forced me read on. It’s the combination of a correct, matter-of-fact style, and the horrible promise they make to the reader. Part of you thinks they can’t be true, that no narrator could treat his characters with such cruelty. It’s chilling but exhilarating. This is a novel set in the prewar world of Brighton, a place of decency and gentility, you would think, but it’s policed by violent gangs armed with cutthroat razors. The novel’s most violent and compelling character, Pinkie, has a psychotic brilliance that others can only dream of.
4. Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth
Anyone living in Norway knows Vigdis Hjorth, an acclaimed writer of literary fiction. This book reads like a thriller, a devastating study of violence within a family, both physical and psychological, and the after-effects of that violence. Hjorth based the novel on experiences within her own family. In Norway the book caused such a stir that Hjorth’s sister felt compelled to publish her own counter-novel “to set the record straight.” But don’t read Will and Testament as a roman à clef: read it as a thriller, a family novel in weaponized form. Watch as it weaves seemingly banal events and conversations into a tight and breathless narrative of coercion and control, but also, ultimately, of escape.
5. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
The Columbine High School murders cast long shadows across this novel, though you barely notice that at first. It’s the story of Kevin, a boy whose mother cannot fully love him. Is Kevin a bad child? A bad son? A bad brother? Or is something about the family driving him to want to destroy it? Shriver is such a skillful observer of human behavior, and of the intricate patterns of family life, that you are constantly uncertain. But it’s not just Columbine that Shriver is writing about, and it’s not just violence. Her narrator picks apart the family, the one with the values just like yours or mine, and she is terrified by what she finds.
6. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
This book made me feel actively dirty, complicit in deeds that disgusted me, and yet I’ve read it three times. Why? Because Hannibal Lecter is a superb creation. Harris based the character on Dr. Alfredo Ballí Treviño, a prison doctor he met while conducting interviews in a Mexican jail. Dr. Treviño was in fact an inmate, a death row prisoner awaiting execution, a quietly charismatic man, and highly intelligent. Harris’s Lecter is the serial killer as brilliant mind, with a capacity far beyond anything we can imagine in ourselves. Who cares how unlikely that actually is? Lecter is so damn charismatic that a small part of me, a bad part for sure, wants to cheer him on. Thank God, then, for Clarice Starling, the moral center of the novel. Interesting, too, that Treviño’s actual crimes—a string of hitchhiker murders—are committed in Harris’s novel by the character of Buffalo Bill.
7. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
So many mystery writers have taken the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby as inspiration, but Agatha Christie must surely have been the first. Just two years after the 20-month-old boy was taken from his parents, aviators Charles and Anne Lindbergh, Christie published Murder on the Orient Express, with a plot that revolves around a similar abduction. It’s an intricate and beautifully crafted thriller, a locked-room mystery on wheels. But it’s so much more. It took me some time to realize that this is actually a horrifying little tale, because the release of information is so slow, and so clinically controlled. The murder at the story’s heart is so profoundly disturbing, readers at the time must have found themselves asking: “Too soon?”
8. Room by Emma Donoghue
It took me time to adjust to the voice in this novel. You find yourself asking, “Would a five-year-old structure a story sequentially? Would he express himself in italics?” Then you begin to understand Jack’s situation, and Donoghue’s story takes over. Jack and Ma are being held captive by Old Nick, a violent man who repeatedly rapes Ma. Jack cannot understand how desperate his situation is, because Ma shields him from the truths that she must face. What’s frightening to Jack, and what becomes terrifying to the reader, is the world beyond, which Jack only experiences through the television. The novel was inspired by the story of Elizabeth Fritzl, held as a sex slave by her father for 24 years and forced to bear his children, but the focus is really on what happens when a world collapses, as Jack’s world does on the day when he escapes.
9. The Girls by Emma Cline
Emma Cline has said that The Girls is not about the Manson family, and that’s true in the same way that We Need to Talk About Kevin is not technically about Columbine. It’s a brilliantly clever denial; this thriller balances on a knife-edge, using what we know about the Manson family—a Californian death cult who murdered seven people over two nights, including the actress Sharon Tate and her unborn child—to make us fear for Evie, the book’s central character. Evie is 14, bored, and easily charmed. One day in summer she meets a captivating character. Will her innocence be the undoing of her? It connects very deeply to questions of radicalization that left me wondering what pushes or draws people into groups where violent acts are normalized.
10. Girl A by Abigail Dean
Can a book about a child’s kidnapping really be “profoundly entertaining?” Yes, according to Jenny Colgan, who describes Girl A as “a lovely, precision-tooled piece of kit.” Abigail Dean is a lawyer, and the “Girl A” in her novel is Lex, who was held captive by her parents as a child. When she and her siblings inherit the childhood home, they are confronted again with their past. Dean drew from a number of infamous legal cases, including those of English child killers Rose and Fred West, and the California couple David and Louise Turpin, who in 2019 were convicted of sexually abusing 12 of their 13 children. A confession: Girl A came out in February and, at the time of this writing, my copy hasn’t yet reached me in Norway, so I’m still waiting to read it. The book is on its way to being a huge international bestseller. I’m sure Jenny Colgan is right, and that the sensationalist framing hides a thoughtful and deeply felt commitment to confront and conquer ugly deeds.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.