The best American novels inspired by true crimes

Harold Schechter Author Of Maniac: The Bath School Disaster and the Birth of the Modern Mass Killer
By Harold Schechter

Who am I?

I’m a retired professor of American literature (Queens College, City University of New York) and a true-crime historian who has been writing nonfiction books about some of our nation’s most heinous serial killers and mass murderers for over thirty years. 

I wrote...

Maniac: The Bath School Disaster and the Birth of the Modern Mass Killer

By Harold Schechter,

Book cover of Maniac: The Bath School Disaster and the Birth of the Modern Mass Killer

What is my book about?

Maniac recounts one of the most horrific American crimes of the 20th century and explores the reasons why it has so completely faded from public memory. In the spring of 1927, a madman named Andrew Kehoe, previously a respected member of the small farming community of Bath, Michigan, rigged the town’s proud new public school with hundreds of pounds of explosives, which he detonated on the last day of classes, killing 38 schoolchildren and several teachers: the worst school massacre in U.S. history and the deadliest domestic terrorist attack before Timothy McVeigh’s. He then drove his car, loaded with shrapnel and dynamite, to the crime scene and blew himself up along with several more victims: the first (and only) suicide car bombing in U.S. history.  

The books I picked & why

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Wieland or the Transformation

By Charles Brockden Brown,

Book cover of Wieland or the Transformation

Why this book?

Until I entered grad school for my Ph.D. in American literature, I had never heard the name Charles Brockden Brown and my guess is that few people alive today would recognize it. In his own time, however, he was an important literary figure. The author of a quartet of books composed in a yearlong creative frenzy at the close of the 18th century, he is regarded as "The Father of the American Novel." As the creator of our nation's first Gothic fiction, he was a major influence on writers like Poe and Hawthorne. His 1798 novel Wieland was inspired by a sensational crime that happened seventeen years earlier in upstate New York, when a farmer named James Yates, allegedly acting under orders from a divine voice, slaughtered his entire family. If by "best" we're talking about most enjoyably readable, then Wieland, like all Brown’s novels, doesn't exactly qualify. But it's a fascinating book by a seminal figure in our national literature. I ended up writing a chapter of my Ph.D. dissertation about him!

An American Tragedy

By Theodore Dreiser,

Book cover of An American Tragedy

Why this book?

Like many people, I find Dreiser an interesting case. He was a terrible stylist who still managed to produce remarkably powerful novels. His 1925 bestseller, An American Tragedy, is a perfect example: often clumsily written but gripping from beginning to end. It’s a fictionalized version of a sensational real-life case: the 1906 death of Grace Brown, a factory girl drowned during a vacation with her lover, Chester Gillette, who had reportedly become infatuated with a well-to-do beauty. Dreiser’s version of Gillette is Clyde Griffiths, a poor boy in pursuit of the self-indulgence he identifies with the American Dream. Employed in his uncle’s factory, he impregnates a young co-worker, Roberta Alden. When she demands that they wed, Clyde – who has fallen for a glamorous socialite – lures Roberta to a remote Adirondacks lake. Failing to save her when their canoe capsizes, he is arrested and convicted of murder. I recommend this as a classic example of how a great artist can turn a sordid real-life crime into a fictional masterpiece.

Native Son

By Richard Wright,

Book cover of Native Son

Why this book?

I was profoundly shaken when I first read this book, and it still has the power to induce a shudder in me. A landmark work of African-American literature, this book depicts with brutal clarity the devastating effects of white racism on the psyches of young Black men. Its protagonist – one of the most unsettling characters in twentieth-century fiction – is a sullen, fearful, twenty-year-old slum dweller named Bigger Thomas, whose suppressed rage and culturally bred self-hatred explode into appalling acts of violence. Hired as a chauffeur by a wealthy white family proud of its enlightened racial attitudes, he ends up smothering his employer’s flirtatious college-age daughter, Mary, then disposing of her decapitated corpse in the basement furnace. Later, while on the run from the law with his girlfriend, Bessie, he rapes her, crushes her skull with a brick, and dumps her corpse down an airshaft. What I didn’t realize until many years after my first encounter with the novel is that it was partially inspired by a notorious – if long-forgotten – serial killer, Robert Nixon, who perpetrated a string of savage homicides that terrorized two major cities, Los Angeles and Chicago. Owing to his murder weapon of choice, he became known throughout the country as “The Brick Slayer.”

Double Indemnity

By James M. Cain,

Book cover of Double Indemnity

Why this book?

I am constantly telling people that if they haven’t seen Billy Wilder’s 1944 movie, Double Indemnity—based on James M. Cain’s 1943 novel and generally regarded as the first film noir—they owe it to themselves to rectify that situation as quickly as possible. What even many film scholars don’t always realize is that it’s based on one of the most sensational murder cases of the Jazz Age. In March 1927, a pair of middle-aged adulterers—a love-starved Queens housewife named Ruth Snyder and her milquetoast paramour, Judd Gray—murdered Snyder’s husband in his bed, then ransacked the house to make it look as if he had been slain during a break-in. Though convinced they had committed the “perfect crime,” the bumbling pair was arrested within hours and ended up dying in the electric chair. Like another Wilder classic, Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity ends with one of the greatest closing lines of dialogue in Hollywood history. I’m not going to spoil it; you’ll have to watch the film yourself.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar

By Judith Rossner,

Book cover of Looking for Mr. Goodbar

Why this book?

I was and remain a big fan of Judith Rossner’s 1975 bestseller (the 1977 movie version starring Diane Keaton and Richard Gere, not so much). The book was inspired by a headline-making murder that took place in New York City two years before the book’s publication. Its victim was twenty-seven-year-old Roseann Quinn had rejected the traditional roles her parents expected of her. Though a quiet, sedate schoolteacher by day, she turned into a boisterous party girl at night, picking up disreputable-looking strangers at neighborhood bars and taking them back to her apartment for bouts of rough sex. One of those strangers was a deeply troubled drifter named John Wayne Wilson, who ended up killing her in a fit of frenzied savagery in early January 1973. What I admire about Rossner is the way that she takes an inherently sensational subject and turns it into a serious, very moving character study that creates an enormous amount of sympathy for the doomed protagonist, who is shown to be a victim, not only of the creep who kills her but of her repressively religious upbringing and the social upheavals of the age.

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