The depth and depravity of an author's imagination can be nothing short of blood-curdling. Over the years, crime writers have conjured up all manner of evil-doers (who is more terrifying than the fictional monster Hannibal Lecter?), all kinds of insoluble plots (did you solve Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None?) and psychological thrillers that confound most people's imaginations (the recent novels Gone Girl and Defending Jacob spring to mind).
But sometimes authors have to take a step back and apply the brakes. As much as we like our minds to run wild, we know that our readers won't swallow every outrageous story line we throw at them. We have to balance the plot, the characters, the twists, to keep the suspension of disbelief, well, believable. Can you imagine watching Batman swoop down to help Clarice Starling catch Dr. Lecter? No, that wouldn't do at all. So while our books allow readers to escape from reality into a place that's both dark and safe, we can't stretch and distort the worlds we create so far that there is internal dissonance.
Reality, on the other hand, doesn't have to worry about that. Over the years, some crimes have been committed, some mysteries materialized, that no self-respecting author would ever create for fear of his book being tossed across the room to the sound of the reader yelling, "Oh, come on! That's just too unbelievable." Other real-life mysteries exhibit hackneyed tropes that crime writers abandoned long ago. But that's the beauty of a true-crime story - the cold, calculating, and murderous who live amongst us don't care a jot for what we think. Their bloody business is their own and if we want to read about it, well then, the weirder the better, and no holds barred.
Mark Pryor is the author of The Bookseller [Seventh Street Books, $15.95].
This mystery has it all: an unidentified body, an unknown cause of death, and a trail of clues leading... nowhere. On December 1, 1948, a man was found dead on Somerton beach, in Australia. He was in peak physical condition (apart from being dead) but police couldn’t ID him: no papers and all the labels had been removed from his clothes. At autopsy, poison was suspected but not confirmed. A month later police discovered a brown suitcase at Adelaide Railway station that might have belonged to the mysterious Somerton Man. Its label, and those on the clothes inside, had been removed. Dead end, until June of 1949 when investigators reexamined the body and found a secret pocket in the man’s clothing, containing a scrap of paper with words on it. Publicity helped find the rare book that the page was torn from: a man found it in the back seat of his car the night before the body was found. In the book was a strange code (unbroken to this day) and a woman’s phone number. She denied knowing the dead man, ending another line of inquiry. Even now, criminologists are working to solve this twisted mystery.
Cult leader Charles Manson garnered headlines for the hold he had on his disciples, who killed at his command. But Archibald McCafferty was just as persuasive, and twice as crazy. A violent youth who’d moved to Australia from Scotland with his parents, the young McCafferty was in constant trouble with the law. In 1973, aged 25, he found himself a wife who bore him a son but, tragically, she fell asleep while breast-feeding the six-week old boy, killing him. This sent McCafferty over the edge. After seeing his son’s spirit above the boy’s grave, McCafferty exerted his influence over a gang of teenage misfits and set about following his dead son’s instructions: to bring him back to life by killing seven people. The first was stabbed in an alley, then two more were captured and shot by McCafferty’s followers who posed as hitch-hikers. When one disciple realized he was the next target, he squealed to police and the gang was nabbed. But even in prison (where he penned his biography, “Seven Shall Die”), McCafferty oversaw the stabbing death of a fellow inmate, leaving three to go. In prison he yo-yoed between taking drugs, causing trouble, and snitching on fellow inmates, before finally seeming to behave. Astoundingly, in 1997 McCafferty was actually paroled. But those Australians learned a thing or two: he was deported to his native Scotland, and by 2009 he’d gone from serial killer to toy maker.
Mistress of a chateau in Southwest France, in 2008 the 58 year-old Christine de Vedrines is suddenly locked away, deprived of food and basic hygiene, even beaten. Her torturers are members of her own family who believe she is The One. She believes it, too, but can’t remember the number of the bank account in Brussels that will lead them to a secret that will save the world. Unsurprisingly, as she and her family eventually discover, there’s no number or world-saving secret; there is, however, a clever man busy relieving this unhappy band of aristocrats of their fortune. Ooh la la.
From a woman scorned, to a woman... assembled. Many an author has tackled the “love is blind” theme but would a writer dare try a “love is blind and has no sense of smell” theme? It’s true, just ask Dr. Carl Tanzler. In 1930, while working at a hospital in Key West, Florida, he fell in love with a beautiful, patient called Maria Elena Milagro "Helen" de Hoyos. (As well as a convoluted name, the young Ms. Hoyos suffered from tuberculosis.) The doctor recognized her from one of his “visions” and promptly fell in love, but despite his care (and many gifts) Hoyos died on October 25, 1931. Not one to give up, Tanzler stole her body from its grave (he had the decency to wait two years) and took her home on a toy wagon. As he came apart mentally, she came apart physically so Tanzler secured her bones with wire and coat hangers. He gave her glass eyes, replaced her rotting skin with silk soaked in wax, gave her a wig, and stuffed the corpse with rags to keep its shape. He dressed the love of his life in stockings, jewelry, and gloves, and kept her in his bed. And yes, he had the sense to use perfume, disinfectants, and preservatives to mask the odor and slow decomposition. Nine years later, Tanzler’s secret was discovered. He escaped prosecution and died in poverty in 1952 Perhaps appropriately, his body was found three weeks after he died. At least he had company: with him was a life-sized effigy of Helen de Hoyos.
Did you think the world’s greatest jewel thief, the Pink Panther, was a work of fiction? Well, you’re only partly right. A Serbian criminal gang known as The Pink Panthers pulled a heist as bold as any you’ll see on film. On December 4, 2008, four men, three of whom wore long blonde wigs and disguised themselves as women, charmed their way into the famous Harry Winston jewelry store in Paris, just before closing time. Using a gun and a grenade, the ransacked the store for fifteen minutes, escaping with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds worth an estimated $108 million. Neither they, nor the jewels, were ever found.
One of the most bizarre crime families England has ever seen, a two-person horror show no fiction writer would dare dream up. Rosemary and Fred West lived like the couple next door at their home, 25 Cromwell Street, in Gloucester, England. Except that Rosemary was running a prostitution business while Fred was luring young women to the home, where he turned them into sex slaves, before killing and chopping them up in the bathtub. Even worse, they treated their own children no differently, and that included murdering three of them. In all Fred was charged with 12 counts of murder, and many of the bodies were found in the couple’s back yard, in most cases missing their fingers, toes, and kneecaps, his bizarre signature. Fred hung himself in prison in 1995, while Rose serves out the rest of her life in prison for 10 murders.
A crime writer looking for originality might take the traditional elements of a murder story and invert them, perhaps inflate them, too. So, instead of a killer you get a serial killer, and instead of a man it’s a woman. But how many victims... Hmmm... shall we say 650? Impossible, incredible, inconceivable. Unless you happen to be Elizabeth Bathory, with your own castle, team of murderous servants, and an unquenchable thirst for blood. In Transylvania (of course), between 1585 and 1610 this educated, intelligent widow tortured and killed local servant girls and even the daughters of (lesser) nobility who visited her castle. Finally rumbled, she was too prominent for execution, though being walled up in a tower kept her out of mischief’s way. Her accomplices weren’t so lucky: before being burned at the stake, their fingernails were plucked out with hot irons.
It’s like an Agatha Christie locked-door mystery, except it happened outdoors and no one has solved it. In August 1966, on a hill near Rio in Brazil, two bodies were found side-by-side. The dead men were wearing suits, lead masks, and waterproof coats. They bore no signs of violence and next to them the police found an empty bottle of water and a packet containing two towels. Police also found a small notebook stating: "16:30 be at the agreed place. 18:30 swallow capsules, after effect protect metals wait for mask signal". Testing for poison was impossible because the men’s organs were mishandled. Suicide? Likely not, as the note indicates something would happen after the pills were taken, and the men had a coupon to return the empty bottle for change. Murder? Maybe. Or maybe a bizarre and unhappy accident. But we’d need a real detective like Poirot or Miss Marple to find out because this mystery remains unsolved.