Guest Blogger: Elaine Hirsch: Top Five Thriller/Mysteries Based on Real Events

05 Jan

Thrillers and mysteries are exciting novels, but most of the time they are just stories. Readers can digest them and discard them without thinking twice about the real world implications of the novels. However, thrillers and mysteries based on real events bring relevance to otherwise bland stories, which gives chills to readers that are harder to dismiss. Writing a compelling thriller or mystery based on a real event requires both expertise taught through masters degree programs in English and raw talent that authors have. Here are five must-read thriller/mysteries that were based on real events.

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty was made popular because of its graphic film version. However, before the film shocked the world, it was a novel based on the 1949 exorcism of a young boy. The original story is not nearly as compelling as Blatty’s interpretation, but he took a classic story of exorcism with mysterious and doubtful possession and turned it into one of the scariest thrillers of all time.

Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry is the story of the Manson murders. Charles Manson managed to get a cult of young people to commit a series of high profile murders for him in the 1960s. The crimes themselves are compelling enough to remain famous to this day, and the novel, written just a few years after the crimes were committed, seems to retain every gut-wrenching detail of the original stories.

Sylvia Likens was a young girl whose parents left her with a near total stranger while they worked in a traveling show. Her guardian retained custody of Sylvia for three months, during which she tortured her until her death. She also allowed the neighborhood children and her own children to torture the young teen in unimaginable ways. The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum is based on those crimes. Both the novel and the original story are enough to keep a reader up at night.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is perhaps the most famous true crime novel of all time. It is based on the 1959 murders of a family in Kansas. The research for the novel was conducted by Truman Capote and Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. It consisted of interviews with the murderers and those who knew the murdered family. The novel is a sensationalized version of an already sensational series of events. It is good, but Capote’s personality and doubt cast on the veracity of his version of events are what makes the novel so lasting in the public eye.

Filoviruses are viruses that have a terrifying mortality rate. Among them is the Ebola group of viruses. Richard Preston uses outbreaks of these viruses — Ebola in particular — as material for his novel The Hot Zone. Judging by factual accounts, this is a non-fiction book through and through. It is simply told in story format. The writing is unfailingly readable and the research is impeccable, as much of it was done as close to the source as Preston could get. His writing style is dramatic, sweeping the reader with every word.

There are many true crime novels out there being touted as fact. The reality is that most of those contain some embellishment by the author. It is important to bear that in mind that while you enjoy thrillers and mysteries based on true events, it will also be important to realize that these books are also manifestations of such events within the minds of their respective authors.


Elaine Hirsch is kind of a jack-of-all-interests, from education to technology to public policy, so she is currently working as a writer for various education-related sites and writing about all these things instead. She currently writes for a masters degree website.


Posted by on January 5, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Interesting Cases


5 responses to “Guest Blogger: Elaine Hirsch: Top Five Thriller/Mysteries Based on Real Events

  1. Anonymous

    January 5, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    I am not clear what novel you refer to about the Manson murders. “Helter Skelter” was nonfiction.

    “In Cold Blood” was touted as nonfiction when it came out. I think you are right to refer to it as a novel.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      January 5, 2012 at 7:57 pm

      True but Helter Skelter did read like a novel and with In Cold Blood Capote created a new form that he called faction–we would now call that creative non-fiction, I think.


  2. Louise Behiel

    January 5, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    I looked up “girl next door”. Goodness, what they did to her. Seems ironic that so many of her perps died fairly early. Karma is a bitch.


  3. Leslie Budewitz

    January 6, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    Glad I’m reading this in broad daylight — the stuff of nightmares!


  4. Kat Sheridan

    January 8, 2012 at 8:45 am

    I’m curious why you say it “requires” a Masters degree in English to write like this, when the majority of authors sited don’t appear to have that degree.

    According to what I could find on Wiki: Bugliosi “…is a graduate of the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, which he attended on a tennis scholarship. In 1964, he received his law degree from UCLA…” (no mention of an English major).

    “Ketchum earned a B.A. Bachelor of Arts in English from Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts” (Bachelors, not Masters).

    As for Capote, “he attended the Franklin School, an Upper West Side private school now known as the Dwight School, graduating in 1943.[10] That was the end of his formal education.”

    As for Preston, the Wiki article simply says “He attended Pomona College, in Claremont, California” (no mention of graduation or a degee).

    I recognize that a Masters can be useful, but I think it’s false to say one is “required” to be an outstanding writer.



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