Ten Thrillers Based on Real-Life Events

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.
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