13 Gripping Novels Inspired by True Crimes

We all love reading thrillers—from murder mysteries to gripping heists—but sometimes we are even more intrigued by a thriller when it is based on startling true events. Below are several of our favorite examples of fast-paced and suspenseful novels that were inspired by true crimes and shocking incidents throughout history.

The Two Mrs. Grenvilles
by Dominick Dunne

Dominick Dunne expertly depicts the tawdry lives of the rich and famous. In this novel, the matriarch of a society family is horrified when her banking-heir son marries a showgirl. The women butt heads until a scandalous shooting binds the two Mrs. Grenvilles together forever.

The Daughter of Time
by Josephine Tey

Considered one of the greatest mystery novels of all time, THE DAUGHTER OF TIME explores the infamous alleged crimes of King Richard III. When a Scotland Yard inspector comes across a portrait of the king, he becomes obsessed with discovering the truth about the famous Plantagenet—and questions everything from his hunchback to his role with the legendary Princes in the Tower.

Black Water
by Joyce Carol Oates

Based loosely on the Chappaquiddick incident that involved longtime U. S. Senator Ted Kennedy, this haunting, lyrical novella is told in flashbacks as a young woman slowly drowns after the car she is in—driven drunkenly by an unnamed senator—crashes into a deep marsh.

The Alienist
by Caleb Carr

In Gilded Age New York, unconventional police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt is desperate to solve a brutal murder. He enlists a reporter, a psychologist, and an NYPD secretary to craft a psychological profile of the criminal—a revolutionary idea aimed at discovering the killer’s identity before he kills again.

by Emma Donoghue

Inspired by real-life horrifying kidnapping cases, ROOM is less a true crime novel and more a testament to the powerful love between mother and child. Determined to escape from the tiny room she’s been held in for several years, a young woman embarks on a harrowing and dangerous plan to gain freedom for herself and her son.

To Die For
by Joyce Maynard

A satirical cult classic based on the sensational case of Pamela Smart, this sharp and chilling look at media culture features a weatherwoman who craves fame but decides that her husband is in her way. So she hatches a plan: seduce a teenager and convince him to commit murder.

The Mystery of Marie Rogêt
by Edgar Allan Poe

Though only a short story, Poe’s crime masterpiece is famous for being one of the first mysteries based on a real murder: that of Mary Rogers, known as New York’s “beautiful cigar girl.” Poe’s detective uses analytical reasoning—much like the future Sherlock Holmes—to solve the sensational murder of a young woman.

Quiet Dell
by Jayne Anne Phillips

A female journalist in 1930s Chicago investigates the sudden deaths of a woman and her three children. Is the charming man who promised to marry her and provide for her and her children involved? Based on the crimes of a real con man, Phillips crafts a mesmerizing and moving hunt for justice.

Silence of the Lambs
by Thomas Harris

Drawing from the modus operandi of several real serial killers, Thomas Harris crafted two of the most frightening villains of modern times: Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill. At the heart of this novel, though, is FBI trainee Clarice Starling, who juggles her own personal demons while tracking down a serial killer before he strikes again.

Burial Rites
by Hannah Kent

There’s more than one side to every story as this compassionate historical retelling attests. Set in the isolated Icelandic countryside in 1829, BURIAL RITES follows the emotional last days of a young maid accused of the murder of her former employer.

by William Peter Blatty

A serial killer mystery with a supernatural twist, this sequel to THE EXORCIST is sadly underrated. A killer is apparently copying the crimes of the long-dead Gemini Killer (based on the real Zodiac Killer)—or is something more sinister stalking the streets?

True Confessions
by John Gregory Dunne

The Black Dahlia murder—the most notorious Hollywood crime—inspired this gripping and clever mystery, in which a prostitute is found brutally murdered in 1940s Los Angeles. Two brothers, a detective and a priest, are brought together in the investigation as guilt, hostility, and the dark sides of Hollywood test their loyalties.

The Great Train Robbery
by Michael Crichton

This thrilling heist novel brings the 1855 Great Gold Robbery to life. A master thief in Victorian London charms the upper class while planning the most daring robbery of the century: stealing a fortune of gold from a steam locomotive.