3 New Fiction Books for Anyone That Loves True Crime
The world of splashy, sensational true crime and celebrities has always been a gold mine for storytellers. This week’s book club features three new works that look at the supposed suicide of a wonder of the art world, the kidnapping that may have inspired Nabokov’s Lolita, and the sham trial of a Victorian music hall star turned countess. Sometimes real life is stranger than fiction; sometimes, it just inspires it.
1. An Accidental Corpse by Helen A. Harrison ($16): Harrison is no stranger to mystery (An Exquisite Corpse: Death in Surrealist New York) and the world of Jackson Pollock as the director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center. Having written several non-fiction books on the artist, she turns her eye to the end of his life, when, in 1956, the artist crashed his Oldsmobile into a tree. Thought to be a drunk driving accident, it killed Pollock and one of the two young female passengers in his car, Edith Metzger. The other young woman, Edith’s roommate Ruth Kligman, was injured but survived. She also happened to be Pollock’s mistress of a few months. Harrison reimagines this straightforward tragedy into a high-stakes murder mystery.
“Just then Finch snapped to attention. ‘Look out!’ he shouted, and shuttled the family aside as an Oldsmobile convertible barreled up Fireplace Road, apparently oblivious to the pedestrians. The officer shook his fist at the car as it shot past. ‘Hey, you, Pollock, slow down!’ he called out to the driver, without apparent effect. The car continued north, then swerved into a driveway on the right, tires screeching. ‘Who the heck is that?’ asked Fitz. ‘Crazy artist,’ was the reply. ‘Always drives like he owns the road. Even when he’s sober, which ain’t often. One of these days I’ll yank his license.’”
In this version, married New York City police officers Brian Fitzgerald and Juanita Diaz (who met during a previous investigation when one of Pollock’s friends was killed in 1943) take on the case. It opens with a surprising wrinkle: An autopsy shows that Metzger died before the crash, from asphyxiation. There are a number of potential suspects. For one thing, Kligman isn’t saying anything. Then there’s Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife, who despises his philandering and stands to inherit his estate. The real world of art intrigue meets the world of murder in a combination that’s anything but accidental.
2. Rust & Stardust by T. Greenwood ($27): According to Greenwood, the 1948 real-life story of 11-year-old Sally Horner’s kidnapping and disappearance from Camden, N.J. proved the catalyst for Vladimir Nabokov’s terrifyingly popular Lolita. Greenwood hopes that writing this version will give Sally’s tale her own voice, so she doesn’t just become “a footnote to someone else’s story.”
“Sally felt her skin flush hot. She knew she wasn’t like these other girls, the ones with glossy hair and perfect smiles. Sally wore homemade dresses and hand-me-down shoes, while these girls got their clothes from the J.C. Penney. The shiny copper pennies they put in their loafers caught the sun. They were the keepers of light, Sally thought. Shining and bright…Sally, on the other hand, lived alone with her mother in a run-down row house on Linden street, both her real daddy and her stepfather, Russell, long gone. She knew the stories people told about her stepfather, heard the whispered speculations. (They heard he did it with a rope, in the closet. With a shotgun, in the basement. Someone, somewhere, said no, he just got drunk as always and wandered from Daly’s Café onto the tracks one night – this one the tender, awful truth.) She knew they whispered behind her back, mocked her. But Sally still ached to belong, and studied those girls with the same wonder and love with which she studied the laws on the universe.”
In a bid to get into the mean girls’ club, Sally is convinced to steal a notebook from Woolworth’s. Frank LaSalle, 52 and recently released from jail for sex offenses, watches her and pretends to be an FBI agent. He tells her that she’s being taken into custody and to meet him after school the next day. Given an excuse to “protect” her family, who now think she’s going on vacation with a friend, Sally instead is kidnapped by Frank and taken across the country. Greenwood chronicles the yearlong disappearance and the more and more desperate search for Sally, as her mother, brother-in-law, and even her new teacher gradually figure out what happened. Sally adds her own perspective to a horrifying tale of a punishment that in no way fit the “crime.”
3. Becoming Belle by Nuala O’Connor ($25): “Isabel only needed to be forty miles from Aldershot in order to unlock liberty. In the six weeks she spent alone in London, waiting for Flo to join her, she began to have a life. Once the curtain closed at the Empire, her nights were a whirl of the Pelican Club and the Café Royal, and wherever else the crowd was keen to spend time. There was sparkling company in the form of fellow performers, directors and assorted theater folk. Aristocrats and bohemians, city men and night birds of every stripe flocked together. These were hedonists: they drank all night and slumbered by day, the better to enjoy the next night’s party and the next….She could bend her hours to whatever shape she wished, and keep company with any motley troop, and society be hung.”
Born in 1867, Isabel “Belle” Bilton knew she was destined for great things. Her goals included becoming an actress on the London stage and marrying into wealth. She achieved both of these things, but not without struggles and drama. The daughter of Sergeant John George Bilton, she moved to London and began a career as a music hall entertainer, eventually starring with her sister, Flo, in a double act. Relishing the bohemian lifestyle, Belle winds up pregnant by a baron (or at least, he claims to be) named Aldon Weston, who is later arrested on fraud charges. But that’s not the case this fictionalized Victorian novel is about.
After Belle gives away her child, she falls in love with a viscount — a real one this time – named William, viscount Dunlo, heir to the title of Earl of Clancarty. Their young love (despite all the drama, the couple are both only 20 at this point) is strongly disapproved of by William’s father, Richard Somerset Le Poer Trench. After the two were married, the 4th Earl of Clancarty hit the roof; a showgirl bride had not been in his plans for his son. He promptly sent his son of to Australia under threat of disinheritance, and forced the beginning of divorce proceedings, leading to a sensationalized trial; after all, the main way to achieve divorce was to prove adultery. The well-connected Earl did his best to ruin Belle’s life to save his family name. Belle was tried first for forgery in an attempt to ruin her name. We won’t tell you how either trial came out (though you can look it up, because it really happened), but suffice it to say it was big news — and maybe more satisfying than you’d expect.
What books are too good to be true? Tag us in your next intriguing read @BritandCo.
Brit + Co may at times use affiliate links to promote products sold by others, but always offers genuine editorial recommendations.