Recently in this column, I discussed real authors featured as fictional sleuths. But I discovered that real authors are sometimes real sleuths as well. Some seek to fight injustice and others become swept up in a mystery or crime. Some find the answers, some don’t, and some are the mystery rather than the sleuth. But what they all have in common is that, at some point, their lives began to sound a great deal like their books.
Agatha Christie, the bestselling author ever with sales of over 2 billion books, disappeared for eleven days in 1926. On December 3, she kissed her daughter Rosalind good night, then left her in the care of her nanny. The next morning Christie’s car was found abandoned near a lake: empty with headlights blazing.
Shortly before these events, she learned of her husband Archie’s affair and his wish to divorce. After a nationwide search and media frenzy, (including fellow mystery authors Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy Sayers), she surfaced in a spa in Harrogate claiming no memory of where she had been and why. She never spoke about this subsequently and did not include the incident in either of her autobiographies. The two most popular theories are amnesia from a car crash and a fugue state brought on by stress. Although several authors concocted reconstructions of her missing days and motivation, the truth is still unknown.
Ann Rule, the true crime writer credited with reinventing the genre, is best known for The Stranger Beside Me, the story of her friendship with a co-volunteer at a suicide hotline. His name was Ted Bundy.
At the time, Rule, a former cop turned crime reporter, adored Bundy. But she was investigating the murders of young women in the area and found out one witness heard the killer referred to as “Ted.” He also fit the physical description.
Although reluctant, Rule phoned in a tip. Despite the discovery that Bundy drove the same type of car as the killer, nothing came of Rule’s tip.
Rule once asked him if he knew about the missing women, but he didn’t give a definite answer. She remained his friend, despite being unconvinced of his innocence. She didn’t free herself from his spell until a decade after his 1989 execution, when she wrote about his ability to fool her despite all her experience as a cop and a reporter.
Lois Duncan was a pioneer of YA suspense, publishing over 50 books, including I Know What You Did Last Summer, which spawned the film franchise. She lost her daughter Kaitlyn (Kait) Arquette in July 1989. Driving near downtown Albuquerque late one night, Kait was shot twice in the head by someone in a passing car.
The case remains unsolved. The investigation first centered around Kait’s boyfriend Dung (pronounced YOON) Nguyen, who was involved in insurance fraud scams. Despite hints he knew something, he did not seem to be involved. He was questioned by Albuquerque PD about the gangs that ran the insurance fraud scheme, then left town.
Duncan grew frustrated when the police seemed unwilling to follow up on the gang connection. They arrested two other men, but the charges didn’t stick. So, Duncan began investigating, even when it was risky to do so.
Duncan, who died in 2016, believed there was deliberate obstruction by the Albuquerque PD. She stopped writing YA suspense, unable to bear creating stories with young women in danger anymore. But she did pen Who Killed My Daughter? (1992) and a follow-up One to the Wolves (2013) about the case.
Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar
Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar were married crime novelists. Millar experienced success (once beating Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley for the best novel Edgar Award) first with Macdonald going on to become a crime writer many consider to be the finest.
But they were not successful parents. Their daughter Linda endured a strange life where expressions of love were withheld. Her parents also used her as fodder for their novels.
As a teenager, Linda was involved in a serious car accident. She drove drunk and hit three boys who were walking home in the dark. One died. The second boy was injured, but survived. The third was hardly touched and ran for help. She left the scene, but was found after crashing into another car shortly after.
She received eight years’ probation, lost her drivers’ license, was ordered to psychiatric care, and ordered to abstain from alcohol. The outcry over this sentence caused the Millar family to leave Santa Barbara for Northern California.
One night, Linda didn’t return to her dorm before lock-in. This happened before, so the house mother didn’t raise the alarm until morning.
Her father made public pleas for her return and personally followed up on tips. After missing a week and a half, Linda called her mother from a bar. She had violated probation, but after explaining the events (which included being held captive in a cabin in the woods and confused wandering) was given a suspended sentence and allowed to move to L.A., where she worked as a hospital aide and continued counseling. She married and had a son soon after, but suffered from trauma and needed sleep medication for the rest of her life. She died of a drug overdose when she was 31.
Arthur Conan Doyle
Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was involved in several real crimes. The first involved the murder of a wealthy woman named Marion Gilchrist and Oscar Slater’s conviction for the crime. Doyle worked to prove Slater’s innocence. He failed, but a police officer’s wife later provided proof of evidence suppression. Doyle’s fame proved useful in reopening the case. Slater was released, but Gilchrist’s murder remained unsolved.
Doyle also fought for the release of an Indian man named George Edalji who was accused of animal cruelty. Despite weak evidence (The animals were attacked at night and Edalji had bad vision; another attack occurred after Edalji’s arrest.), Edalji was convicted, resulting in the loss of his law license and three years of hard labor. Doyle suspected racism.
Doyle repeatedly spoke out about the case, despite death threats, making it a national story. The case was reopened and Edalji set free. The British government found this so embarrassing that the Court of Criminal Appeal was created in 1907.
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe, one of the greatest horror writers and the father of modern detective fiction, vowed to solve the murder of a young woman named Mary Rogers. She worked in a New York City cigar shop frequented by famous writers. Her body turned up in the river and the media became obsessed with the case. Poe wrote the short story The Mystery of Marie Roget based on this case, claiming it contained the solution. But the story is vague and not based on any known evidence. A court case later claimed that Poe was paid to write the story by the real murderer as a coverup. But nothing was ever proven and the case never solved.
I am indebted to several great articles for much of the above information. Any of them are excellent choices for further reading. Here are a few for extra reading:
Mystery Writers Who Got Mixed Up in Real-Life Crimes
Strangest Real-Life Mysteries in Literature
Sara Farmer lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, three kids, and two cats. When she’s not chasing kids and cats, she reads and writes mysteries. You can find her at www.kittymomma.com and on Twitter @avonlea79.