How Real Life Weaves its Way into Crime Fiction

Feb 17, 2021 | 2021 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze

by Penny Grubb

Details at the end of the post on how to enter to win an ebook or print copy of Falling Into Crime by Penny Grubb, Falling into Crime comprises the first three novels in the Annie Raymond mystery series, including the CWA Dagger award winner. There is also a link to pre-order the latest book from Amazon.

A lifelong love of puzzles shaped many things in my life from my career choices to my crime writing, and although the quest for answers has sometimes led me to places I really shouldn’t have gone from the dizzy heights of a thirty-storey condemned building to the crumbling underground passages beneath an abandoned hospital, I’ve found the constant cycle of learning to be very liberating.

A research-based day job led from the minutiae of software engineering to the cutting edge of health technology, and the roles I’ve taken on (sometimes against my better judgement but always in pursuit of answers) have taken me across continents. But whether pushing the boundaries of human knowledge or trying to understand a new area in which to set a story, I’ve revelled in the experience of the unexpected links that pop up between apparently unconnected areas. These are a goldmine for a crime writer, creating a niche in which complexity unravels to a satisfyingly logical outcome.

Not every unanticipated link comes as a nice surprise. There’s one that stands out as a real shocker. For a year or so, early in my career, I was one of a small team developing a software system for general medical practice. Years later, that same system appeared on news bulletins around the world as part of the investigation and conviction of the UK’s most prolific serial killer. I said to myself, I know just how you falsified those records, and which part of the coding caught you out; I remember writing it. I won’t name the rogue doctor because victims should be remembered over perpetrators, but I’m glad for my small part in stopping the man who killed Kathleen Grundy and at least 249 other victims.

Although I’ll never use that in a book, many of the key events in my novels draw on specific experiences. That visit to the 30-storey condemned building, for example, came about when someone offered to show me how a criminal enterprise had gained illicit access to the roof area. I watched a terrifying scene play out that I reproduced in my first novel, Like False Money. I still catch my breath when I think of it.

Other events have less dramatic origins; during the time I worked in a medical school, I had access to the wealth of experience and anecdotes from Home Office pathologist, Dr Alan Usher, whose lectures and demonstrations were legendary. I learnt a lot about sudden death, how an accident can look like murder, and vice versa. I’ve had other experiences that I know will feature in future books, but have yet to find their place. The abandoned hospital with its maze of underground passages was an incredible but dangerous place to explore. The tunnels were starting to crumble; broken signs and cracked tiles clung to the disintegrating walls; remnants of the real hospital mixed with smears of fake blood and broken props from its later use as a film set. I went there because the opportunity arose, but some day that underground world will surface in a book.

My latest novel, Boxed In, is set in the world of global shipping, about which I knew nothing. Containers were giant metal boxes stacked Lego-like in vast dockside yards; nothing of interest on the face of it, but a fascinating and complex tangle under the surface.

For the story, I wanted a giant container to appear from nowhere after having been lost. Was that even possible? I found the perfect explanation in the true account of a moment’s carelessness that caused one of the giant artefacts to disappear for more than two decades. I learnt a lot, from legitimate trade to the battle to find and neutralise illicit and dangerous cargo. Many of those giant boxes have fallen from ships in stormy waters, some of them left to float just below the surface creating hazards to future shipping. Lost overboard is not the only way that containers go missing, nor are the disappearances always accidental.

Electronic tracking devices exist, but are costly and not as straightforward as tracking something like an aeroplane. A container is often buried many layers deep amongst other containers, has a typical journey time measured in weeks rather than hours, and unlike a plane, tends not to make the return journey. Although some elements of the container shipment world are highly automated and controlled, there is enough of a Wild West fringe to allow for chancers to take advantage, be they insurance fraudsters, opportunist thieves, or jobbing crime writers looking for puzzles to unravel.

The official publication date for Boxed In is 20 March 2021, the one-year anniversary of the UK’s first covid-19 lockdown.

To enter to win an ebook or print copy of Falling into Crime, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “falling,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen February 27, 2021. U.S., UK and EU residents only and you must be 18 or older to enter. If you are entering via email please include you mailing address in case you win, it will be deleted after the contest. You can read our privacy statement here if you like. BE AWARE THAT IT WILL TAKE LONGER THAN USUAL FOR WINNERS TO GET THEIR BOOKS DUE TO THE CURRENT CRISIS. BE SURE TO STATE WHETHER YOU WANT PRINT OR EBOOK.

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Penny Grubb is a retired university lecturer and award-winning crime novelist who won a CWA Dagger for one of the novels in her Annie Raymond mystery series which has been published both sides of the Atlantic. Before retirement, she specialised in preparing fragile learners for higher education and is author of Preparing for Higher Education Study. She lives with her husband and a transient population of family members and animals in an old farmhouse on the east coast of England. You can learn more on her website.

Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases. KRL also receives free copies of most of the books that it reviews, that are provided in exchange for an honest review of the book.

24 Comments

  1. this book looks so good

    Reply
    • Thanks, Tricia. Good luck in the giveaway comp.

      Reply
  2. What a fascinating, and sometimes, chilling article. Not just about the lengths a writer will go to ensure authenticity in their books – the crumbling hospital and 30-storey building due for demolition engender vivid and disturbing images – but how encompassing the creation of a Software package needs to be. I know the serial killer case and applaud Penny Grubb for her part in helping bring him to justice. And justice is what crime stories are all about. So we cannot be surprised that Ms Grubb ended up choosing to write the ultimate morality tale.

    Reply
    • I’m glad you found it interesting, Avril, and thanks for taking the trouble to comment and say so.

      Reply
  3. That’s a formidable CV for a crime writer!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Colin. I always felt I’d make a terrible criminal so it was the only way to go.

      Reply
  4. Great article with a lot of interesting insights into the eternal question, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’

    Reply
    • Thanks, Danuta. I do of course also use the Ideas Shop.

      Reply
  5. A great article – fascinating. I am so glad the author did not name the serial killer she mentions in the article, but am amazed to know the part that software systems played in catching him.

    Reply
    • Thanks Sue. Glad you approve the withholding of the name. It’s something I feel quite strongly about.

      Reply
  6. Fascinating! – the things that can be learned while researching for a novel – almost as fascinating as your article. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Susan. It’s quite instructive to look back over things like this.

      Reply
  7. A fascinating account, from a writer of great crime fiction. Most writers, I suspect, include events and experiences from life in their stories, but it seemed less likely to be the case when the genre is crime. Certainly, when reading Penny Grubb’s books, the reader is treated to a narrative and plot that always feels authentic. Of course, that she always works the story through well-rounded, credible characters has a lot to do with the enjoyment and engagement a reader experiences in her books.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Stuart, for the positive comments. Interesting that you think use of real life less likely for crime, whereas I’d have said less likely for your type of books, especially the fantasy ones. That said, don’t we all take things from life?

      Reply
  8. So many stories feel so out-of-touch
    with reality. Good to know that some
    are based on real-life experiences.
    thanks. Print copy, please.
    txmlhl(at)yahoo(dot)com

    Reply
    • Thanks for commenting Mary. It’s important to me to create a world that feels real in my books. Good luck in the draw.

      Reply
  9. New author for me, would love to get a print copy! tWarner419(at)aol(dot)com

    Reply
    • Thanks for calling by, Teresa. Good luck in the draw.

      Reply
  10. What a great story! Like they say: truth is stranger than fiction. It certainly explains a lot about the gritty, real-life feel of your novels.

    Reply
    • Very true, John, and thanks for the comment. Some real life experiences are just too bizarre to work as fiction.

      Reply
  11. That’s some interesting stuff! Count me in!

    Reply
    • Glad it was of interest, Glen. Good luck in the draw.

      Reply
  12. Thanks for commenting Lysette, and good luck in the draw.

    Reply
  13. We have a winner!

    Reply

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