Playing fast and loose with the facts – HB Lyle on true crime in fiction
H. B. Lyle, author of The Irregular, introduces The Tottenham Outrage and the true crimes that inspired his novel.
Posted on May 15, 2017 in Under investigation
Tags: Author Content, Crime, Crime books, Scene of the Crime, crime fiction, true crime
Writing crime fiction often starts with the truth. Or rather, ‘true crime’ acts as the kernel of inspiration for so many works of fiction, that it would take far too long to list them here. But there is always a question mark for the novelist when dealing with ‘real’ events – whether they are a crime writer, or a historical novelist (or in my case, both). How far can you go? None of your readers are looking for an exact replication – they’d go to the non-fiction shelves for that – but likewise, is it ever permissible to totally distort the facts to suit your fiction?
The real life crime that acts as the inciting incident in my novel The Irregular, was known as the time as ‘The Tottenham Outrage’. Two Latvian ‘anarchists’ held up a factory payroll at gun point outside Tottenham police station on the morning of the 23rd of January 1909. They then proceeded to make their escape through Tottenham, armed with semi-automatic weapons.
What makes this case so unusual is that they were pursued, often at walking pace, by a great crowd of local people – whether to enjoy the ‘show’ or to catch them is unclear, but pursuit went on for miles. A hunting party out on Tottenham marshes took potshots at the gunmen, first a child and then a policeman were shot dead by the men.
The gunmen – later named as Lepidus and Hefeld – then first hijacked a milk cart (really, they did!) before taking charge of a tram. While the driver hid upstairs, the terrified guard was forced to drive the ever-more agitated gunmen on. Eventually, the episode came to a bloody end for the men in a shootout with the police.
Now, of course I wanted to recreate this. Not only is it connected to a second even more famous incident two years later (The Siege of Sidney Street, which will feature in the second novel), in itself it seemed so bizarre, yet so modern and chaotic. The men were branded terrorists. Half a million people turned out for the policeman’s funeral.
However, once I decided it was going to be one of the inciting incidents for my story, I almost immediately realised that I couldn’t create it exactly as it happened. There were no loose ends for one thing, nothing to entangle the reader beyond the admittedly extraordinary details of the event itself. How far could I go in reworking reality?
Luckily, I found a way to use the incident with a little bit of omission, and a small bit of creative license in the aftermath. But what I realised once I’d written it – and something that I can take into the next novels in the series – is that my hero, Wiggins, used to work for Sherlock Holmes. In other words, he’s so obviously fictional that it gives me a ‘pass’ as a writer. I don’t invent very much history, but no one could argue that they’ve been duped into believing the story of the book is real.
And yet, even with all this creative license, like many crime writers, I won’t stop poring over the newspapers. I may be in a position to invent my own crimes in print, but sometimes nothing is as bizarre as real life.