by James Lincoln Warren
It is no secret that writers of crime fiction are frequently inspired by actual events. Leigh Lundinâ€™s award-winning story, â€œSwampedâ€, was inspired by the actual bizarre behavior of a Florida jurist. As a writer of predominantly â€œhistoricalâ€ crime fiction, Iâ€™m no differentâ€”the story is true, but the names have been changed to protect the story-teller. And in my case, the story is old.
Iâ€™m particularly interested in crimes that were defined by their times. My last completed work is about a witchcraft trial. When I chose to write a novel featuring my 18th century series detective, Alan Treviscoe, I decided to include an episode featuring a type of crime closely associated with the times I was writing about that has since become very rare: grave robbing.
Robert Louis Stevenson famously wrote the 1884 short story, â€œThe Body Snatcherâ€, loosely based on the true story of early nineteenth-century criminals William Burke and William Hare, who provided bodies to Edinburgh surgeonsâ€”after having murdered them.
There was obviously no way I could compete with RLS, who is one of my gods. But the ground still seemed rather fertile, if somewhat disturbed.
One of the primary duties of a crime fiction writer is getting the criminal details right. So I went on a quest to find out how grave robbers actually performed their nefarious nocturnal defalcations of the dear departed. And came up withâ€”zilch, nada, nothing. (It is an occupational hazard of mystery writing that criminals do not often carefully document their misdeeds.)
Until, that is, I found an eyewitness account of an actual 18th century grave robbery in the UCLA Medical Library. The rest, as they say, is historical fiction.
So to introduce a new albeit irregularly scheduled feature at Criminal Brief called Aural Argument, here is a podcast of me reading the whole of that part of the story, also available as a link on the right.