Debut novelist and television writer and producer Hollie Overton’s lifelong obsession with true crime inspired her debut thriller Baby Doll. The novel tells the story of Lily Riser, an identical twin who is kidnapped at sixteen and held captive for eight years. One day, her captor forgets to lock the deadbolt and Lily and her young daughter manage to escape. Baby Doll explores what happens next—to Lily, her twin sister Abby, their mother Eve, and Lily’s captor. Overton celebrates the publication of Baby Doll by sharing with us her favorite thrillers based on true crimes.
I had the idea for Baby Doll in 2013 when the three Cleveland women held captive for ten years by Ariel Castro finally managed to escape. As an identical twin, I kept thinking about Castro’s victims and all that they lost. I couldn’t begin to imagine how I’d cope if I lost my twin sister.
I also drew upon my own experiences, having spent my childhood with an alcoholic father who had his own own true crime past. As a member of Austin’s notorious Overton Gang, my dad spent seven years in prison for manslaughter, before marrying my mother and attempting to start a new life. This fascination with true crime, the people who commit them and the victims has evolved over the years. I love when other writers take true stories and make them their own. These are my top five thrillers inspired by some of the country’s most sensational crimes.
#5: Cartwheel by Jennifer Dubois
In Cartwheel Lily, a young, optimistic foreign exchange student, travels to Buenos Aires and quickly becomes the prime suspect when her roommate is murdered. Lily’s family arrives to defend their daughter, but her strange behavior and lack of an alibi leaves them questioning what really happened and how well they know her.
It’s easy to see the similarities in Cartwheel to the Amanda Knox case. In 2007, twenty-year-old Amanda Knox was studying in Italy, when she was accused of murdering her roommate, Meredith Kercher. After Knox’s arrest, controversy exploded around the young woman’s behavior during and after her interrogation as well as countless media stories that painted her as an American seductress.
Like so many people, I found myself fascinated by this case, devouring news stories, analyzing what the media presented, wondering if there was any way to really know the truth. Despite the familiar subject matter, Dubois’s perspective on such a famous case is deeply engrossing.
#4: Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
Luckiest Girl Alive tells the story of Ani FaNelli, a beautiful, young and successful, magazine writer, engaged to the man of her dreams. Ani is hiding a painful secret from her past, a secret that could destroy her perfectly constructed life.
Upon the release of Luckiest Girl Alive, author Jessica Knoll spoke about the Columbine massacre and how it informed the plot for her bestselling novel. Knoll spent countless hours researching the mental state of the Columbine killers and applying that to her own fictional account of a similar incident.
After publication, Knoll revealed in blog post on “Lenny Letter” that another storyline in her novel was based on a true story as well: Knoll’s own sexual assault in high school. Knoll incorporated her own feelings of misplaced guilt and anxiety, and created a fast-paced thriller. Her character’s pain and suffering feels all too real, expertly capturing the repercussions of trauma left unchecked.
#3: Defending Jacob by William Landay
Defending Jacob tells the story of Assistant District Attorney Andy Barber, whose teenaged son is accused of murdering a fellow classmate. Andy insists that his shy and gentle son is innocent, but mounting evidence, strained relationships, and Andy’s own dark past force him to question everything, including how well he knows his own son.
Landay said that his inspiration came from a story he read about a Long Island detective whose father was convicted of murder, and years later the detective’s own son was also accused of murder. Landay also explores “murder genes” and expert research that says violent tendencies may be hereditary. Landay, a former Assistant District Attorney in Massachusetts, created a realistic look at the legal issues that unfold as well as his own feelings about fatherhood, making this novel one of the most emotional legal thrillers I’ve ever read.
#2: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
Before the Fall tells the story of a private jet crash that kills every passenger on board but two: a failed painter in his forties and a young boy who becomes the heir of a million-dollar fortune. As each of the victims and the crash itself are investigated, the mystery builds. Was the crash a result of bad luck or something more sinister?
The author Noah Hawley, also the creator of the “Fargo” TV series, has expressed a deep fascination with plane crashes. Hawley also explained in several interviews that the premise of Before the Fall was inspired by a story he heard about a man who was supposed to return his rental car to the World Trade Center on 9/11, but didn’t make it on time. The randomness of that day—those who lived and those who died—stuck with Hawley. It’s impossible to stop reading until you unravel the mystery, and Before the Fall is one of my favorite thrillers of the year.
#1: Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
One of my favorite crime novels of all time is Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, the tenth book in the Hercule Poirot murder mystery series.
In this classic thriller, Poirot must solve the mystery of who killed a disagreeable American businessman on the Orient Express. The twelve passengers on board all become suspects. Poirot uncovers clues that lead him to believe the businessman was on the run from a sinister past, and that everyone on board had a reason to want him dead.
Agatha Christie based her most famous novel on one of the country’s most famous true crimes: the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s baby. Lindbergh rose to fame when he became the first pilot to fly solo from New York to Paris in 1927. Despite paying the ransom, Lindbergh learned his son was murdered, and the kidnapper was never caught. But Christie gets fictional justice in this intricately woven tale of suspense that stands the test of time.
Texas transplant Hollie Overton is a novelist and television writer. Hollie has written for “Cold Case” on CBS and Lifetime’s “The Client List,” and she is currently a co-producer on the hit Freeform drama “Shadowhunters.” Hollie’s debut novel, Baby Doll, is now available in bookstores.