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“The only source of knowledge is experience”

Mystery authors who draw on their own life experiences


As Albert Einstein once said, “the only source of knowledge is experience.” Today we’re exploring the ways that several mystery authors have drawn on their own life experiences to create vividly realistic stories.

Edward Bunker

For instance, Edward Bunker, a crime novelist, wrote No Beast So Fierce, a story about criminals on the run, while serving time in prison.

Bunker was born in 1933. A bright but troubled child, he spent his childhood in and out of foster homes and living on the street. After countless arrests, Bunker ended up in San Quentin State Prison, the youngest inmate at seventeen years old. While spending time in solitary confinement—known as “the hole”—he was placed close to Caryl Chessman, a death-row inmate who was writing a book on a typewriter, a memoir that became Cell 2455, Death Row. Bunker, inspired by Chessman, decided to record his own experiences.

Edward Bunker

With the help of friends on the outside, Bunker got a typewriter, and began writing. The chapters that he smuggled out became the basis for No Beast So Fierce. Bunker spent more than a total of eighteen years inside institutions as a result of bank robberies, drug dealing, and other offenses. He even escaped from prison and lived as a fugitive for over a year before being caught. His books draw heavily from his life—they describe the penal system, getting involved in crime at a young age, growing up in a vicious world, and disdain for those living outside the criminal world. When No Beast So Fierce was finally published in 1973, it was used as evidence in his parole board hearings. Bunker got his last parole in 1975, and went on to write several more novels.

Thomas Kelly is another author who dug into his personal experiences to make his novels come alive. His books capture an Irish immigrant’s experience in New York City’s politics, construction companies, and unions. Kelly spent ten years as a construction worker and sandhog—working in the subway tunnels beneath the city—before going back to school and working as an advance man for Mayor David Dinkins.

Thomas Kelly

Those experiences add an insider’s grit his novels, such as Payback (1997) and Empire Rising (2005), set in the worlds of construction work and the Mafia. Kelly writes: “Nothing gets built in Gotham without a kickback.” The same can be said for city politics, as Kelly illustrates in The Rackets (2001), a novel about corrupt teamsters and union politics.

Kelly’s intimate relationship with New York is a strength in his fiction. In the New York Times, Joe Klein noted, “Kelly is a realist, who understands that there’s just too much in New York City—too much money, glamour, power—for the city to ever completely reform itself. The structures are too big to run without a little grease.”

As Einstein would surely agree, all authors bring their unique perspectives and experiences to their work. Knowledge acquired first-hand finds its way onto the page in some form.

For more fascinating examples of Open Road authors’ experiences, check out this video in which several writers, including Martyn Waites, T.J. English, Joseph Wambaugh, Ken Bruen, and Charles McCarry speak about how their life experiences shaped their literature.

Published on 14 Dec 2012

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