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Crime Fiction’s Fascination with Fame

Crime Fiction’s Fascination with Fame

“The bigger the issue, the smaller you write.” Richard Price said that. His advice, which I think of often, was top-of-mind when Marilyn Monroe came tapping on my computer screen and wanting to step into my latest novel. To write about a person who is arguably the world’s greatest icon did not pass the “write small to write big” test. But Marilyn persisted. While driving through downtown, I passed a building that showcases one of many murals here in St. Petersburg, Florida. It was a two-story tall Marilyn. The strong Marilyn. The Marilyn wearing the black turtleneck. She wanted in, so I gave it a try.

I brought her on the page, and she was immediately happy to be there, which is to say, I was comfortable writing her. But still, something troubled me. I couldn’t bring Marilyn into the story if I was simply using her as a gimmick. I needed a litmus test, a way to reassure myself I wasn’t exploiting her celebrity. The answer…if she had something to say that no other person could, she belonged. She immediately gave me an answer. Hell yes, she said. I have plenty to say.

She had plenty to say about fame.

The desire for fame, it turns out, is a strong motivator, as strong as the desire for money, drugs, power, or love. Pick up any crime novel, and one of those is almost certainly at the heart of its conflict. Once on the page, Marilyn spoke openly about her quest for fame and her struggle to sustain it. She was forthright about her addiction to fame and her tendency to manipulate people and situations with it. She shared how it isolated her and threw her into bouts of depression. She was honest about the lengths she would go to protect her celebrity. Marilyn certainly spoke to the dangers of fame, and yet, could her experience be universal?

Then I looked down at my hand and the phone it held. Right there it was. The quest for fame is literally at our fingertips. Anyone can open an app and be one video away from stardom. The hit we chase comes in the form of likes, shares, and view counts. Fame is more accessible than ever. And if fame is more accessible than ever, it seems to me it’s more dangerous than ever. Though Marilyn lived in a different time and gained her fame through different means, the warnings she shares about how little fame will give and how much it will take are warnings we all should heed.

Here are a few crime novels that tackle the trappings of fame. They span the years, going from the dance marathons of the 1930s to the social media influencers of today.   Now that fame is as close as the phones in our hands, everyone wants to be and thinks they can be a star, a Marilyn.

Like my latest, Lake Country, these four novels and one short story warn you…think again.

They Shoot Horses Don't They

Horace McCoy, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Published in 1935, this depression-era novel is an early warning about reality television and a wide-eyed look at what some people will risk for a shot at fame. Meeting on the streets of Hollywood, a young actress and aspiring director share two things in common. They’re both desperate for careers in the movies, and they’ve both been bitterly disappointed. Hoping for one last shot at success, they enter a dance marathon. Besides offering a place to sleep and free food for as long as you stay in the contest, the opportunity promises to put its contestants in front of Hollywood professionals who can make all their dreams come true. After 36 days of non-stop dancing and little sleep, twenty contestants remain, including our aspiring actress and director. The novel explores what they’re willing to do and the price they’re willing to pay for fame.


Halley Sutton, The Hurricane Blonde

The Hurricane Blonde, Tawney, was a rising Hollywood star when she was found murdered at her home. Twenty years later, no arrests have been made, her death remains a mystery, and everyone has moved on except her sister, Salma.  Salma’s own hopes for fame were cut short by the struggles she faced following her sister’s death. Now, as she battles daily to stay sober, she hosts a Hollywood tour that showcases the spots around town where various starlets died.  When a dead body turns up at the same house where her sister was murdered two decades earlier, Salma is catapulted back into the seediest part of Hollywood, and she’s forced to grapple with how far someone will go to achieve fame.

Tara Isabella Burton, Social Creature

This debut novel will make you consider how long it’s been since you’ve laid eyes on that very best friend of yours, who you communicate with daily on your phone and via social media. When Louise, a young woman barely paying the bills and struggling to be at ease in her own skin, meets glamorous, glitzy Lavinia, her life changes. Louise begins hanging out with the “pretty people” in New York’s most swanky places. Louise becomes so addicted to her new life and the faux fame that comes with it, that she clings to it even after her party partner dies. With the use of her phone, she’s able to keep Lavinia “alive” and keep the party going. And she learns how easily people become props when fame is the only goal.

Megan Goldin, Dark Corners

Goldin brings Rachel Krall back in this thriller that examines the fascinating world of social media influencers and the lengths they’ll go to keep their audience growing. Rachel Krall is called in by the FBI to interview soon-to-be-released Terrance Bailey. Imprisoned for B&E, he’s suspected of being a serial killer.  When an influencer gains access to him for an interview shortly before his release and goes missing immediately after their visit, Krall is tasked with finding out what the two discussed and soon embarks on her own investigation. DARK CORNERS takes a hard look at the isolation we’re in for when fame is our goal.

Oyinkan Braithwaite, “Treasure”

You’ll tear through this short story that examines both sides of the equation. There is the aspiring Influencer, Treasure, who cultivates a fake life with borrowed belongings. Desperate to increase her following, she replies to everyone who reaches out. And there is the follower, who believes the image Treasure has created and that the two of them are destined to be together. When he reaches out and Treasure replies, he’ll do anything to make their destiny a reality. And Treasure will do anything to protect her dreams of fame.

No doubt, as the path to stardom continues to shift from a barstool at an ice cream parlor to the technology we carry in our hands, more people will get caught up in the pursuit of fame. The stakes will grow higher, the infection will spread, and crime fiction will continue its fascination.