In an age when many crimes are committed in the name of religious texts, there is almost a sense of relief to hear of a female Iranian serial killer who used Agatha Christie murder mysteries as templates for her crimes. The website wags had a field day, of course, with references to ‘Murders on the Occidental Express’ and the ‘Alif Ba Ta Murders’. The suspect is hardly the first to have sought felonious advice from the world of fiction. Horror writer Stephen King’s 1977 novel Rage is often cited as the inspiration for the US school shootings.
A few years ago, Polish police arrested author Krystian Bala after they found his best-selling thriller included a death scene whose details uncannily replicated that of an actual, unsolved murder that had taken place three years earlier. Copycatting can even get political: when coup-plotter Simon Mann was arrested in Zimbabwe in 2004 with a planeload of soldiers and weapons, the authorities soon realised they had aborted a real-life enactment of the plot of Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War.
So-called ‘copycat crime’ is today a full-blown academic discipline replete with psychological tomes and criminology lectures. Books can claim to have a longer history of providing murderous inspiration. Who now remembers that Goethe’s 1774 book The Sorrows of Young Werther was banned across Europe because many lovelorn youth dressed themselves, sat at writing desks and shot themselves like the book’s protagonist? More than a few novelists may take a certain secret pleasure in such developments. How much more sincere is the flattery when the imitator re-enacts it in blood.