When Fact and Fiction Go their Separate Ways
Guest Post by W.A. Winter
God knows a great deal of suspense fiction is “based on actual events.” Small wonder then that readers often ask, “So is that what actually happened?” and feel cheated when they learn, “Well, maybe not.” I say, if you wants the facts, if you want to know what actually happened, stick to journalism. There are as many outstanding “true-crime” titles on my shelves as there are crime and suspense novels, including three of the former that I wrote myself.
My new novel, The Secret Lives of Dentists, while inspired by actual events, makes no claim to be thoroughly factual. There are enough facts to create the requisite verisimilitude, but this book is fiction. I invented most of the events, characters, locations, scenarios, and dialog. While those elements occasionally echo the actual events, I’ve put them on the page only to serve my fictional narrative.
Early one spring morning in 1955, the body of an attractive young woman was found in the alley of a tony south Minneapolis neighborhood. The body was fully clothed, but the woman may have been sexually assaulted. Later that morning, the county medical examiner determined that the woman had been strangled. Also, that she was three months pregnant, though her soldier husband had been serving in Korea since the previous fall. So began a sensational homicide case that mesmerized the Upper Midwest’s newspaper readers––my ten-year-old self included––throughout the summer and beyond.
Sixty years later, when I decided write about the case, I was driven to tell a broader, deeper, more unsettling tale about a small-town girl who comes looking for fun in the big city only to find heartbreak and death than I could tell as a journalist. Thus The Secret Lives of Dentists would not be a true-crime account. It would be a novel, not based on the infamous Moonen-Axilrod case, but inspired by it. Is that a distinction without a difference? I don’t think so. Let me explain.
True enough, my two central characters share biographical details with the protagonists of the historic case. In the actual event, a young married woman drifts down to the Twin Cities from a northern Minnesota town and gets into trouble. She has a husband––a soldier stationed abroad––and a toddler presumably fathered by the G.I. In Minneapolis, she shares a shabby apartment with an older, married sister and her sketchy brother-in-law. And she is three months pregnant, the identity of the baby’s father uncertain. There is the melancholic, middle-aged dentist the young woman seeks out for treatment of a toothache. The dentist has a modestly successful practice serving mostly women who appreciate his evening and weekend office hours. A specialty is “sedation dentistry” during which he administers a supercharged capsule that puts his patient into a semi-conscious state for several hours. The dentist is Jewish in a metropolitan area with a disgraceful history of anti-Semitism. Scarcely hours after the woman, whom I call Teresa Hickman, is found dead that April morning, the dentist, whom I’ve named H. David Rose, is accused of her murder, though at trial he will plead not guilty. Their names aside, all of that follows the lines of the actual case.
For my storytelling reasons, I created an alternative biography for both Terry and Dr. Rose quite different from what I knew as a newspaper reader and journalist to be fact. I created a family and hardscrabble background in a woebegone North Dakota village that help explain why Terry came to Minneapolis and what she was looking for. I invented her hapless husband (stationed in West Germany, not Korea) and a gaggle of suitors and stalkers one of whom may have had something to do with her death. The particulars of Dr. Rose’s upstanding family, practice, and home life are also all mine.
Also mine are the police investigators, medical personnel, officers of the court, journalists, neighbors, and sundry other players in Secret Lives. Because I like multiple points of view and voices, several of those players help tell the story. Some of them, like the story itself, were inspired by real people: a childhood pal from my Southside neighborhood, colleagues from my wire-service days, a woman or two from my distant past, each disguised and repurposed.
What may be closest to the real thing is my hometown circa 1955. Writing Secret Lives, I stayed close to the Minneapolis that intrigued and excited me as a kid; an oversized city street map from the mid-fifties hangs on my office wall. References to the Sourdough Bar, Rand Tower, and Wold-Chamberlain Field, among many others, are authentic. So, with a slight jigger of its spelling, is the Whoop-Tee-Doo Club on a seedy stretch of Nicollet Avenue now mostly obliterated by a freeway.
I moved the location where Terry Hickman’s body was discovered from hoity-toity Kenwood to Linden Hills, a somewhat more modest neighborhood that I have come to know well since buying a house here forty-five years ago. I walk my dog along its abandoned trolley track nearly every morning, always pausing at the patch where the ill-starred North Dakota beauty lay dead in the weeds. But, of course, that last bit is only in my imagination.
W.A. Winter is the pen name of William Swanson, a Minneapolis journalist and author who has written extensively over
the past several decades about crime, law enforcement, and the courts. He’s the author of three true-crime books,
one of which was the basis of a recent Investigation Discovery Network docudrama and is currently optioned for
film. Under the pen name W.A. Winter, he has recently published three suspense novels as e-books:
See You/See Me, Handyman, and Wolfie's Game Now, under his pen name, he continues to bring high suspense to
thriller fans with his April 20th release The Secret Lives of Dentists (Seventh Street Books). The thriller novel is
inspired by the 1955 case of A. Arnold Axilrod, a Minneapolis dentist accused, and tried for, the murder of one of his young female patients.