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Halley Sutton: Building a book out of true crime obsessions

Halley Sutton: Building a book out of true crime obsessions

Where do your ideas come from? It’s a question every writer has gotten at least once in her life (who am I kidding, more like once a month). Sometimes writers have a good, clean answer—I was inspired by XYZ that we’ve all heard of.

But usually the answer looks a little bit more like: Mix in two parts childhood obsession, one part lightning strike inspiration, a dash of contractual panic—voila, novel idea!

For my second novel, The Hurricane Blonde, Hollywood true crime provided the backbone of my plot. When the book opens, Salma Lowe—former child actor and tabloid fixture, daughter of two very famous actors—is a tour guide, offering true crime bus tours along the Hollywood strip.

Salma’s tour features the stories of real true crime cases, ranging from the murder of the Black Dahlia, one of Los Angeles’ most infamous unsolved murders, to the death of Thelma Todd (an actress from the 1920s known as the Ice Cream Blonde, who died in a suspicious carbon monoxide poisoning) to poor Sharon Tate. Salma is obsessed with young women with ties to Hollywood who died before their time—because her own sister was murdered, twenty years before the book begins, and the murder has never been solved.

Salma and I have this obsession in common (albeit for different reasons).

The history of Hollywood is littered with tragic stories about what happens on the flip side of the golden dream of fame. Nearly all of the women I included on the tour are real people, whose story ended in tragedy in one way or another: Rebecca Schaeffer, a young actress murdered in the 1990s by a deranged fan who shot her at her front door; Dominique Dunne, the niece of writer Joan Didion and an actress herself, who was strangled by her ex-boyfriend in her backyard; or Peg Entwistle, an actress who threw herself off the “H” of the Hollywoodland sign back in the 1920s. I included these stories not out of prurient interest, but because these stories matter to me, much like they matter to Salma, and I wanted to find a way to honor them and their stories, even as they inspired me.

Many of the major plot points and the reveals in the book are also based on real events, whether or not they’re considered “true crime.” I modeled the character of Cal Turner—Salma’s sister’s ex-fiancé, and suspect number one in her murder—on a pastiche of directors behaving badly (believe me, it didn’t take much digging). In The Hurricane Blonde, Salma recounts the tragic story of Loretta Young’s daughter by Clark Gable—a story that will come to have deep resonance for her personally.

While the plot of The Hurricane Blonde is all my own, I built it on the scaffolding of true crime, history, and hearsay, humanizing and shaping as I drafted the book—because sometimes, even in Hollywood, the truth is much more bizarre than fiction.

The Hurricane Blonde by Halley Sutton is published by Allison & Busby on 8 August 2023. Available as a trade paperback at £14.99, as an eBook and as an audiobook.

Halley Sutton is the author of The Lady Upstairs and The Hurricane Blonde. She lives in Los Angeles where she immerses herself in Hollywood trivia. She holds a degree in creative writing from the University of California Santa Cruz, and a master’s in writing from Otis College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Ms., Daily Beast, CrimeReads, and Los Angeles Review of Books.

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