Fact is stranger than fiction

Crime writers are often asked where their ideas come from. Surely a more interesting question is where do criminals get theirs?

I’m pretty sure they don’t get them from crime writers, although no doubt there have been cases where this has happened.

From time to time, criminals concoct some terribly imaginative capers that have left us gasping. The recent safe deposit heist in Hatton Garden, London’s jewellery district, had a filmic quality about it. Men abseiling down lift shafts and boring holes through thick concrete. Perhaps not quite as romantic as Jules Dassin’s Rififi or as magnificent as his later heist film Topkapi, but you get the picture.

Many real robberies have captured the imagination of the public, such as the 1963 Great Train Robbery in Britain, or the 1997 Dunbar Armed Robbery in the US. The Vastberga Helicopter Robbery saw a daring raid on the rooftop of a Swedish cash depot building in 2009. Yet even the most mundane robbery can grab the attention because of the amount stolen, such as the mugging in 1990 of a man’s briefcase in London containing £292m in bonds.

Insurance companies often end up paying the bill of some of these heists, but they take a sanguine view on such matters as they see it as a good advert on why companies and individuals should insure.

It’s a shame that some of these criminals don’t consider taking up fiction writing because they would have a ready-made readership for their imagination. But publishing doesn’t pay, while crime does.

Many writers are often inspired by the capers they have read in newspapers and then fictionalise them with their own characters. Just a snippet of information is enough to exercise the grey cells. A writer will often toss it around, linking it up with possible ideas he or she may have previously had. The end product may not always be absolutely correct, but why let a good idea get in the way of facts?

Ian Fleming was inspired to kill off James Bond’s love interest, Jill Masterton, in Goldfinger by painting her body in gold. No doubt he must have heard or read something that people can die if the pores of their skin are blocked. But this is absolutely not true.

In the book, it is left to Masteron’s sister to explain to Bond in a few lines how Jill died, but to the film director such dialogue would have denied the opportunity of producing pure cinematic magic. Jill’s body covered in gold on a bed remains Goldfinger’s most iconic image.

Fleming explained in the book that Goldfinger had a fetish for gold and paid women to be painted in gold before going to bed with them. But in the film, Goldfinger’s decommissioning of his once loyal personal assistant, Jill (played by Shirley Eaton), by suffocating her in gold paint, was sending another message. It was Goldfinger’s way of warning Bond to keep out of his affairs of gold smuggling.

This may sound totally bizarre and the sort of thing you’d expect in a thriller. But think again. The killing of the former KGB agent, Alexander Litvinenko, in London through a lethal dose of polonium-210 in 2006 is no less bizarre.

Polonium isn’t cheap and in this case it left a trail that could be traced from the fourth floor of the Millenium Hotel in Mayfair, where Litvinenko drank the poisoned tea, to the aircraft that carried the poison from Russia. Not exactly, a discreet bumping off, particularly when there are more direct methods.

But the contract on Litvinenko must have stated that he was to die with radioactive poisoning as the assassins had to administer the dose not once but twice on him. No other method of dispatch would have satisfied the masters of these assassins, it would seem.

The way the Russian was poisoned seems so farfetched that I doubt it would have got passed a pernickety literary agent, let alone a publisher. Yet facts are stranger than fiction.

And while this mystery continues to intrigue us, spare a thought for poor old Can Francesco della Scala, a member of the medieval dynasty of Italy’s della Scala family, who had to wait 700 years before it could be proved he’d been poisoned.

The great Lord of Verona had taken over the city of Treviso, near Venice, on 18 July 1328 when he dropped dead four days later following serious bouts of vomiting.

Rumours about his poisoning began to circulate straight away. But it was not until this year that scientists finally discovered from his well-preserved mummified body, that he had died from foxglove poisoning.

One can’t help thinking how much easier it would be to knock off a character in a book with a hedgerow plant than a product of a Russian nuclear reactor.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk’.