True-ish Crime

Like many mystery fans, I’ve dipped my toe into the true crime genre. I’ve read accounts of infamous crimes, watched many documentaries, and listened to more than a few podcasts. There’s a huge difference between good crime fiction and true crime. One of them makes much more sense—and it’s NOT stories that give accurate accounts of real life criminal behavior.

True crime rarely makes sense.

The criminal masterminds that populate fiction are uncommon in reality. That’s a good thing. Few real criminals are intelligent enough to plan an Agatha Christie style murder or an action movie style heist. That’s why they get caught.

Most violent criminals have lifelong histories with violence and abuse—either as childhood victims or as witnesses. They may suffer from neurological, psychiatric, psychological, or emotional disorders, or they may just be mean and brutish people lacking the control or good sense necessary to figure out another way to handle conflict. They don’t make compelling fictional villains.

Motive—a critical element in all fictional crime stories—is often lacking in real life. Real people do inexplicable things for inexplicable reasons. People act on impulse, over react to slights, carry grudges, and justify irrational and violent actions instead of owning their guilt.

“It just happened.”

“I snapped.”

“She pushed me too far.”

“I’m being framed. I’m the real victim.”

In fiction, none of the above plays well. There’s nothing satisfying about solving a crime committed without an explainable motive. As readers, we often feel sympathy for the killer if they are exacting revenge against the man who killed their child or bankrupted their family business. Of course those motives are big in fiction, but not in reality.

This is where True-ish crime fiction comes into play. Crime fiction that was “inspired by a true story” but does not attempt to document the facts is often more fun. Motives are clearer, detectives are more heroic, and prosecutors are more successful. Think of all those episodes of ‘Law & Order’—years after the inspiring real crime has faded, the fictional versions are still compelling tales of TRUE-ish crime.

Looks like the lair of a criminal mastermind in a movie…


  1. I never thought of crime in that way before, or criminals. But you make a lot of sense – a good villain has to be so much more than just ‘bad’, or ‘nasty’. Crime isn’t really my passion but motivation is. Great post. 🙂

    • Candy Korman

      This disconnect between real life crime and fictional crime has an impact on the legal system in the U.S. (and I guess elsewhere too). In crime fiction good people, often a heroic cop, get framed for a terrible crime. This is rare in reality. In crime fiction compelling DNA evidence always seems available. Not so in reality. In crime fiction witnesses often have a clear understanding of what they’ve observed. Not so in real life. Between muddy motives and foggy memories, in real life it’s much harder to judge what actually happened.

      My recent stint on jury duty was a case in point. It’s likely that the man we convicted of one minor count was guilty of multiple, more egregious assaults. But the witnesses/victims were not entirely credible and no one was clear about the weapon. The questions were never be answered to the level needed to convict on the more violent charges and one of the witness/victims undermined her own story. I don’t think she was lying, but I think she embellished her story. That and the confusion of motives led to the mixed verdict. The fact the weapon was an umbrella was almost too weird for words, but reality is often too weird for words!

  2. The great pleasure of a fictional murder mystery is that the killer is always brought to justice, the world is set right. In the real world, too often that just doesn’t happen. Murders go unsolved. Families get destroyed.

    • Candy Korman

      True 99.99% of the time. There are a few fictional outliers where the killer gets away with it. I read one recently and it was not terribly satisfying. I was pissed at the “hero” for being in love with the con artist/killer/beauty. I wanted to shake him and say… “you’re thinking with the wrong part of your anatomy!”

      In real life, crime—notably murder, rape, and other violence between people—has terrible consequences for the victims, witnesses, family members, and entire communities. There’s a cascade of sadness, fear, and pain. Sometimes the perpetrators are caught. Sometimes they “pay” for their crimes. But they leave people broken and families upended. I’ve seen it happen and no one recovers completely. In fiction, the resolution offers some kind of finality, some meaningful “closure.” In real life, the door never closes entirely on the horrific experience.