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.”
“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.