I haven’t watched television in decades with the exception of some PBS shows for which I’d buy the videos and a couple of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer that my youngest son inveigled me into watching on DVD with him. (He used to require Buffy-watching as his payment for help fixing my computer problems.) This wasn’t one of those judge-y things where someone lets you know that they’re too intellectually superior to watch what everyone else is watching. It was simply a matter of priorities. I made the choice of writing over television back when I was trying to carve out regular time to write.
After eight years in another state at grad school, that youngest son is back home living with us for a while until he pays off some debt and moves into his permanent abode. With him, he brought a big-screen TV and Netflix—and the same desire to have me watch his favorite shows along with him. So I’ve been watching more TV in the past few weeks than in the past ten years.
He likes some of the true-crime docudramas like Disappeared and Hardcover Mysteries. Hardcover Mysteries, in particular, has appealed to me since it features actual mystery authors discussing actual murder cases that have fascinated them. David Baldacci, Lisa Scottoline, Sandra Brown, Linda Fairstein, Sara Paretsky have all discussed in detail real-life cases, along with interviews of the actual law enforcement officials who investigated the cases.
Over and over, the authors have said, “If I used that in one of my novels, my editor would tell me to rewrite it because it’s too farfetched.” And they’re right. Some of the things these murderers do are so bizarre and over-the-top that they could never be used in a book that’s trying to be believable fiction. But recently on one of these shows a chief of police said something that goes to the heart of why it’s hard to just use a real murder as a basis of a mystery or thriller without major fictional changes. He said, “The real reason people kill other people and commit other major crimes is that they’re stupid. I’ve seen it again and again. They’re so stupid that murder looks like an easy solution to whatever problem they’re dealing with. And that’s why they get caught and end up in prison. I don’t know what you can do about it, though. You can’t fix stupid.”
I think he’s probably right on the mark here. Our local Border Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime brings in law enforcement officials, private investigators, prosecutors, defense lawyers, you name it. (Here you see a photo of our own Warren Bull being handcuffed and leg-cuffed by the head of the U.S. Marshals Service in our region during one of those programs.) If someone plays a role in investigating, enforcing, or trying criminal cases, we’ve had them visit and talk to us about what they’ve encountered in their careers—and we’ve heard that police chief’s words echoed again and again. Most people become criminals and murderers because, in one way or another, they’re stupid. Even or especially the ones who think they’re being smart about it.
I can’t write mysteries about people who commit murder because they’re stupid, however. Sometimes in the field of noir, you can base a book on hapless, dumb murderers, but you can’t do it often, or you’ll lose your readers. Readers want a real antagonist, someone with brains and abilities, not someone like one of these real murderers who commit murder because they can’t think of any other options or they think it will be an easy out. Much as I try to research meticulously and make my books as realistic as possible, I have to violate reality and have intelligent killers who are a true match for my protagonists and pose the real danger that they might get away with heinous crimes.
Many years ago, a law enforcement official whose name I no longer remember, said at a writers conference I attended that, nine times out of ten, murderers were caught and convicted because of stupid mistakes, and he’d come to believe that was because really smart people found other, less dangerous ways to deal with whatever problems they encountered than murder. But that won’t work for crime writers because we can work wonders on plot and characterization, but even we can’t fix stupid.
Have you read mysteries you enjoyed where the murderer was not so bright?