Does art imitate life or life imitate art?  It doesn’t matter for a crime writer. We know that real people commit crimes and real people are the victims of crime. That’s why keeping an eye on what crimes are being perpetrated in the real world is important. Here are four criminal cases every crime writer should be watching closely and why.

The Alex Murdaugh case:

            A seemingly impenetrable southern dynasty led by a fast-talking lawyer has filled the nation’s television screens while Alex Murdaugh stands trial for the murder of his wife and son for weeks now. This case has it all. Murdaugh has admitted to drug addiction, stealing millions of dollars belonging to clients, but insisted he didn’t kill Maggie and Pau Pau (his son Paul’s nickname). We know Alex attempted to commit suicide by hiring someone to shoot him. Murdaugh stunned legal experts when he decided to take the stand. His testimony was spellbinding. He was emotional, feisty, and repentant for his drug addiction and theft, but adamant he didn’t commit murder. The lawyering in this case is also fascinating. Not nearly as slick as in other famous trials like the O.J. Simpson case, we get to see what it’s like to be a southern lawyer in a community where everyone knows everyone. Writers who arehesitant to fill their stories with too many plot points will do well to watch a real-life case more unbelievable than most crime novels.

The Idaho Student Murder/ Bryan Kohberger case:

            Four college students savagely murdered in an off-campus home at 4:00 a.m. while two other roommates and a dog were spared. Beautiful young people with endless futures until the accused murderer, a creepy and supposedly brilliant criminology doctoral student stalked the house and allegedly killed them in a senseless, but targeted attack. The killer apparently left the sheaf to the knife that was the murder weapon, a not so brilliant move. Add that the public defender appointed to represent the alleged killer previously represent three of the parents of the deceased students and you have enough for any crime writer to be inspired to write a killer of a book. Crime writers who write thrillers with a creepy, stalking, antagonist can learn a lot from this case, including how the defendant who was studying the inner thoughts of people while they commit crimes, committed one of this magnitude.

The Ana/Brian Walshe case:

            A beautiful immigrant from Serbia finds financial success in the U.S. and falls in love with a man who she believes is successful but turns out to be an art thief. Three young sons later after a romantic marriage ceremony, Brian Walshe was facing sentencing for selling fake Andy Warhol paintings. His wife, Ana, had submitted a supporting affidavit on behalf of him to the court. A dear friend joined them for New Year’s Eve at their home. Brian cooked a gourmet meal as they welcomed a new year in their lovely home in bucolic Cohasset, Massachusetts.  Several days later, Ana was reported missing by her employer in Washington. Authorities established that Brian had visited dumps in several towns north and south of Boston and purchased hundreds of dollars in cleaning agents, tarps, and other materials at Home Depot. He googled incriminating inquiries about how to get rid of a body and about divorce on his son’s iPad. Ana’s body was never found. Brian was charged with her murder, while his sons were taken into custody by the Department of Children and Families. Writers whose plots include domestic violence and sociopathic antagonists should keep an eye on this case when it goes to trial, which will also focus on how murder can be established by circumstantial evidence when a body hasn’t been recovered.                                            

The Lindsay Clancy case:

            While every murder is a tragedy, some are gut wrenchingly heartbreaking, as in the case of Lindsay Clancy a young mother of three and a labor and delivery nurse, who is accused of killing her three children while suffering from acute postpartum depression. While her husband has publicly forgiven her in an eloquent letter asking others to do the same, she will stand trial for the deaths of her children. She is a paraplegic, after attempting to kill herself after the murders, by jumping out a window. Her lawyer has disclosed a mind-boggling array of psychiatric medications Lindsay was on while she sought help as an outpatient and while hospitalized. There has been an outcry of support for her from those who point to the lack of maternal mental health support and treatment available for women who suffer from postpartum depression, while others cannot forgive and demand justice for her children.

            This is a tough topic for crime writers. The only crime writer I know who has dared to tread into the area of infanticide is Tana French. But all crime writers should watch this case, which will continue to reveal the dichotomy between those who demand justice and those who offer forgiveness as a remedy for a tragedy that can never be made right.

C. Michele Dorsey is the author of Oh Danny Girl and the Sabrina Salter series, including No Virgin Island, Permanent Sunset, Tropical Depression, and Salt Water Wounds. Her latest novel, Gone But Not Forgotten will be published by Severn House in July 2023.Michele is a lawyer, mediator, former adjunct law professor and nurse, who didn’t know she could be a writer when she grew up. Now that she does, Michele writes constantly, whether on St John, outer Cape Cod, or anywhere within a mile of the ocean.  


  1. Thanks for the stories, Michele, all grist for the mill. Though it isn’t a mystery my recent general fiction, The Disappearance of Lindy James, addresses postpartum psychosis which is often overlooked or ignored by doctors.

  2. Michele, I was fascinated by Alex M’s testimony last week. It will be interesting to see if the jury bought his story.

    You gave an excellent overview of all of these cases. Writers need to be aware of real life cases in order to see what happens in the real world.

    1. Marni, his testimony was riveting. I believe he is a sociopathic liar but can’t deny he can be charming and had me drawn into his fabrication. Definitely a great character study for a writer.

  3. Michelle, what a great post. Well researched and clearly stated case studies. (Your lawyer work coming thru?) True crime scares me to death, but these cases are riveting.

    1. Sharon, while all four cases are tragedies, I find the Brian Kohberger case most terrifying. To think you could be just living your daily life while someone is watching and planning to murder you is terrifying. But if you’re going to write about that kind of psychopath, here’s your case study.

  4. Every one of these is heartbreaking. When stuck for a plot point, I often read crime statistics and lists. Sometimes the real life crimes are so outlandish, I don’t think I can put believably put them into my stories. But I also stay away from spouses killing each other and children being killed because I simply don’t want to exist inside those worlds while I write. The crimes I steal from reality are almost always mob related thefts, heists, and revenge. Somehow those feel lighter to write about

  5. I use “true crime” for clues about how a criminal’s mind works and the details of their lives. After all, we don’t want cookie cutter antagonists. Looking at real world crimes can be like shopping at an idea store. (Oh how I wish that was a thing.)
    I enjoyed how you matched these cases up with sub-genres.

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