I am working on a book based on the true story of a woman who spent 40 years as an international jewel thief. In her career, she has probably made millions of dollars stealing diamond rings and other pieces of jewelry from jewelry shops all over the world. She has stolen from Mom and Pop jewelry stores and from Tiffany’s; from Neiman Marcus and from Van Cleef & Arpels. She has stolen from Harry Winston in Beverly Hills; from Cartier in Paris and Monte Carlo; from Bulgari in Rome; and from Garrard’s – the jeweler of Her Royal Majesty --- in London.
Some of the stories she has told me can be verified. She has, after all, more than 30 felony convictions under her belt. However, only a handful of those are applicable to her really big heists, and none of those apply to her international adventures.
I'm in the midst of the research phase right now. It's a bit overwhelming, but more important, I'm coming to the conclusion that most of her stories, the ones that make her life really interesting and exciting, cannot be verified. She, and the long gone sales clerks, are the only witnesses.
It brings up the question: when writing about true crime, or any true story, for that matter, how reliable is that first-person eyewitness? What if some of the stories simply cannot be verified?
I'm reading Ben Mezrich's second MIT/Vegas story, "Busting Vegas." Like his NY Times bestseller, "Bringing down the house," it's the true story of a team of MIT kids who have a method of beating blackjack.
It's obvious that the story has been dramatized for effect. Scenes are created, dialogue is created, details fabricated. It makes the story exciting, dramatic, suspenseful.
Some would argue that it makes the story not true.
Jack Olsen, a former Time magazine bureau chief and Sports Illustrated editor, argues that good old Capote ruined the entire genre of true crime when he wrote the dramatization of "In Cold Blood."
Ben says himself that many of the true facts were disguised, in order to protect the real identities of his subjects:
I had access to most of the characters, some more than others. Much of the story had to be changed to conceal their identities -- even the chronology. If I had done less, it would have been easy to figure out who they were. Whenever someone writes a book based on a true story, they take liberties. Look at The Perfect Storm. That's a true story, but the boat was lost, so the author had to fill in the story.
And so what if some of the stories have been embellished by either the eyewitness or the author?
If it's a good story, does it even matter? Can you get around the accusations of not telling the truth by simply putting a disclaimer, that some details have been changed? Or do you, at some point, just give up and call it fiction? Like the story "Catch me if you can," is the movie version more entertaining than the real story?
This, friends, is my dilemma.