And the shame would leave a permanent scar
'Cause you start out stealing songs, and then you're robbing liquor stores
And sellin' crack and runnin' over school kids with your car."
Commonly seen in crime dramas, especially of the noirish variety, this occurs when a character or characters, having committed one crime, perhaps one not even that serious, must then commit another crime to cover up the first, and so on, leading to an escalating series of crimes set off by what may have originally been just an accident. A very common manifestation of this trope is in criminals eliminating witnesses to their crime.
If the character had just come clean at the beginning, he might have gotten off with a relatively light sentence. After a little while with this trope, he's looking at death row if he gets caught. Can be Truth in Television, though it usually takes the form of a Revealing Cover-Up (eg: being caught for tax evasion, perjury or obstruction, rather than the original crime).
A tendency to encourage this is what makes All Crimes Are Equal a Very Bad Idea. Compare He Knows Too Much, "Fawlty Towers" Plot (this trope's much less dark, non-criminal counterpart), Jumping Off the Slippery Slope and Unintentionally Notorious Crime. Contrast Revealing Cover Up. A major cause of Never One Murder and Plethora of Mistakes.
- In one of The Kindaichi Case Files, "Smoke and Mirrors", the teacher Matoba ends up killing three people, and attempting to kill a fourth, to cover up a misdeed many years ago.
- The first half of Death Note involves this. At first, Light receives the Death Note, but thinks it must be a prank. He tests it out on two people, and finds out that it really does work. At this point, he decides to kill criminals, but then the police start to get suspicious, so he starts killing people who are connected with the investigation, as well as criminals.
- Steve Ditko's Mr. A stories always revolve around this, the Objectivist moral being that there's no such thing as toeing the line between good and evil.
- Jean Loring did this as part of DC's Identity Crisis storyline in which she set up a murder and an attack in order to cover up her own accidental killing of Sue Dibny.
- Sin City: This happens from time to time, most notably Dwight McCarthy stories since he regularly gets in more and more trouble and technically has to break another law in order to get out of it.
- A recurring plan in Starman is a Corrupt Corporate Executive hiring a Super Villain to go on a crime spree to cover up a single, financially motivated murder.
- In The Vision (2015), Virginia Vision kills the Grim Reaper in self-defense, but is caught disposing of the body by her neighbor, so she kills him, then kills his son to get rid of any witnesses. And then, of course, the Avengers send Victor Mancha to covertly investigate the family...
- Basically the entire plot of Stag, in which the party-goers, having committed two counts of manslaughter in the second degree, spend the rest of the film debating whether to commit first degree murder in order to keep a witness from talking.
- The trope description doubles as a plot synopsis for Very Bad Things.
- A Simple Plan is a rather harrowing example of this plot.
- In the black comedy Big Nothing Simon Pegg's character convinces David Schwimmer's character that nothing could go wrong with their plan to blackmail a local Reverend. Unfortunately no-one is quite what they seem, and soon one thing leads to another...
- Thelma & Louise. What starts as an act of self-defense ends with a multi-state manhunt.
- In Otto Preminger's Where the Sidewalk Ends, a Rabid Cop accidentally beats a suspect to death, and ends up inadvertently framing an innocent man while trying to throw suspicion off himself.
- The whole film Armored is basically a big example of this trope. The main plot starts off with a plan by a group of six or so armored truck drivers to steal the money they're transporting. The protagonist has more of a conscience than the average felon, but needs money and agrees to go along with it. Things start out alright for them when they take the truck to an abandoned warehouse where they plan to hide the money and then retrieve it after they pretend their truck was attacked. At some point, they decide that they need to blow up the truck in order to hide the evidence, but things still look like they might go off without any major hitches. However: it turns out that a homeless man is living in the warehouse. When the homeless man sees them, the trigger-happy member of the heist team shoots him. When the protagonist suggests calling an ambulance, the team's leader finishes off the homeless man. Then, the protagonist turns on them and sounds an alarm that draws a police officer to the warehouse. The trigger-happy guy shoots the cop, seriously wounding him. Then, in order to force the protagonist to cooperate with them, the crooks kidnap a member of his family. Meanwhile, another member of the team decides he can't handle it anymore and says he wants out, to which the other criminals respond by murdering him. In the end, the gang's leader tries to run over the protagonist with an armored truck.
- In The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans a Dirty Cop's life starts to spiral out of control as he has to keep committing new crimes in order to deal with the fallout from his old crimes. And since his old crimes were motivated by massive drug and gambling addictions he hasn't kicked yet, he keeps creating new problems just as soon as it looks like he's solved the old ones.
- Both versions of The Ladykillers involve a gang of thieves who rent an old woman's basement under false pretenses in order to commit grand theft. She discovers the crime and threatens to go to the police, so they try to silence her. They all die in the attempt.
- The Hot Rock (and the movie based on the novel) involves an escalating series of crimes dedicated to stealing a particular diamond.
I've heard of the habitual criminal, of course. But I never dreamed I'd become involved with the habitual CRIME.
- The Hot Rock sets the tone for the entire Dortmunder series that follows. A following story, What's The Worst That Could Happen? (which was adapted into a movie starring Martin Lawrence and Danny DeVito with all series elements removed) has Dortmunder going on a crime spree to strike back against a rich man who got him arrested — not because he got him arrested, but because the man took Dortmunder's ring (a family heirloom) from him by lying to the cops that it was one of the things Dortmunder stole (just for the kicks of "stealing something from the thief") and became dead-set in not giving it back even if that meant losing everything else he owned.
- Happens in the Gaunt's Ghosts novel Necropolis. A trader disobeyed an order to seal off a fuel pipeline he owned since he was making a fortune selling the fuel in the besieged city. Then the pipeline was used by Chaos forces to infiltrate the city and his crime became an act of treason. To get rid of witnesses, he killed the civilian workers he used in his scheme, then he killed his bodyguards who helped him kill the civilians, then his aide (or was planning to, at least), then tried to kill the medics of the titular Ghosts who were investigating the murders. Luckily, he was stopped by Gaunt, but one has to wonder how he was planning to kill the 1500+ pissed-off Imperial Guardsmen that would have torn the city apart looking for him.
- The villains in Murder on the Leviathan first killed ten people in Paris to steal the MacGuffin, then killed a professor onboard the luxury liner Leviathan when he got dangerously close to the truth, then, when the investigation began to catch on, decided to just sink the ship with all the passengers.
- In the Harry Turtledove novel Noninterference, the head of The Federation's pre-warp civilization Survey organization gets a report from a recent mission that a violation of the title Alien Non-Interference Clause had longer-lasting effects than anyone had anticipated. Instead of working on Spin Control (the guy responsible for the inital screwup was cashiered, his mission is used as a case study in What Not To Do, and more to the point he has been dead for over fourteen centuries) she orders the files erased... and goes after the copy downloaded by a xeno-anthropology professor... and tries to shut up the survey team... and tracks down which of the professor's students has a copy....
- In Native Son, Bigger Thomas accidentally suffocates a white girl in her bed. Believing that society would presume a black man like him guilty of having raped and murdered her, he burns her body and writes a ransom note claiming she's been kidnapped. Before Bigger is tracked down and arrested, he rapes and murders a black girlfriend.
- The elderly murderer in Dying to Live in Palm Beach accidentally took and used her wealthier friend's credit card, then began to do it deliberately until her friend mentioned her kids got her a bookkeeper. She poisons that friend, realizes she likes having money, arranges an overdose for another friend after abusing her card, and shoves a third off a boat when she catches her in the act.
- The murderer in Dorothy L. Sayers Unnatural Death would probably have gotten away with the initial murder if they hadn't got paranoid about who might know too much and started offing other people as well. At the end of the story Chief Inspector Parker says of the first murder, "We can't prove it now — that's why I left it off the charge-sheet."
- In one of his novels, Bayard Kendrick has his blind detective explain that you kill the first person because you absolutely have to. Then you kill the next person because they know too much. Then you kill again because there are loose ends. In the end you just keep killing because you've gotten good at it.
- Nick Velvet: A comparatively mild example happens in "The Theft of the Banker's Ashtray", where Nick ends up up having to steal the same ashtray twice (and the ashtray is actually stolen three times). Nick is peeved because he gets paid for one theft.
- This trope is the most common source of Never One Murder in the works of Agatha Christie; many a murderer finds themselves needing to bump off a blackmailer or unintended witness to the first crime. In several works, such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Cat Among the Pigeons, the initial crime witnessed wasn't even a murder.
- In an episode, a lawyer enjoys a few drinks and hits a pedestrian while driving home. The victim gets trapped in his windshield, but instead of taking him to a hospital or calling the police, the lawyer hides the man in his garage. In the end, it's revealed that the man jumped in front of his car intentionally to commit suicide, and the lawyer would not have been charged with anything had he not let the guy die in his garage.
- Also, the infamous Max from the episode "Loco Motives". It would have worked out much better for him if he had just called the police and told them he accidentally killed his wife instead of what he actually did, which involved killing his neighbor and failing in disposing of his wife's body.
- In another one there was a taxi driver who ran over a pickpocket who refused to pay her fare and ran off with his wallet, but he only did it because another driver bumped into him on purpose, causing his car to hit her in the head when she tripped. He wouldn't have gone to jail but the other driver convinced him that they both would, so they fled the scene and lied about the whole thing, and tampered with evidence, all of which were crimes. Since he's an immigrant, the first driver is likely to be deported, the very thing he was trying to avoid in the first place.
- In the series' pilot episode, a thief returns to the house he'd robbed, presumably to clean up some clue to his identity, and winds up murdering Holly Gribbs, who is processing the scene.
- On CSI: New York, Mac spends some time being stalked by a criminal he put away while he was still a rookie, who has some unspecified grudge against him and his old mentor/first partner. It turns out that Mac's mentor stole some money the crook was caught with and stashed it at the scene. When he went to pick it up, the crook's girlfriend caught him so he killed her.
- In The Shield, the Strike Team starts out making a few deals with some gangs to leave them alone while going after their competitors, and ends up killing fellow cops to cover up their corruption.
- Played with, or perhaps subverted in Veronica Mars season one, in which the Kanes commit various counts of conspiracy (mislabeled in the show as obstruction of justice) in order to conceal that Duncan did not kill Lilly. Well, technically, they thought he killed her and that's why they covered it up. In their defense, they did find him in a position where he was covered in her blood. Which could have been used against him, no matter how innocent he was.
- Prison Break contains several cases of this. Charles Westmoreland even tells Michael at one point that there's no such thing as an ex-con, which Michael repeats sometime in season two when he realizes how many crimes and deaths he's been directly and indirectly involved in, since he decided to break Lincoln out of prison. Sucre, C-Note and Mahone are also arguable examples of this, as their backstory gradually reveals.
- Cold Case
- An early episode had a guy shoot a man to death, and in attempt to cover it up, he set a fire... which killed at least twenty-two others.
- In another episode the Big Bad doesn't even kill the victim — he just gets rid of the body to protect the idiot that killed her almost by accident. However, as the investigation goes on, he kills another man to keep the secret and when that also fails, he attempts to kill the detective in charge of the investigation.
- Common in Monk and Psych, particularly in Monk where many of the murders are relatively innocent people who were in the wrong-place at the wrong-time. The mystery is finding out why they were murdered in the first place, and it often comes down to the the murder being used to cover up some other crime, which is only discovered through the murder investigation. If that's not the case, someone else is likely to be murdered in an attempt to cover up evidence from the first murder.
- A typical use of this, for example, occurs in "Mr. Monk and the Very Very Old Man," in which a politician accidentally killed an innocent teenager in a drunken hit and run years before the plot happened. Unable to resist confessing somehow, he wrote a letter detailing his guilt and put it in a time capsule, which was supposed to be opened again sooner than expected if the world's oldest man were to live five more years. The politician was eventually forced to kill the man in order to stop the time capsule from being opened, during which he also had to kill a security guard. He goes down for triple homicide in an attempt to cover up his single hit and run.
- A favored trope of Law & Order - especially when the defendant has a rich (or mobbed-up) family to bribe, perjure and intimidate his way to an acquittal.
- In Person of Interest this is usually what gets Finch and Reese involved. The machine is unable to predict impulse crimes but once a crime is committed it can predict that the cover up will involve murders. In the pilot when DirtyCops kill some drug dealers the cover up escalates to the attempted murder of a teenage witness and then the attempted murder of the prosecutor looking into the matter. The criminals were willing to escalate things even further since the prosecutor had his young son with him when they tried to kill him and they did not want any witnesses.
- In Luther, all DCI Ian Reed needed was some money... but it just snowballed from there...
- This is a running theme in Breaking Bad. Walt and Jesse want to make and sell meth but to do so they need to make deals with violent and unstable criminals who do not trust them. Sooner or later the other criminals turn on them and Walt and Jesse have to kill them to protect themselves. As they move further up the criminal food chain, they are forced to take more drastic measures and become more ruthless.
- Since Vince Gilligan has described the series as an attempt to turn Walt from Mr. Chips into Scarface, it's pretty much a given that this trope is going to come into play.
- In an episode of NYPD Blue a man murders his neighbor to keep the neighbor from testifying against him about a much lesser crime. The cops bust him as he's butchering the body in order to dispose of it.
- How to Get Away with Murder pretty much runs on this. Every character is sooner rather than later a murderer, a murder accomplice, committing crimes to cover up murder, framing somebody else for murder, framing themselves for murder committing crimes to get out of said framing or otherwise doing very bad things to hide a very bad thing they did in the past. And since the web of lies is ever expanding in severity and number of people involved, every time there's more people willing to do worse things to get out of trouble.
- In the Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode "Poison", a daffy woman wants to buy a baby-clothing franchise, but needs money to do so. So she murders her husband by poisoning his aspirin, hoping to file a wrongful-death suit. But the company refuses to pay out for one death, so she engineers a string of poisonings to make it look like there was a bad batch, but discovers that she can't collect a payout during an active crisis, so she then frames her mother for the poisonings. She finally collects her payout, but then discovers that the franchise she's trying to buy won't accept money from someone whose mother supposedly went on a killing spree...
- In Inside No. 9 episode "Once Removed", Viktor was tasked with killing one person; May. But thanks to May switching the number on Natasha's house, he ends up killing Natasha, her father upstairs, and her real estate agent to leave no witnesses. He looked like he was about to kill the removal man as well, when May and her screwdriver intervened.
- Midsomer Murders: "Talking to the Dead" is a textbook example. The original crime (which the viewer only learns about after several murders) was the comparatively minor one of stealing goods that were already stolen. When of the crooks they were stealing from discovered them, the murderer killed him and blackmailed his accomplice into helping him dispose of the body. However, things quickly escalated and he committed three subsequent murders to prevent his crimes from being discovered, and would have committed a fourth if Barnaby had not caught him.
- On Magnum, P.I. (2018) Magnum lampshades this when he is held prisoner by two blackmailers. If they let him go immediately and surrender to the police, they will probably serve no time or might even have all charges against them dropped if they got a really good lawyer. Their blackmail scheme fizzled out before they even had the opportunity to demand money and given what they discovered, briefly holding Magnum at gunpoint might have been justified. However, if they want to proceed with their scheme they will have to kill Magnum and risk spending the rest of their life in prison. The criminals do not follow Magnum's advice and end in jail on attempted murder charges.
- In Dark Sarah's "A Grim Christmas Story", a woman murders her husband on the Second Day of Christmas for lying to her. On each of the subsequent days of Christmas, she murders someone else, usually because they're asking why somebody she killed in a previous verse is missing (Plus one count of Murder the Hypotenuse). In the last verse she poisons some policemen who have realized that she's the common thread behind all the disappearances and flees the area.
- the white chamber: Revealed in the end, this is what happened to the original crew, at the hands of the main character. The first death was an accident, and she hid the body. The second happened because he found the first body. Then the others followed in the same vein, for ever weaker excuses as her paranoia increased and her sanity slipped further...
- Ace Attorney:
- The bonus case in the first game has this as the motive for Joe Darke in the backstory - a seemingly normal man who accidentally killed a cyclist in a car accident, which was seen by a witness. He killed the witness to try and cover up his initial crime, but someone else came along and saw him do that, so he had to kill that witness too, and so on, and so on, until he had five kills under his belt.
- The Big Bad of Trials and Tribulations (Dahlia Hawthorne) killed their sister to keep her from talking about a fake kidnapping they had staged years ago to steal a jewel from their family. Spoiler elaboration
- The Big Bad of Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney (Kristoph Gavin) winds up causing most of the troubles before and during the game. It all starts with Kristoph wanting to successfully win a high profile murder case, with him serving as the defense while his brother is the prosecutor. To that end he hires a forger to manufacture a piece of faulty evidence (Crime #1) that will exonerate his client (who, as it turned out, was innocent all along, meaning absolutely none of this was necessary in the first place). In order to avoid being accused of forgery, he attempts to poison both the forger (#2) and his daughter (#3) (who was the one actually responsible for the forgery). But before he can have his day in court, his client abruptly fires him for being untrustworthy and instead hires Phoenix Wright. Enraged, Kristoph surreptitiously passes off the forged evidence to Wright while informing his brother of its existence; thus, when Wright brings up the evidence in trial, he's immediately accused of forging evidence and disbarred (#4). The defendant manages to flee before the trial can continue, but Kristoph eventually tracks him down and kills him (#5) while framing Wright for the deed (#6). Pretty ridiculous considering this whole thing sprung out of a desire to win one case.
- Girl Genius:
- Defied Trope in this strip. Gorb suggests killing Agatha for finding a secret door, and killing Othar to cover up Agatha's death, at which point Minsk points out what he's doing and reminds him that this sort of plan always ends with Gorb losing his hat, which makes it a bad plan.
- Played straight with Dr. Merlot here. After several cryptographers on loan from Baron Wulfenbach discovered the true identity of the late Dr. Beetle's assistant, Merlot tried to hide his letting the last of the Heterodynes slip through his fingers by burning the notes, whatever secret labs of Dr. Beetle he could find, the hall of records, and the cryptographers. Clearly, his sentence to Castle Heterodyne was all "Miss Clay's" fault.
- Nikolaos, the PC of Iliad Quest, assists Odysseus and Diomedes in their revenge plot to murder Palamedes for endangering Odysseus' son's life to get him to answer the call to arms in the First Mustering. When Palamedes' father Nauplius comes calling to investigate the death, he gets killed off as well.
- Parodied in the first Futurama "Tales of Interest" episode, in which a What If? machine shows what it would be like if Leela (normally the Straight Man) was more impulsive. She ends up killing The Professor for his inheritance and then slowly working her way through the cast as they catch on, except for Fry, whom she seduces. Then
killsgets kinky.Leela: I don't know what came over me! I killed one person on impulse, then I had to kill another, and another!
Fry: Well, that covers the first three killings.