Someone investigates a minor crime, or possibly something as major as murder, but finds something much bigger going on behind it. The first crime might be part of a Revealing Cover-Up, or it might be just a Red Herring; it can also be both the cause and effect of Crime After Crime. This is extremely common in crime fighting action films where the plot is more about building up a lead in from normal life and confronting the big secret; in other fiction there might be all manner of twists, turns and dead ends before it all links up. This is a staple of the detective variety of Film Noir.
Some of the more complex Evil Plans may stretch from the most trifling crimes to the mind-bogglingly evil in a mind-bogglingly complex manner.
Sometimes the Anti-Villain is revealed to be quite heinous; in other cases the Anti-Villain teams up with the heroes to fight the Big Bad.
Works in which several different crimes are committed (e.g. a Police Procedural TV series) sometimes follow the pattern that every Minor Crime reveals a Major Plot — the main characters can't investigate any crime, big or small, without stumbling upon an Evil Plan involving several different people and six- or seven-digit sums of money. This is largely an Acceptable Break From Reality: of course, in Real Life, thousands of crimes are committed each day without any sort of plan or conspiracy behind them — burglars sneak into homes to steal some small cash, people are killed when petty arguments get out of hand, dastardly villains cross streets in illegal ways to get to the other side faster — but it makes for a more interesting story to have your master detectives slowly uncover the villainous plot of a Diabolical Mastermind than to have them book random mugger after random mugger.
Contrast Infraction Distraction, where a minor crime is committed to conceal a greater one. Also contrast Not the First Victim, which refers to the tendency of killers in fiction to be Serial Killers, but their stories usually begin with a major crime revealing a series of other major crimes. Cases can result from Evil Is Petty.
Truth in Television. Real Life professional criminals will bend over backwards to make sure they don't trip up over something minor because it's happened before. The best way to avoid capture is to not attract attention — at all. However, many criminals do not maintain professional standards and are caught for things like not paying fare on the subway, or expired license plates. It's given rise to the expression "Only break one law at a time".
As this is a trope about plots, many of the examples will contain spoilers. You have been warned. When it's the criminal who only intended to commit a minor crime, it's Unintentionally Notorious Crime.
Not to be confused with Wanted Meter. Compare Working the Same Case, where two or more seemingly unconnected cases turn out to be connected to the same plot. See also Currency Conspiracy, where a crime like the theft or counterfeiting of cash can lead to a conspiracy.
Because of the nature of the trope, Spoilers Off applies to this page and all related subpages. Proceed with caution. You Have Been Warned
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- StrikerS Sound Stage X of Lyrical Nanoha: Murder of various Old Belka researchers → Terrorist plot to attack Mid-childa with the undead army of a legendary Dark King.
- Batman: Black and White: "Blackout", set in World War II, starts with Batman investigating a window that's showing a light in defiance of the blackout order, which leads to him discovering a jewel robbery in progress, which leads to him learning that the owner of the jewels was using them to fund a Nazi spy ring.
- Captain America: Steve investigates his ex Bernie's sister going missing → a plot by Mother Night to indoctrinate teenagers en masse. And when it's over, Steve finds out Bernie's sister's disappearance was completely unrelated to this.
- Gordon Of Gotham:
- A vice squad raid discovers several mobsters pouring cement onto the corpse of a dead associate. In exchange for leniency, one of the prisoners then offers to blow the lid on a 6-million-dollar robbery that left ten innocent people dead.
- Gordon tickets Officer Davidson for causing a traffic collision while driving a police truck, then gets suspicious when Davidson's report lies about where the accident took place. Davidson was delivering rigged voting machines away from his beat, and is willing to make a stab at murder to keep Gordon from figuring this out.
- Hellblazer: Inverted in one story where John reveals to a journalist that The British Royal Family are in fact snake people from space who had Diana killed because she was trying to resist the Body Horror required for her to give birth to their spawn, that Kennedy was killed by The Greys (a Servant Race to the aforementioned reptilians) because he saw his wife quite enjoying sex with a reptilian, and that the Earth is hollow, filled with tunnels that allow easy transportation beteen the continents. John then fakes his death, ostensibly by governmental spooks. It's all lies, of course: the journalist was getting uncomfortably close to a perfectly mundane drug-supplying ring in Buckingham Palace and John was hired to scare him off.
- Sensation Comics: Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor meet a poor boy and are concerned about his home life due to some things he says, when Diana looks into it she discovers that not only is the uncle he and his sister and mother live with so incredibly abusive their mother is terrified that he's going to kill the kids, he's also running a huge racketeering ring from his basement and plotting the armed robbery of a bunch of gold.
- Sin City: Murder of a hooker and frameup of the guy who was with her → uncovering a cannibal farm boy and a corrupt priest who has pretty much the entire city in his pocket.
- Played with in Status 7: Overload, we have a botched ATM hacking leading to a Cyberwarfare attack with a terrorist attack on a Mega-Corp for good measure but the whole thing was a cover for embezzlement that gets dealt with during the epilogue.
- Suske en Wiske: the album "Het Aruba dossier" ("The Aruba File"). The minor crime: two men ignore a red traffic light and crash into Professor Barabas' car, sending all three of them to the hospital. The major plot: once in the hospital, Barabas is accidentally given a briefcase that belongs to the other two men. In the briefcase, he finds a file that describes plans of a big criminal organisation to distribute a highly toxic substance as a new fertilizer for crops.
- Many Tintin stories tend to be built around this premise.
- Cigars of the Pharaoh and its sequel The Blue Lotus: Disappearance of an Egyptian archaeologist → Uncovering a secret brotherhood of international opium smugglers.
- King Ottokar's Sceptre: Kidnapping of an expert on Syldavian history → coup d'état.
- Watchmen: Investigating the murder of an ex-superhero → uncovering a plot to prevent nuclear war by destroying a city.
- X-Men Noir: Open-and-shut gangland murder → a secret brotherhood of Dirty Cops.
- In the sequel, X-Men Noir: Mark of Cain: Murder of Cain Marko → a secret government agency training criminals to be the ultimate spies and assassins.
- Big Hero 6: Theft of Hiro's microbots and death of his older brother Tadashi → plot by Hiro's former mentor Professor Callaghan to destroy Alistair Krei for causing his daughter's death by using the stolen microbots and Krei's teleportation portal.
- The Great Mouse Detective: The kidnapping of a toymaker → a plot to rule England's mouse population.
- The Incredibles: Mysterious disappearance of a lawyer known for fighting for the rights of supers → a scheming Arms Dealer's murderous plan to make himself a figure of public adulation.
- Monsters, Inc.: The eponymous power company's scare floor being used after hours by Randall, resulting in Boo breaking loose and wreaking havoc in Monstropolis → a dangerous machine designed to extract screams from children as part of a scheme by Randall and Mr. Waternoose.
- Zootopia: A series of seemingly unrelated missing mammals → the Mayor's imprisonment and cover-up of predator species who have inexplicably "gone savage" → the Assistant Mayor's plot to create and exploit anti-predator sentiment for political gain.
- A cop pulls over a man for speeding.
Cop: Sir, you were doing 70 in a 50 mph zone. Any particular reason?
Driver: Well, so you wouldn't find the 200 kilos of crack cocaine I've got in the backseat. Or the anthrax bomb in the glove compartment. Or the dead hooker in the trunk. Or the six-year-old girl tied up next to the dead hooker. To be honest, I'm on like fifteen different kinds of drugs right now and I drank six beers before starting out, so I might have left a few out.
- The cop, seeing the arrest of a lifetime before him, immediately calls for backup, who proceeds to thoroughly search the car and test the man. Once they're finally done, having found absolutely no evidence of wrongdoing, another cop comes up to the driver and apologizes for wasting his time, as the arresting officer thought he was dealing with some kind of serial killer pedophile terrorist criminal.
Driver: Quite an imagination he's got. And I bet he told you I was doing 70 in a 50 mph zone too, just to round things out!
- Call of Cthulhu supplement Masks of Nyarlathotep. The murder of author Jackson Elias by cultists leads to a worldwide conspiracy to open a Gate and let the forces of the Cthulhu Mythos conquer the Earth.
- Magic: The Gathering: In the Dissension novel, Agrus Kos is sent to infiltrate the Simic Combine to find out their involvement in a potential Dimir plot...and is surprised and chagrined when guildleader Momir Vig begins monologuing about his own, completely unrelated plan to Take Over the World.
- This is the standard structure for Pathfinder Adventure Paths, to justify starting at level 1 (when everything is kobolds and copper pieces, and you get excited over a potion of barkskin) and ending at 15-20 (when you can pick fights with legendary monsters and win): adventurers go to Town X at the behest of Patron Y, and whatever happens there starts them on a path to stopping the evil plan of Potentially Setting-Reshaping Threat Z. Iron Gods begins with someone sabotaging the purple "flame" that fuels most of the town of Torch's industry and ends with an unhinged AI launching a bid for godhood from within the confines of an ancient crashed spaceship. Carrion Crown starts with the apparently accidental death of a scholar, with the player characters being old friends attending his funeral, and winds its way through various horror tropes to an attempt to bring back an ancient lich. Legacy of Fire begins with a mysterious fire killing a merchant princess's personal astrologer, and the investigation ends with a crazed genie and his minions attempting to steal the power of an Eldritch Abomination. There are others.
- One Shadowrun supplement, about Lone Star Security, mentions how police in the Robbery division often wind up investigating major crimes: ones that'd started out looking like a simple robbery due to cover-up efforts by the perpetrators.
- The court case in The Broken Jug (Der zerbrochne Krug) by Heinrich von Kleist is about - you guessed it - a broken jug. As it turns out, there is a particularly nasty case of blackmail behind it.
- Played with in Hamilton, where Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and James Madison's search for dirt on Alexander Hamilton leads them to a supposed tip that he's been engaging in embezzlement of government funds. What they actually uncover is a considerably less criminal enterprise - Hamilton's affair with Maria Reynolds. Their fishing trip might have been an embarrassment for them, except that Hamilton is so paranoid about being accused and so arrogant about his own talent for maneuvering that he decides to publish a pamphlet admitting to the affair, which turns it into a huge scandal that tarnishes his reputation and almost ends his marriage.
- Meta Runner: Sudden disappearance of a TASCorp Meta Runner → Plot by insane Mad Scientist to trap every Meta Runner in the world inside his digital simulation.
- RWBY: In the pilot episode, Ruby foils a local criminal's attempt to rob a Dust shop. When Dust robberies keep happening, and seem to also involve the terrorist White Fang organisation, Team RWBY begins a vigilante investigation that eventually drags them and their friends into a vast, global conspiracy that has spent millennia waging a Secret War to decide the fate of humanity which eventually ends up resulting in the destruction of one of the four remaining Kingdoms of Humanity.
- In Forest Hill a school bully repeatedly running away from home, and what at first seems to be an unrelated incident of a 5-year-old girl sexually molesting a boy → the school bully is being prostituted by his father to other pedophiles and the girl is the daughter of one of his clients, who has been forcing the two of them to have sex.
- The Letters Of The Devil is started by Cedric's investigation into Rita Carey's fraudulent business practices, and we discover a plethora of other, more heinous crimes as his investigation progresses.
- The Order of the Stick: Murder/robbery of Eugene Greenhilt's mentor → Multiverse-spanning plot to gain control of an Eldritch Abomination that could destroy the world and kill the gods.
- Can You Spare a Quarter?: It turns out that Jamie's parents are part of a much larger group of people who abuse children. And the investigation in the case of Jamie leads to the arrest of a number of people in high positions.
- The Salvation War: Pantheocide: Discovery of illegal human items in Heaven → multiple conspiracies to bring down Yahweh.
- The creepypasta Teacher Wanted, Must Love Kids has one hell of an example: Male teacher is fired for allegedly groping female student. → Female teacher framed him to cover up the fact that she's an Eldritch Abomination doing much worse things with the male students.
- The Cartoon Man trilogy: Missing persons case. → A plot by said missing person to enslave the world.