Most murderers, real or fictional, don’t want to be caught. So, they take various means to ensure that doesn’t happen. Sometimes for instance, a murderer will construct a well-crafted alibi. Other times, a murderer will frame someone else for the crime. There are many, many crime novels where that happens. I’ll bet you can think of at least as many as I ever could.
But there are cases where the murderer ‘disguises’ a death so that it looks like a natural or accidental death, or like a suicide. Just to give one example, the murderer in Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach disguises the murder of a tour guide as an accidental drowning. And it’s very hard to prove, at least at first, that it wasn’t. And the killer in Alan Orloff’s Diamonds For the Dead covers up a murder to look like an accidental fall down a flight of stairs. And then there’s the murder of a wealthy patriarch in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Mirror that’s made up to look like suicide.
How often does that really happen in crime fiction? You’d think quite a lot, since for most murderers, it’s important not to be caught. I decided to take a look at that question. I chose 213 fictional murders from among my own books. Then I divided them into two groups: murders that are not diguised (i.e. It’s clear immediately that this is a murder) and murders that are disguised (i.e. The murder looks very much like a suicide, an accident or death by natural causes until the sleuth looks more deeply). Here’s what I found.
As you can see, the vast majority of the murders in my data set (81%) are not disguised. Admittedly, these are books I have personally read. They do not include the myriad books I’ve not read, so this is a limited data set. That said though, it seems pretty clear that a lot of fictional murderers don’t disguise their handiwork.
Still it is interesting to see just how a murder might be covered up. How do fictional killers do that? Here are the results I got when I looked more closely at those 41 ‘disguised’ murders.
Most of them (63%) were made to look like accidents. And that’s logical when you think about it. It’s easier to fake an accident than to fake a suicide or a natural death (‘though of course, that does happen).
One question that occurred to me was: why not disguise a murder to look like something else? One reason for that may be that a lot of murders are not pre-planned; they are ‘heat of the moment’ killings, or at least deaths that the killer hadn’t intended to commit. In cases like that, the murderer might not think ahead to disguise the crime. I wondered whether that might be the case, so I examined those 172 undisguised fictional murders. Here’s what I found.
It’s clear that, at least among the fictional murders I looked at, most of them (a full 82%) were pre-planned, at least in the sense that the murderer starts out with the intention to kill the victim. I understand that there are a lot of legal shadings in any discussion of what counts as an intentional killing.
So, among these fictional murders, we can’t really argue that they’re ‘heat of the moment’ killings where the criminal didn’t think ahead to disguise the murder. So why are so many undisguised? In some cases, it’s because the killer wants the death to be obvious, as a warning to others. There are also some situations where the killer has psychological reasons for making the murder(s) obvious. And there are some as well in which the fact of an obvious murder doesn’t necessarily point to a particular person as the culprit. That’s what happens, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where the victim is stabbed – a clear case of murder – but that fact doesn’t tell the police or Hercule Poirot (at least at first) who committed the crime.
So what can one conclude from all of this? One thing I’ve concluded is that, for a variety of reasons, fictional murderers very often don’t take pains to disguise what they’ve done. At least the ones I looked at here don’t. Another is that in many cases, one reason for that is that an obviously murdered victim doesn’t automatically incriminate one specific person. Another is that the killer has particular reasons for not trying to cover up a murder as something else.
What’s your view on all of this? Do you see a similar pattern in the crime fiction you read? If you’re a crime writer, does your killer disguise the murder(s)? If not, how does your killer try to avoid getting caught?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fleetwood Mac’s My Little Demon.