Why Try to Hide It?*

DisguisingMurderorNotMost 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.


Disguised v Undisguised Murders

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.


Disguises Used For 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.


Planned vs Unplanned Murders

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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Orloff, Angela Savage

36 responses to “Why Try to Hide It?*

  1. I think with an outright murder a crime writer can start right in at the action a lot easier maybe and it’s more of a detective fiction than pages spent not even realising a crime has been committed. Just a couple of thoughts, as well as readers liking murders 🙂

    • Now that’s a very well-taken point, Rebecca! From a reader’s point of view, there’s no need to wait around, so to speak, until the police determine they’re not dealing with a suicide or an accident. And for the author (I hadn’t thought about this, so thanks for the perspective), there’s a nice, juicy bit of action to spark the story and ‘rev up’ the creativity.

  2. Clarissa Draper

    In both my books, all the murders are obviously murder and not made to look like anything else. I think your graphs are interesting.

    • Thanks, Clarissa. I think your murder mysteries make really effective use of obvious murders. In both cases, the bodies are obvious murder victims for a reason.

  3. Very interesting, Margot. I don’t personally disguise my murders, or I should say my fictional characters don’t, mainly because they want to warn someone they have arrived and are coming for them! But that’s not to say I won’t someday. I found your data fascinating. Lots to think about for future projects.

    • Sue – Thanks; glad you found this worth reading. And I like the idea of adding the suspense that comes from warning a character that s/he’s going to be a victim. That can add a lot to a story. Hmmm……now you’re giving me a really good idea for a post – thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  4. This was very interesting. I’ve read a few novels where the murderer either causes an accident, with multiple fatalities, or, as part of his/her plan commits serial murder, including other victims. Misdirection. Only one is the real, intended victim, but it muddies the waters and makes it hard to pinpoint the main victim – never mind the murderer! Clever – but oh so ruthless!

    • Thanks, Crimeworm. Glad you found this interesting. And I know exactly the sort of story you mean, too, where the murderer creates several victims (a book of needles, so to speak) in which to hide the original victim (one needle). As you say, lots of misdirection there! And yes – ruthless.

  5. Interesting graphs, Margot. I find that I read a good mix of the plain murders and the coverup murders. I like both. Sometimes I think it makes for more work for the writer if the murder is a coverup murder, but it can lead to some intriguing twists and turns for the readers.

    • Mason – Glad you enjoyed the post. You have an interesting point about what it takes for the author to create a ‘cover-up’ kind of murder. There are several logistics that have to be worked out. Of course, as you say, that means interesting twists and turns for the reader. And of course, if it’s clear from the start that it’s a murder, then the author’s task is to keep the suspense going. And that too is work. I think both can work well.

  6. Love the pie charts Margot 🙂 Christie THE ABC MURDRERS is probably a great case study …

  7. I love it when you do stats and pie charts Margot – so interesting. One thing that bugs me slightly – when the murder has been disguised, I like the uncovering of the real truth: detectives following up clues, getting suspicious etc. But I do think it’s a waste of time when there’s a lot of conversation about it, a lot of chitchat about the accident or suicide, people refusing to believe it’s murder, pages of people talking about the likelihood. We know we’re in a murder story, get on with it! Clues, yes: discussion, no.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Moira. I am glad you liked the charts, etc. And I know what you mean about novels with a ‘disguised’ murder. Once it’s clear (and it shouldn’t take an interminable time) that someone’s been murdered, it slows the pace down too much if there’s too much discussion about it. It’s much more engaging if it starts getting treated like hte murder it is much more quickly.

  8. What about this scenario – when the reader knows the deceased has been murdered – being privy to the details etc and the police have yet to discover this.

  9. From what my son tells me, in real life most murders are unplanned and that’s why it is usually easy to catch the murderer. They result from rage, drunkenness, despair. But that doesn’t make for a good novel usually.

    • Patti – That’s a key difference I think between fiction and real life. As you say, real-life murders usually aren’t planned, and very often, the killer is caught quickly. That doesn’t easily make for a really absorbing plot for a novel, so we don’t see a lot of it in fiction.

  10. I was thinking along the same lines as Patti, that most murderers in real life are not that smart and are close to home. Of course, most novels focus on the ones where the murderer at least tries to be clever. Very interesting statistics in this post, Margot.

    • Thanks, Tracy. And I think you and Patti are right that must real-life murders are committed by partners, family members, etc., and are solved in fairly straightforward ways. Perhaps that’s why the ones that are different make so much news. But as you say, in novels it’s different. The author has to find credible ways to invite the reader to stay engaged, and that’s not always possible with such a straightforward murder as often happens in real life.

  11. Yes, I think my reading shows the same as yours – that most murders aren’t disguised. However, in the one I’m reading at the moment, Peter James’ ‘Want You Dead’, the murder is disguised as a suicide – and, echoing Rebecca’s thought, we’re a quarter of the way through and it still hasn’t been discovered to be a murder, and I’m…bored! No detection is taking place, just lots of ‘Oh, he’d never kill himself…’ conversations. And the detective repeatedly wondering…

    • FictionFan – I know exactly what you mean. I think having a disguised murder can work well; done it myself in one of my novels. But pacing really does matter in a story, and too much time spent wondering whether it was a suicide can be off-putting. As you and Rebecca say, ‘Get on with it.’

  12. kathy d

    Great charts! I knew reading crime fictions blogs is educational.
    I ditto the scenario explained above where someone is targeted for a particular reason, but the killer murders several people to make it appear as if a serial killer was at work, to cover up his/her real intent.
    Also, accidents involving trains or cars are often on TV cop or detective shows. The terrific British series “State of Play” starts out with a young woman “falling” under a train in London’s underground. It looks like an accident, but is found to be murder.
    There is also drowning, another method whether it’s not clear if it’s murder or an accident. Am just reading Sharon Bolton’s latest Lacey Flint book, where bodies are found in the Thames, at first unclear the women drowned accidentally or were murdered. That’s in “A Dark and Twisted Tide.”
    Then there are drug “overdoses.” That can be accidental or murder.
    This is a frequent murder ploy, and I’m glad to see the scientific
    evidence here!
    There is also the tactic of people just vanishing, the “disappeared,” with no idea what happened to them. It can be assumed that they voluntarily vanished, went on a long trip or went “underground.”
    I just saw this in an episode of “Vera,” terrific TV series based on Anne Cleeves’ books. One character is said to have gone to Barcelona. Not quite the truth.

    • Thanks for hte kind words, Kathy. And thanks for your examples of some extremely clever ways in which murderers disguise the fact that they’ve killed. There are lots of incidents like that, where the death is a drowning or something else that can’t be easily proven to be murder. and as you say, killing several people can often cover up one specific murder. And of course, if someone disappears, it’s very hard to prove s/he was actually killed.

  13. Reminds me of the Cadfael book ‘One Corpse too Many’ where the killer does try to hide a murder in a mass slaying. And, of course, all those dystopian crime novels were a murder happen to the backdrop of a mass catastrophe.

    • Sarah – It’s funny; I almost mentioned One Corpse Too Many in this post, but didn’t. You’re absolutely right though about it. It’s a terrific example of how a murder can be hidden. And yes, the same is true of those post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels. Murderers can certainly take advantage of that context.

  14. I guess I’m fond of the murderer trying to frame someone else for the murder, which may count as a kind of hiding. BTW love those pie charts! 🙂

    • Thanks, Bryan 🙂 – And there is definitely something about a good frame-up isn’t there? I’ve done a post about that before, but it may be time to re-visit that topic. It can be done in such inventive ways.

  15. kathy d

    Frame-ups: the stuff of which Perry Mason is revered — uncovering the real culprits.

  16. Love the pie charts. In most of the crime novels I read, the murderer seems to want the attention for some reason, although there can be an element of disguise that confuses the sleuth… for a short time. However, there have been a few stand-out exceptions – for instance some of Linwood Barclay’s plots. As for my own, in my first novel the murders were all disguised, which took a bit of plotting. And since then have continued to devise murders that are somewhat disguised – yet the killer can add in clues to say, “I’m out here somewhere…”

    • Roland – Thanks for the kind words. I think you’ve got a well-taken point that there are murderers who want attention at some level. Even if they disguise what they do, they do want it known that they’re out there. Interesting you’d mention Barclay too. You’re right; his murderers are a little different. I know what you mean about the plotting and so on involved in creating a disguised murder. It’s not as easy as it may seem…

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