They Just Found Your Father in the Swimming Pool*

DiscoveryofBodyNot long ago, I did a post on joggers and runners in crime fiction. One of the interesting ideas I got from you folks as a response to that post is that there are a lot of joggers and runners (and dog walkers) who discover fictional bodies. The whole conversation got me to wondering just who does discover fictional murder victims. So I decided to do a bit of research.

I chose 200 fictional murders committed in books that I’ve read. My choices weren’t confined to just one era or sub-genre. For each of these murders, I made a note of who finds the body. Here’s what I found:




I was actually really surprised to find that 55 murder victims (27% of the total) were discovered by people in the course of their work. Just to give one example, in Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains, a maid brings morning tea to the victim’s room, only to find him dead. There are a lot of examples too of milkmen finding bodies on their rounds, cops on the beat finding bodies, commercial fishermen who find bodies in lakes, or renovators and builders who unearth bodies, that sort of thing.

The next most common way in which a body is discovered (in my data set anyway) is that people are witnesses to a murder. Among these fictional murders, 35 (17%) of the bodies don’t really have to be discovered, because there’s at least one witness to the killing. An example of this is in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), in which a group of passengers is present when one of their fellow passengers is poisoned. Interestingly enough, only the killer notices that it’s happened until it’s too late…

Some authors use the strategy of having a passer-by find a body. In my data set, that happens in the case of 32 murders (16% of the total). For instance, in Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, police detective Mike Reardon is shot. A passer-by sees the body and alerts police.

Family members discover bodies in 20 (10%) of the fictional murders I considered. In the case of James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain, for instance, Agatha Mills is killed late one night in her Russell Square home. The next morning, her husband Henry discovers her body. Naturally the police suspect him, but it turns out that he’s as innocent as he says he is…

Among the fictional killings I looked at, 16 (8%) are discovered by visitors to the victim’s home or workplace. For instance, in Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, Benny Frayle pays a visit to her friend Dennis Brinkley, only to discover his body. At first it looks like a tragic accident, but in the end, it turns out to anything but.

Fifteen of the fictional murders I looked at (7%) are discovered after someone doesn’t come home, and a search is made. That’s what happens, for example, in Ruth Rendell’s Simisola, when a search for twenty-two-year-old Melanie Akande seems to lead to a body found in a forest. When it turns out not to be Melanie’s body, Inspector Wexford and his team have a very puzzling mystery on their hands.

The biggest surprise to me was that of all of the fictional murders I included here, only 5 bodies were discovered by runners/joggers and dog walkers! This is probably an artifact of the data as much as anything else, since I know there are more mysteries out there that include that plot point.

As with all of the data I share here, this set of data is limited by the fact that it only includes books I’ve personally read. There are of course many thousands of books I’ve not read. That said though, it’s interesting how often simply doing your job can put you right in the path of a dead body…

What do you think of all of this? Have you noticed who finds the body in the books you read? Who is it, usually?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Captain Jack.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Catriona McPherson, Ed McBain, James Craig, Ruth Rendell

27 responses to “They Just Found Your Father in the Swimming Pool*

  1. I’m surprised that family is such a small proportion – I’d have thought that would have been one of the biggest ones. Though maybe that’s just because so many current books have domestic settings. And I’m very surprised at how few dogwalkers discover bodies – I thought they pretty much turned up a corpse every morning! I might consider gettting a dog now… 😉

    I wonder if the stats from the books are in any way similar to real-life. I guess though most murders in real-life are far less interesting and probably happen in the streets with lots of witnesses.

    • FictionFan – You know, I was really surprised to see how very few dogwalkers discover bodies. I honestly thought there’d be lots more. I also think you have a really important point about family members too. You would think they’d discover bodies a lot more often. Of course, this is just data from books I’ve read, so the data may very well not reflect what’s actually out there. Still, it seemed interesting to me.
      As to real-life murders, my guess is that you’re probably right that they’re not nearly as intriguing (as a rule) as fictional murders. It’s actually an interesting challenge for authors, too. How do you make a murder case intriguing enough to invite readers to engage themselves without making it so different to reality that it’s not credible.

  2. Kay

    OK, I know that I’m coming to party late here, but Margot, do you keep vastly detailed records of the books you’ve read or do you just have a photographic memory? LOL

    Seriously, that chart is very interesting. I think I’d be guessing that family would rate higher as well. And not many seem to actually be found by a search. I think that real life body discoveries are not nearly as dramatic or interesting. My mystery book group has one member who has worked for our state police lab and she subscribes to the whole “most criminals are not very smart” theory. Plus, of course, everything takes a lot longer to process and big, dramatic surprises don’t happen much. 🙂

    • That’s a good point, Kay. Real-life murders don’t have those dramatic surprises, do they? 🙂 – And although I don’t have the data to support it, I’m not surprised that a lot of criminals that the police know about aren’t as ‘slick’ as fictional criminals. Of course, those are just the criminals the police actually catch. Still, your point is really well-taken. There’s sometimes a huge difference between real-life criminals and fictional criminals.
      And thanks for the kind words. There’s not much rattling round in my head, so there’s plenty of room for crime fiction.

  3. Let’s see… Most times it’s the detective or a beat cop who finds the bodies, or a passerby who sees something that’s off and goes to investigate, only to find a dead body. Very interesting data! This helps, too, because now we know what not to write to make our stories unique.

    • You make a really interesting point, Sue. Certainly detectives find their share of bodies. That’s how it happens anyway in novels featuring amateur sleuths. And even when the sleuth is a professional (e.g. a PI or a police officer) they find plenty of bodies. I like the idea of taking a different, unique approach to storytelling too. And when we know how bodies are usually found, it’s easier to come up with a different (but still believable) approach.

  4. Utterly fascinating Margot – I’m glad that this has never been occurrence in my non-fiction life though 🙂

  5. Interesting Margot. I’m always interested to read about murder cases where there is no body! That’s always kind of troubled me…… can you say for certain a crime has been committed, much less convict someone of it.

    • That’s a really fascinating phenomenon, isn’t it, Col? I think it must be one of the hardest kinds of cases for the police to investigate. It’s very hard to prove there was a crime if there is no body.

  6. It’s funny, Margot but dog walkers are beginning to become a bit of a cliche in crime fiction. And yet in real life, they can find bodies as they wonder off marked paths etc.

  7. Wow, I hadn’t thought of this, but there are *so* many times in crime fiction and in crime drama that I’ve seen this trope. I’ve never used it because I’m fond of my sleuths and their cohorts finding bodies, and I’ll keep in mind to keep it that way.

    • Elizabeth – You’re right; it is a very common trope. And lots of authors make it work well. What I like about your approach is that it fits right in with the fact that you have amateur sleuths. It just makes a lot of sense to have one of them (or a cohort member) find a body. It’s more logical to do a plot that way.

  8. Loving the pie chart but I’m almost quite disappointed that you had less dogs finding the bodies, I was sure that would be a significant proportion. Interesting to see the number of times people are missing and their bodies are searched for – good to see Ruth Rendell getting a mention for this one too. I’d forgotten about milkmen & postmen which don’t feature as often in more modern novels.

    • Cleo – I was really surprised too at how few fictional dogs find bodies (at least in my data set). You’d have thought there’d have been more. And I think Rendell has a lot of talent – it just made sense to include one of her novels. As to milkmen and postmen, you’re right that you don’t see them the way you used to. But in their day, they certainly saw a lot that went on.

  9. Fascinating! And I’m kind of relieved that so few of the discoveries are by runners and walkers… will make me feel much less anxious as I pound the woodland paths now I know the only thing I have to worry about is stepping in …ahem…uncleared evidence left by a dog and their walker!

    • I know exactly what you mean, Lady Fancifull! It’s one thing to keep your eye out for – erm – packages. It’s another to find a body. I was surprised at that finding, but as you say, it’s safer. Still, it would be very nice if dog walkers didn’t leave evidence behind…

  10. What a great topic, I love your chart, it’s hysterical. I just keep thinking, supposing I had to explain to a Martian visitor exactly what it was that it showed? “Well you see, Margot and her readers share an interest in… and this is a list… and we are looking at…. and these are….” I particularly like the category ‘busybody’.

    • Moira – So glad you liked this post. And I had to laugh when I read your comment about the Martian. How, exactly would one explain it to a visitor with no knowledge of crime fiction…? Funny! And I’m glad you liked that ‘busybody’ category. There just was no better way to put it.

  11. Very interesting, Margot. And fun. 🙂

  12. Margot: I have had a busy week. Let me add a couple of examples of finding the body to challenge a chart.

    In The Suspect by L.R. Wright the body is discovered by the murderer as revealed on the first page.

    In The Burning Room by Michael Connelly, the newest Harry Bosch mystery, the victim has lived 10 years after being shot before dying from blood poisoning caused by the bullet in his spine. The live body became a dead body in hospital.

    • Bill – Those are great examples. I’m glad you’ve shared them, as they show how authors can think of very innovative ways for authors to have bodies discovered.

  13. Hi Margot, I just discovered your blog after Gabriela over at DIYMFA gave me a head’s up about this post. This was a fun insight to the way writer’s get their bodies discovered. I’m with Moirar, love the busybody category, I’d put bets that those are the ones who discover the bodies in real life. *teasing*.

    Happy Gabriela steered me here, you have a wealth of information!

    • Diane – Thanks for the kind words. Welcome, and thanks for visiting. I’m glad you enjoyed your visit here. It is interesting to see who finds bodies in fiction. It surprised me how often people find them in the course of doing their jobs. But there are busybodies out there who find victims, both real and in fiction….

  14. Pingback: So Your Character Needs a Job - Merchandiser -

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