Not 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.