It’s traditional wisdom that the most likely suspect for a murder is someone that the victim knows. That makes sense, too, when you consider that people are far more likely to have conflicts with people they know – at least, conflicts that lead to murder. There’s also the belief that the killer is most likely to be someone’s spouse or partner (or ex). That, too, makes sense, if you think about the many complications that intimacy can bring on.
But does this really hold true? It likely does in real life, but I wondered if it also did in fiction. So, I decided to find out. To test these ideas, I chose 260 fictional murders from among books that I have read. That necessarily limits what I found, since there are many thousands of books that I haven’t read. Still, I got some interesting results.
Let’s look first at the overall question: are more murders committed by people known to the victim? Here’s what I found.
Of the 260 fictional murders I looked at, 165 (63%) were committed by people the victim knew. That finding didn’t surprise me, since it’s so much more likely that someone the victim knows (especially, someone the victim knows well) would have a motive for murder.
I wondered whether the number of personal v impersonal murders has changed over time, since themes and topics have. So I decided to look a little more closely at the data. I divided the data into categories based on year of publication, and looked at personal v impersonal murders over time. Here’s what I found:
As you can see, there’s been an interesting change. The percentage of murders that are impersonal seems to have risen a little over time. In the period before 1950, the percentage of impersonal murders is 17%. It’s 48% in the period between 1950-1980, and slips back to 37% between 1980-2000, rising slightly to 39% in the most recent years. This may mean that more authors have been exploring themes such as, say, espionage-related killings, gang wars, or other kinds of novels where the killer doesn’t really know the victim, at least not very well. Even so, we can’t lose sight of the fact that even over time, the vast majority of fictional murders are committed by someone the victim knows.
Is that person usually the spouse, as conventional wisdom would have us believe? I decided to look at that question more closely. So I divided the 260 fictional murders in my data set into two categories: murders committed by spouses/partners, and those not committed by spouses/partners. Here’s what I found:
Surprisingly, only 37 (14%) of these fictional murders were committed by spouses or partners. The vast majority were committed by other family members, friends, or others the victim knew. Perhaps, for those who would consider killing a spouse or partner, it’s just easier to leave an unhappy relationship than it is to murder. After all, it takes a lot for most of us to kill. Or, it may be that spouses and partners know how likely it is that they’ll be suspected, so they refrain from committing murder. Either way (and there certainly are other possible explanations), there aren’t nearly as many guilty fictional spouses and partners as one might think.
I decided to look a little more closely at this finding, too. So again, I divided those murders by spouses and partners into categories based on year of publication of the story. Here’s what I found:
As you can clearly see, the number of personal murders committed by spouses or partners hasn’t changed nearly as much as the number committed by other family members or other people known to the victim. To put it another way, many more murders, both as a percentage and as a total number, are committed by people in the victim’s circle who are not spouses or partners.
So what does this all mean? It certainly seems to be the case that fictional victims are a lot more likely to die at the hands of someone they know. And that’s logical. At the same time, perhaps spouses and partners shouldn’t be suspected quite as readily as they are. They certainly do commit fictional murders, but not as often as you might think. Those are just my thoughts, based on a small amount of the data that is actually out there. What do you folks think?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff.