If I Am Guilty I Will Pay*

Who Commits MurderIt’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.

 

Personal and Impersonal murders

 

 

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:

 

Personal and Impersonal Murders Over Time

 

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:
 

Murders Committed by Spouses and Partners

 

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:

 

Murders By Spouses and Partners Over Time

 

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.

38 Comments

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38 responses to “If I Am Guilty I Will Pay*

  1. I do love it when you look at fictional books with graphs and charts – maybe authors know that the partner is far too obvious and therefore they choose other people to commit the murder?

    • Thank you, Cleo. I’m really glad you like these charts and graphs. You’ve got a very good explanation for what I found. Authors don’t want it to be too obvious who the killer is. So it makes sense they’d think of someone else.

  2. I love your observations, but I was thinking it’s too easy if the spouse is the killer. It’s interesting to see the changes over the years, almost as if authors are getting more creative with time. Perhaps true crime documentaries have influenced us. Fascinating results.

    • I think you have a well-taken point, Sue. It really is too easy, at least in a work of fiction, if the killer is the spouse or partner. Authors have to consider what’s credible, but they also have to consider what will keep readers engaged. And you’ve put your finger on something very intriguing. Perhaps authors have gotten more creative as they’ve seen other possibilities for ‘whodunit.’ Thanks for the kind words; glad you enjoyed this.

  3. Maybe it’s just too horrible for writers to think about. After all, we get so engrossed in our stories that I can see where a little paranoia might creep in and influence our peace of mind. I sure don’t want a relative with murder on his or her mind showing up in my nightmares.

    • That makes sense, Pat. Writers are as human as anyone, after all. And I don’t think anyone really wants to think of being at risk from a spouse or partner. It’s a horrible prospect…

  4. Kay

    First of all, I loved this. Very creative and I’m very fond of charts and graphs. The accountant in me. I think I agree that writers seem to use more complicated storylines or maybe just longer with police or sleuths going from one suspect to another. Books have certainly gotten longer as a general rule. It’s not that the killer is easier to determine necessarily, just that readers seem to want a more convoluted journey along the way. After all, Agatha Christie’s books were under 250 pages, but who among many of us was able to catch all the clues and shout ‘A ha! Miss Scarlet in the Library!’. LOL

    • Thank you, Kay. I’m glad you enjoyed this. You make a really interesting point about the relationship between today’s longer books and the more complex plots that many authors use now. And, as you say, that often means that more people touch the victim’s life. And that, in its turn, means that there are more possible killers. And I really liked your mention of the difference between many of the Agatha Crhistie novels (usually under 300 pages) and today’s books. Part of her genius was that even with a limited range of suspects, she could still lead the reader right up the proverbial garden path…

  5. Well, I’ve always assumed not having a spouse meant I was pretty safe, but now it appears I shall have to look askance at my siblings and friends! I must admit I prefer ‘personal’ murders in fiction – I’ve never really enjoyed the gangland kind of story much and while I did enjoy serial killer stories for a long while, I’m pretty much over that now. Personal murders leave a lot more room for motive and the psychology of the crime, as Poirot might say, with less reliance on forensics and big thriller showdowns.

    Interesting as always, Margot – thanks! 😀

    • Glad you enjoyed this, FictionFan 🙂 – And no, not having a spouse does not guarantee you safety. I’d be careful of all of your associations. You never know…
       
      I think you do have a well-taken point about the richer possibilities when you have a personal murder. There are psychological plot points, rivalries and a lot of other possibilities that are simply less likely with a more impersonal kind of murder. And I’m with you about serial killer plots. A book with that plot line has to be remarkably good (and few are!) before I’ll take any interest in reading it.

  6. Kathy D.

    Yes, I’d add in serial killers as those who kill people at random, usually without knowing them. Perhaps the victims fit the killers’ criteria, as frequently they are looking for specific types of people.
    Also, on the partner/spouse vs. someone else a victim knows, that makes sense. After all, every mystery knows that in real life the spouse/partner or ex is the first and often primary suspect in a murder.
    And the news unfortunately often bears that out. Just saw in the NY Times that a financial expert killed his doctor spouse in a wealthy community.

    • Oh, that is sad news, Kathy. And you do have a point. In real life, the spouse or partner is very often the most likely suspect. And plenty of times, it’s with good reason.

  7. Col

    i can think of a few family members who might need taking care of….not my wife though! Haha – I’m joking, I love my sisters!

  8. Margot: Your post sent me over to Stats Canada. In 2014 Canada had 514 homicides summarized as follows with causation:

    “Most solved homicides were committed by an acquaintance of the victim (37%), echoing a trend observed over the past 20 years. More than one in five solved homicides in 2014 was committed by an intimate partner. Among intimate partner homicides, females were the victim at a rate four times that of males.”

    As I would expect in real life there are more murders by spouse (the definition of which has expanded in Canada with same sex and common law marriages as well as traditional marriages).

    I took a look at the FBI stats for America in 2014 which recorded over 14,249 homicides. With Canada have 1/10th of America’s population the homicide rate in the U.S. is almost 3 times the rate of Canada.

    • Thanks, Bill, for sharing that information. It’s really interesting! Sadly, I’m not surprised that there are so many more homicides in the US than there are in Canada. You also have some really interesting information about who commits murder. It makes a lot of sense to me that a larger percentage of murders would be committed by someone the victim knows. In my opinion, there’s more likely to be a solid motive if the victim and the killer know each other. And I wasn’t surprised, either, that there’s a higher rate of murder by spouse/intimate partner in real life than there might be in fiction. Authors have to be creative. Real life murders don’t.

  9. Fascinating stuff Margot and I suppose with the rise of the serial killer sub-genre the number of ‘Not personal’ murders makes complete sense.

    • Thank you, Sergio. And I agree; I think that sub-genre and some others (e.g. espionage and other thrillers) has added to the rise of those ‘not personal’ fictional murders.

  10. Patty

    My first superficial thought was that you prefer mysteries where the spouse doesn’t kill his or her partner. But that was just a giggle.

    I think one of the responses was right on–that mysteries are different from real life. Readers want complication, not the obvious solution that the husband did it–or, more rarely, the wife. Though having them as suspects does provide satisfactory plot misdirection.

    • It does, indeed, Patty. And I think you are absolutely right that readers don’t want obvious solutions. The solution has to be credible, but it shouldn’t be immediately obvious. That’s definitely a reason for which fictional murders are different to real life ones.

  11. This is really interesting Margot, thank you. It definitely true that reality doesn’t have to make sense – fiction does, but it’s interesting that in the case of spousal homicide the reader perhaps prefers the more complex mystery.

    • I think so, too. D.S. In real life, a murder can be completely uncomplicated, but not in fiction. Readers want stories that challenge them to keep reading. That’s not so in the real world. Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for the kind words.

  12. I love this. Do you think the general public is now much better informed about the profile of murderers than it used to be so writers have to be more inventive than using a spouse?

    • Thank you, Vicky. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you’re right. With modern technology, readers are likely more aware of murderers’ profiles. They bring that knowledge to their readings, so authors have to step up the game, as the saying goes.

  13. In cozies, the murderer is known to the victim 100% of the time. 🙂 At least, that is protocol (editors don’t like it if we push that old standard).

    Interesting stuff, as always, Margot! I love the charts and graphs posts.

    • I hadn’t thought of the impact of sub-genre on this whole thing, Elizabeth, but you’re absolutely right. I could’t imagine a cosy where the victim and killer don’t know each other. It’s part of the structure. And thanks for the kind words 🙂

  14. Wow! What a treasure trove of fascinating information. Thanks for all of your research and your posting. There is a lot to ponder and digest. Off the top of my head, I wonder if the changes/percentages in fiction writing are influenced by TV/film writing; after all, writers follow popular trends and conventions, but, of course, this still does not explain the trends.

    • Thanks, Tim, for the kind words. You ask an interesting question on TV/film influences. I think there’s definitely an effect. After all, authors watch TV and films. What’s more, publishers see those trends, too. They get a sense (however accurate it may or may not be) of what readers want. So it’s perfectly logical to me that that would extend to finding out what viewers want to see.

  15. Keishon

    It’s weird to be discussing homicides by strangers vs. non-strangers isn’t it? But this is the genre we read. Yes, I think writers have to be inventive and creative to a certain extent in creating suspects and motives to entertain readers (weird saying it like that). Like someone else said, readers like complications, not easy solutions. I haven’t read enough books to say this but from looking at your charts/graphs it seems like random serial killings leads all else for reader interest. However, I’m interested in a different type of crime, one that tend to be more personal as they are more fascinating and include an in-depth look at the characters and their motivations. Or like Karen Fossum, where the impact of the crime on a community or individual is given weight alongside the investigation.

    Just the other day I set aside and am debating on finishing a book that features a pretty violent crime (the works) against a young woman in a Amish community. I felt disgusted and set it aside. I guess my tastes are evolving after all. I might finish it but the graphic nature of those scene kind of made want to lose my lunch. Sorry to ramble!

    • No need for apologies, Keishon. You bring up a good point. I don’t care for those awful, violent scenes any more than you do. And you’re right about the possibilities when you have a crime of a more personal nature. Or, as you say, a crime where you really see the impact of it on the community (Fossum does that very well, I think). For me, t hose kinds of murder stories are just more interesting; they really are. And yes, it is a little weird to be discussing all of this, but as you say, it’s the genre…

  16. Kathy D.

    I think these days if a crime fiction writer makes the spouse the murderer, then s/he has to write a very complicated plot, with a lot of red herrings. Or a murder method that is absolutely ingenious.
    I won’t mention the author, but an excellent Japanese mystery writer wrote a very complex story where the spouse was the murderer, but it took a Sherlock-Holmesian detective to figure out the method. It was ingenious and interesting.

    • Now, that’s a well-taken point, Kathy. The plot where the spouse is guilty has to be made complex if today’s crime fiction reader is going to really appreciate it. The plot can’t be too convoluted (so that it can’t be followed), but has to be complex.

  17. Kathy D.

    Yes. Complex but not convoluted. The reader can even suspect the spouse, but without evidence, motive and opportunity, no crime can have been committed. Right?

  18. I love it when you do these posts Margot – more please! Fascinating statistics. IN the known/not known category – there are Golden Age writers known to us both who are very clever at hiding murders so that they can seem random, or are random etc etc. I know you know what I’m thinking of…

    • I do, indeed, Moira. And yes, that’s such a clever trick, isn’t it? I want to learn how to do that when I grow up. And thanks very much for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed this post.

  19. Your statistics are always interesting. It is logical that the crime would most often be committed by someone close to or related to the victim, but also scary. Sometimes the mysteries (in books and on TV) make me paranoid.

    • I know what you mean, Tracy. It may be logical, but that doesn’t mean it’s exactly comforting to know that the victim of a murder is so often likely to be killed by someone s/he knows *shudder.* Thanks for the kind words.

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