To write a great murder mystery, you have to know how to solve a murder. This series is based on Murder one: A Writer’s Guide to Homicide by Mauro V. Corvasce and Joseph R. Paglino, and we’re only a month or so into it, so there’s plenty of time to catch up if you’re just joining me. Today I want to share with you some statistics about murder in the USA that might surprise you. Knowing these statistics can help you write a realistic murder mystery. These numbers come from a special report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics–US Department of Justice, written by John M. Dawson. I’ll copy them straight out of the book for you, followed up by my own commentary.
1. More than half of all murder victims in large cities are young black males–who are killed by other young black males. The vast majority of the murderers, and even a large percentage of their victims, have had previous trouble with the law.
I’ll admit, this statistic sounds extremely racist, but it’s true. To figure out WHY it’s true, you’d have to dig into a bunch of other background materials, like socio-economic status, drug involvement (or lack thereof), gang affiliation, single- or two-parent households, education levels, and a host of other factors that would be too hard to dig into in this post. The easiest part of this statistic to agree with is the fact that most murderers and victims have had previous trouble with the law. Not all, but most. Keep that in mind when you’re creating a victim for your story.
2. While 48 percent of the general population is between the ages of fifteen and forty-five, 75 percent of the murder victims and 91 percent of defendants are in that age range.
I think it’s pretty clear: children and the elderly are in the minority, when it comes to being a victim or a perpetrator, but they’re still in the numbers. Want to create a bad guy who’s a seven-year-old female? Go for it – just remember that she’s going to be an oddity, which will definitely make it harder for the hero to catch her.
3. Seventy-five percent of murder victims and 90 percent of defendants are male.
I love to play with this one, making my perpetrator female. Females kill for entirely different reasons than males, and if you mess that part up, your story won’t be believable. And while having a female victim is totally believable, having a male victim is so much more fun to write, especially if the killer is female. Figuring out WHY she kills and HOW she kills is almost as much fun as figuring out how the hero will catch her.
4. In large urban counties, circumstances involving illegal drugs account for 18 percent of the defendants and 16 percent of the victims.
That means there’s a one-in-five chance your bad guy is involved in drugs, either dealing or abusing. As Chief Tom Casady of Lincoln Nebraska often says: if you don’t want to be the victim of a violent crime, don’t do drugs.
5. In large urban counties, handguns are used in 50 percent of the murders; knives are used in 21 percent of the murders.
Yep, we’ve seen this on CSI all the time. But feel free to shake things up. Females like poisons (they’re a lot less messy than guns or knives. I mean, come on. Who’s going to clean up all that blood?) so do some research on poisonous plants that grow in your area (check out some of my previous blog posts if you’re interested). Or how about a drug overdose? Or a garrote? Or a candlestick? Be inventive. Readers love to discover new or interesting ways to polish off unwanted characters.
6. While 52 percent of the general population is female, only one in ten murder defendants and just over two in ten murder victims is female.
It caught my eye that this statistic includes murder defendants, not perpetrators. Does that mean female killers don’t always get caught and go to trial? Just a thought… What I really love about this statistic is that female perps are rare, so they’re much more fun to use in a story. Most detectives automatically think “male perp” when viewing a murder scene, especially if the murder was messy (gun, knife, blow torch). Writers can really have a ton of fun with this one.
7. A third of the female victims, but only one in ten male victims, are killed by their spouses or romantic partners.
This is the main reason detectives ALWAYS look at the husband/boyfriend first. Again, writer’s can really play with this statistic and use it for some fun twists. Why not frame the hubby/boyfriend, since that’s who the police will look at first? Or go ahead and make the killer the hubby/boyfriend, but he thinks he’s so blooming brilliant, he’s committed the perfect crime. Of course, the perfect crime doesn’t exist, so he’ll always make mistakes, and it’s those mistakes that lead the detective right to the perp.
8. Six of every ten arrests for murder result in a murder conviction.
This stat bugs me, unfortunately. Only 60% of the bad guys go to prison for their actions? I sincerely hope this isn’t a reflection of a poor job on the detective’s end, rather more a problem of attorneys and loopholes in the law that disallows evidence. This could be a great twist in your story if the lead detective has an over-inflated desire for justice, and the perp walks on a technicality. What happens then? The story doesn’t have to be over when the trial is over…
9. More than 99 percent of defendants in capital offense cases–those with a murder charge that could result in a death penalty–are convicted of some charge.
I like the odds on this one, but I’m not sure I understand it completely. It’s the “are convicted of some charge” that throws me. Is it saying that “murder one” isn’t necessary the charge that sticks? Either way, the statistic is clear–most murderers are caught and go to trial.
Any thoughts? Comments? Disagreements or rants regarding the numbers? I’d love to hear them.