Murder is — and has been for some time — one of the most popular literary genres on bookstore shelves. In the past decade or so, readers of murder mysteries, thrillers, and true crime arguably have learned more about forensics and crime procedure than in all preceding years. Yet in terms of personal experience with murder, very few of us have been touched by it. According to the FBI’s most recent crime statistics report, we’re actually 10% less likely to be murdered in this reporting period than last. And more good news — this trend is now in its third year and, if it survives the economic challenges of 2010, we can be optimistic about its continuing.
Approximately 16,000 murders occur each year, which works out to 5.4 per 100,000 people. Overwhelmingly (66.9%), guns are the weapon of choice. Knives account for only 13.4%. Poison, that favorite of mystery writers, comes in so low on the list it’s almost statistically insignificant. The same for Explosives. Strangulation, Asphyxiation, Narcotics and Arson are somewhat higher but still nothing to write home about. The infamous “Blunt Object” comes in at around 4% of all murders committed and what are referred to as “Personal Weapons” — basically hands and feet — approximately 6%. “Other Weapon” or “Weapon Not Stated” (including drowning) is 7%.
As far as what precipitates murder, the catch-all category of unspecified “Arguments” makes up a quarter of all motives (25%) while two favorites of who-dun-its, “Romantic Triangles” and “Gangland Killings,” barely make it onto the chart at .007 and .009 respectively. ”Sniper Attacks” are even lower (4 out of 14,180 total murders ). There are more murders committed in the course of “Theft” (7%) than Homicides Related to Drugs” (4%) and “Juvenile Gang Killings” are just above drugs at 5%.
For those pulling for “Power-driven Megalomaniacs Trying to Take Over the World” — sorry, they aren’t mentioned at all.
While it’s fun to look at these statistics (provided by the FBI) and compare them to the weapons and motives that writers employ in their books, there are some non-statistics which make for more dismal reading. The FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted List” http://www.fbi.gov/wanted.htm is decidedly unpleasant and photographs of murder victims, some of them still unidentified, some of them children, are nothing but sad. See http://www.fbi.gov/wanted/seekinfo/seek.htm and http://www.fbi.gov/wanted/vicap/vicap.htm . Perhaps you can put a name to some unfortunate on these pages.
In other ways, the FBI remains a wealth of information for crime writers. Two areas in particular are VICAP and laboratory analysis.
Almost everyone who reads or writes crime novels has run across the term VICAP. Usually explained in a sentence or two by authors, it’s actually a multi-purpose program that embraces several different and complex areas. See: http://www.fbi.gov/hq/isd/cirg/ncavc.htm#vicap. An eye-opener for me was this section : http://www.fbi.gov/page2/april09/highwayserialkillings_040609.html. Look at the map and you’ll be amazed at the range and number of highway serial killings.
Since this is the age of CSI, no overview of murder would be complete without forensics. The FBI is the strongman in this field. Have a look at: http://www.fbi.gov/hq/lab/labhome.htm.
There are many excellent sites on the web for crime research. Next time, I’ll post some of them on this page as an update.
In the meantime — stay safe and watch what goes in your glass.