It’s murder, I tells ya

Chris Lightfoot wonders why homicide rates in the UK have risen over the last 50 years. Liberals, conservatives and libertarians can give you a wide range of answers to this question, but none of them match the data to a particularly convincing degree.

My thought on this topic was provoked by two things: Chris’s comment "murders are typically reported, so the recorded-crime figures are likely accurate here", and the long-overdue disgracing of Witchfinder Pursuivant Sir Roy Meadow.

For those of you not acquainted with Sir Roy, he’s a paediatrician who managed to persuade the English legal system that when more than two of a parent’s children died of cot death, infanticide was the only plausible explanation.

As a result of Sir Roy’s discrediting, 258 deaths over the last 10 years that were classified as infanticides will now be re-evaluated. If it turns out that these deaths were natural, then the average annual homicide rate during the 1990s will fall by around 3%: still a very long way from a sufficient explanation.

Does Miss Marple hold the clue to the remaining cases? In the (apparently unlikely) event that Sir Roy’s dead babies were in fact murdered, they would be just one class of homicides that – but for advances in science and detection – would previously have been grouped as deaths from natural causes.

Other examples of such deaths could include cases with dissolved bodies, poisoned spouses, smothered elderly relatives, faked suicides, and mysterious disappearances – in effect, the collected works of Agatha Christie. Advances in forensic science, detailed surveillance, and the wider use of post-mortem examinations could well serve to increase the number of reported homicides without any corresponding increase in the real murder rate.

I’m far from sure that this is the explanation: for a start, I suspect that most homicides are entirely boring, with not only a clear victim but also a clear killer. Nonetheless, it would be interesting to see whether the rise in homicides has been concentrated on Agatha (or John, come to that) Christie-type mysterious cases, or cases with obvious victims who are discovered quickly. The former would be evidence in favour of my hypothesis…

Sadly, I have no idea where one might find this information, other than trawling through public records offices.

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2 thoughts on “It’s murder, I tells ya

  1. Hmm… I’d wondered about the possibility that more murders are detected now, but it seemed unlikely as an explanation. I could very well be wrong.

    I doubt that many of the "extra" homicides can be put down to Roy-Meadows-style blundering, but the idea of an increased detection rate is more plausible. There’s data in the BCS for the detection rates for recent cases (how many were murder, manslaughter, not cleared up, etc.), but I don’t know how far back the BCS goes, or whether this is enough to test your hypothesis.

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