Writers spend much time developing motives for killings. Impulse killings in a bar brawl or an out of control argument are rarely the main story line in a novel. Such murders may be central to a short story but then the emphasis is on hiding the crime and escaping punishment.
Serial killings account for 1-2% of murders but much fiction and psychological research is dedicated to these killers. What about the other 98% of murderers who often seem normal until they kill? Who are they?
Maybe they’re psychopaths. Smart psychopaths can be successful politicians and business men. These psychopaths exploit others to rise to the top. They might have superficial charm and be admired by others.
Psychopaths who lack education and other social and economic resources can more easily turn to crime than people without this pathology. But what about the large number of violent crimes committed by people who aren’t serial killers or psychopaths?
If individuals lack education and marketable skills, they may turn to a life of crime as preferable to low-paying, boring jobs. Gangs give young people a sense of belonging if this is lacking in the family or at school. Drugs and alcohol decrease inhibitions and may lead to crime to support a drug habit. Greed, jealousy, anger, and frustration can lead to an impulse murder.
Dr. David Buss, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Texas suggests that killing is part of human nature and has been used throughout time to enhance reproductive success. All the mystery writers who claim creative license for their homicidal fantasies might take note of Buss’s research into murderous fantasies. 91% of men and 84% of women have at least one detailed fantasy of committing murder. Being rejected by a mate increases the likelihood in both men and women that these fantasies will include torture.
Men most often kill mates who dump them whereas women kill mates who abuse them because these women believe murder is the only way out of their situation. Men are more likely to kill rejecting mates who are younger, beautiful and fertile.
Public humiliation ranks high as a reason for killing, especially among men who are more often valued as partners because of their status and economic success. If a wife cheats, she may expose her mate to ridicule and severe damage to his reputation so the most beautiful women are less likely to be interested in him.
Are mystery writers being creative with their killing fantasies or are they digging into evolutionary instincts as hard-wired as those of predatory animals who kill to eat? Part of our preoccupation with murder and killing could be a human and social effort to understand the act and the motives behind it so we can control or stop such crimes. The tale of Cain and Abel suggests our ancestors knew instinctively our efforts are doomed to failure. In the end, artistic or instinctive, does the fantasy turn into a good story—that’s what counts for writers and readers. Fiction lets the mind play without fear of punishment--usually.