We’re constantly being told we live in a violent society. Like so much received wisdom, that may not be quite the case. And crime writers, who may be criticized for adding to the problem by writing about mayhem and murder, should get the facts.
In pre-industrial England and the early American colonies you didn’t travel on the roads at night because of highway robbers, brigands and footpads. [What a great word, footpads.] Today, I would think nothing of getting in the car and driving alone two hundred miles into central Michigan in the night. In Chicago, I walk almost everywhere I go.
The murder rate in England can be calculated quite accurately back as far as 1200, using court records. We may think of this as an agrarian Eden, but in fact murder rates up to 1800 were 21 per 100,000. The current rate in the U.K. is 1.4 per 100,000 and the U.S. is around 4. There are some studies that conclude rates in the U.K. before 1800 were over the 21 per 100,000 figures.
In hunter-gatherer societies, over half the deaths may have been murder. Societies varied, of course, but some guesstimates place deaths at 32 per cent from illness, 15 per cent accident, and all the rest, 53 per cent, murder.
I won’t belabor this, much as I’d like to.
Yes, we have crime in the U.S. And too many guns. And there are unsafe places. But for most people, going to the evening PTA meeting, walking to work, jogging in the park, picking up groceries, whatever, violence is very, very rare by any historical perspective.
Maybe we have a gut-realization of that. Maybe we realize instinctively that we are generally safe, even coddled, and maybe our primitive hunter-gatherer brain feels there’s something a little bit askew about this. Could that be why we love violent movies and TV? Could that be why we read crime novels and why some of us are even lucky enough to write them?
Maybe violence in fiction isn’t all bad. Well-written violence in fiction may even remind us how ugly real violence is. And maybe it’s cathartic as well.