Where’s the body? The importance of a corpse to a crime writer…
I’ve been talking to audiences about murder for a number of years now. As a result, I’m uncomfortably aware that a high percentage of perfectly ordinary people have thought about committing murder—and some have a specific victim in mind.
The stories I get from people can be amazing. And I have to tell you, it’s always the women. While most real-life murders are committed by men, in my experience, women think about it a lot!
A lady in Toronto once took the trouble to tell me about her plans to murder her husband: why she was going to do it, how she was going to do it, how happy she was going to feel after she’d done it… Fortunately, her circumstances had changed, and she ended up not having to go through with it.
I also remember doing a readers’ day in the city of Nottingham a few years ago, where my audience was entirely female (as they often are). When I asked if there was anyone in the group who thought they couldn’t commit a murder in any circumstances, two women put their hands up. Yet within seconds, the conversation had moved on to what the best weapon would be. A heavy saucepan was suggested, because “you can get a good swing with it” (along with the appropriate actions). But I was particularly struck by one lady’s anxious question: “If I injected insulin under his fingernails, would they be able to tell at the postmortem?”
And I think that’s why women don’t commit more murders. They plan it in advance, think it through—and realize the hard part is getting away with it.
From these conversations, I’ve learned that many people think the key to a perfect murder is the disposal of the body. Readers of crime fiction can be quite inventive, too. In the more rural parts of England, a particularly popular suggestion is feeding the body to the pigs.
And it’s true that in a country like Britain, a small crowded island, it’s quite hard to dispose of a dead body. It will almost certainly turn up at some point, often found by someone walking a dog.
Lots of people believe you can’t be convicted of murder if no body is found. And for those who might have been contemplating their own personal homicide, I have to advise them of a disappointing fact: it isn’t true.
There’s a very interesting history to this belief in the UK, which goes right back to the 17th century and a famous murder case known as “The Campden Wonder.”
In 1660, a man named William Harrison went missing from the town of Chipping Campden. It was suspected that he’d been killed, but no body was found, only a set of blood-stained clothing.
Subsequently, three people were charged with his murder: three members of the same family, a mother and two sons. They were convicted and sentenced to death. And they didn’t mess about in those days, so all three of them were hanged soon after the end of the trial.
But a few months after their execution, William Harrison reappeared in Chipping Campden alive and well. He claimed that he’d been abducted by pirates and sold into slavery in Turkey. He’d been kept prisoner for almost two years before he managed to escape and make his way back to England, where he arrived home expecting everyone to be delighted to see him. Unfortunately, during his absence, three innocent people had been executed for his murder.
For almost three hundred years after this, British courts observed the principle that there could be no conviction for murder without a body, to avoid another major miscarriage of justice.
This changed with a couple of notorious cases.
The serial killer John Hague was one perpetrator who operated on the theory that a body was required for a conviction. Hague dissolved the bodies of his victims in a bath of sulphuric acid. But the remains of his last victim were found to contain part of her dentures, and her dentist was able to identify her. As a result, Haigh was executed for murder in 1949.
Then, in 1954, a Polish farmer named Michael Onufrejczyk was accused of killing his business partner on their farm in Wales. The body of his victim was never located, though the police believed—guess what?—that he’d fed it to the pigs.
At Onufrejczyk’s trial, the prosecution convinced the jury that over two thousand tiny bloodstains found during a forensic examination of the farmhouse were human, and that the victim couldn’t possible have survived, given the amount of blood loss. The farmer was convicted of murder, with no body ever being found.
In both these cases, the crucial factor was forensic evidence. In the last sixty years, forensic science has developed in leaps and bounds and can produce compelling testimony in court.
Circumstantial evidence can be persuasive, too. Our technological age means we all leave behind a complex trail as we go about our lives, which stops suddenly when we die. Your phone goes off, your bank account is no longer used, there’s no sign of you on CCTV, and no one has any contact from you. “Kidnapped by Turkish pirates” starts to look a lot less convincing as a scenario.
Now there are three or four cases every year in the UK where people are convicted of murder without the remains of a victim ever being located.
For a crime novelist, that raises an irresistibly intriguing question. Where exactly is that body?
Stephen Booth is a British crime novelist. A former newspaper journalist, he is the author of eighteen novels in the Ben Cooper and Diane Fry series, featuring two Derbyshire police detectives and set around England’s beautiful and atmospheric Peak District. The books have won awards on both side of the Atlantic, and Stephen has been presented with the Dagger in the Library award by the UK Crime Writers’ Association. His latest novel in the Cooper & Fry series is Dead in the Dark, published in the USA by Witness Impulse in September 2018.
For more info visit his website at http://www.stephen-booth.com/