Thursday, August 25, 2016

In the heat of the moment—

Image by Mr Clementi, via Flickr
Mysteries/crime fiction are sometimes called “murder mysteries”, but one or more murders are not really necessary. “Homicide” or “Unnatural death mysteries” would be more appropriate.

I just looked up Homicide in my grandmother’s UK-published encyclopaedia, published in the UK in 1913, a useful resource for me as my Daisy Dalrymple mysteries are set in England in the 1920s. It directs me to two other entries: Manslaughter and Murder. My 1964 American encyclopedia agrees.

Disregarding accidental homicide, what is the difference? Basically, it’s “in the heat of the moment” versus “malice aforethought.”

I have no statistics—I doubt anyone has ever compiled any-but based on my own writing and reading I’d guess a large proportion of mysteries have homicides that can be classified as manslaughter, not murder.

This doesn’t make the chase any less urgent, however. Usually the detective can’t tell which he is dealing with, and in any case, he doesn’t decide. That’s up to the courts, once the arrest has been made. The suspicious death has to be investigated just the same whichever it looks like at first sight.

The uncertainty can be used to add to the suspense, especially if the main suspects are likeable, so that the reader is rooting for them.


Of my three covers here, one has malice-aforethought murder, one has in-the-heat-of-the moment manslaughter, and one remains questionable in spite of multiple unnatural deaths. At least, that’s my opinion, standing in for the Coroner’s jury.

Carola Dunn is author of the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries, Cornish Mysteries, and multitudinous Regencies. The paperback edition of Superfluous Women is now available to pre-order. 


  1. What a great clarification of the difference between murder and manslaughter and homicide. Some mystery writers are not as conscientious as others in making those differences clear.

  2. "In the heat of the moment" versus "malice aforethought" - in other words, a sudden striking out versus premeditated murder. I never thought about this difference, but I'm sure it's taken into account when the accused is charged with first degree murder, second degree murder, and so forth. Like Maryann, I appreciate that distinction. One of these days, I'm going to have time to read for the pure pleasure of getting lost in a great story. Your books are on my list to enjoy. Interesting post, Carola.

  3. As long as there is a body and a perpetrator, motivated suspects, terrific finger-pointing, and an interesting sleuth, I don't really care what they are charged with. :) I just want to know who dunnit.

  4. Even a death that is completely accidental can be useful to a mystery writer. Consider a case where a person who accidentally causes a fatal accident (negligent homicide) had motives for wanting the victim dead, and all the circumstances point to murder. He would do his best to conceal his involvement, just as if he had in fact committed murder.

  5. I just thought through all my books. Not an accidental murder among them. All premeditated. I should rethink in the future or my readers will know what my villain is going to do. Thought provoking, Carola.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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