From Midsomer to Cabot Cove - TV’s murder capitals

Where are the most dangerous places to live, according to TV detective dramas? And how do they compare with real life? David Crawford investigates...

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From Midsomer to Cabot Cove - TV’s murder capitals
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David Crawford

A listener to Radio 4's More or Less (Friday 4:30pm) recently wrote to the programme asking whether the murder rate in Midsomer Murders was out of the ordinary. The team swiftly set to work and found that, comparing Midsomer with Oxfordshire - the county where it is filmed, and upon which it is presumably based - it seems Barnaby's beat has a shockingly high number of murders.

If Midsomer is presumed to have a population comparable to Oxforsdhire, then its average of 2.6 murders an episode, with roughly eight episodes a year, making 21 deaths a year, gives an annual murder rate of 32 per million. That’s three times the rate that Thames Valley Constabulary reports for Oxfordshire (well, the Cotswolds wouldn't be such a tourist attraction if Oxfordshire was home to so many cases of dismemberment, poisoning and garotting).

In contrast, Radio Times found in 2007 that the average number of murder cases featured in Inspector Morse and Lewis across the years (just under four per year) matched almost precisely the murder rate of Oxford (three murders from April to December 2005, and “fewer than three” from January to March 2006).

However, More or Less points out that while Midsomer may have an unusually high murder rate for a bucolic English county — actually closer to that of countries such as Chile and Latvia — it is nowhere near as dangerous as somewhere like Honduras, which, with a murder rate of 910 per million, is the most dangerous place on earth.

Or is it? Another fictional idyll that has an unusually high murder rate is the small fishing village of Cabot Cove in Maine, the home of amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. Across its run it featured 274 killings, with around five cases a year taking place on Jessica’s doorstep.

As Cabot Cove reportedly has a population of 3,500 that gives it a staggering annual murder rate of 1,490 per  million — over 50 per cent more than Honduras. According to The New York Times, across Murder, She Wrote’s run, two per cent of the residents of Cabot Cove were killed – though the majority of victims were visitors. Not the place to stop for clam chowder.

So idyllic locations don't fare well in detective dramas, but the More or Less team were also interested in how the murder rates of shows set in a violent city would compare to reality. They decided to look at a classic era for detectives in Los Angeles: the late 1970s, when Columbo, Quincy, Perry Mason, Jim Rockford and Jonathan and Jennifer Hart were plying their trade (mainly, as series producer Richard Knight admits, so they could revel in the nostalgia of playing those classic theme tunes).

Their findings didn’t make the final cut of the programme, but Radio Times can reveal that although Los Angeles was a very dangerous place in the 1970s, that reality was not reflected on television. Looking across all the series mentioned above More or Less found a murder rate of 29 per million, whereas the 1979 murder rate for Los Angeles was almost eight times greater at 230 per million.

So perhaps the moral of this story is: if you want reassurance that the world is not such a frightening place, watch an American, urban detective drama from the 70s. But if you want the beejaysus scaring out of you, watch Angela Lansbury.

More or Less is at 4:30pm on Radio 4

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