The best nonfiction books about why people sometimes kill one another

Martin Daly Author Of Killing the Competition: Economic Inequality and Homicide
By Martin Daly

Who am I?

When my late wife Margo Wilson suggested, over 40 years ago, that we should study homicides for what they might reveal about human motives and emotions, her idea seemed zany. But when we plunged into police investigative files and homicide databases, we quickly realized that we had struck gold, and homicide research became our passion. Our innovation was to approach the topic like epidemiologists, asking who is likely to kill whom and identifying the risk factors that are peculiar to particular victim-killer relationships. What do people really care about? Surveys and interviews elicit cheap talk; killing someone is drastic action.  


I wrote...

Killing the Competition: Economic Inequality and Homicide

By Martin Daly,

Book cover of Killing the Competition: Economic Inequality and Homicide

What is my book about?

Criminologists have long known that income inequality is the best predictor of local homicide rates, but why this is so has eluded them. There is a simple, compelling answer. Most homicides arise from competitive interactions among men, and where the goods that men desire are distributed more inequitably, competition is more severe, and dangerous competitive tactics, including potentially lethal tactics, are more appealing.  

Proposing that inequality creates social problems elicits fierce dissent from its privileged beneficiaries. Killing the Competition dissects and refutes the counterarguments that inequality's apologists have mustered, and makes the case that the simple explanation offered above is correct, while exploding myths that extreme inequality fosters prosperity and that the inertia of cultural values makes progress impossible.

The books I picked & why

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Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder from the Frontier to the Inner City

By David T. Courtwright,

Book cover of Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder from the Frontier to the Inner City

Why this book?

Florida-based historian David Courtwright is best known for his analyses of the history of drug addiction and the drug business in the United States, but this volume is a fact-filled page-turner on America's lethal violence problem. Courtwright describes a frontier culture in which a reputation for violent capability was an essential social asset and persuasively explicates its similarities with the situation that faces single young men in America's underserved inner cities to this day. The interdisciplinary scope of Courtwright's scholarship guarantees that any reader will learn a great deal from his book. I found it unputdownable.   

Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder from the Frontier to the Inner City

By David T. Courtwright,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Violent Land as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book offers a look at violence in America - why it is so prevalent, and what and who are responsible. David Cartwright takes the long view of his subject, developing the historical patterns of violence and disorder in this country. Where there is violent and disorderly behaviour, he shows, there are plenty of men, largely young and single. What began in the mining camp and bunkhouse has simply continued in the urban world of today, where many young, armed, intoxicated, honour-conscious bachelors have reverted to frontier conditions. "Violent Land" combines social science with a narrative that spans and reinterprets…


When Men Murder Women

By R. Emerson Dobash, Russell P. Dobash,

Book cover of When Men Murder Women

Why this book?

Rebecca and Russell Dobash had studied men's violence against their female partners for decades and were already heroes of the women's movement when they began interviewing incarcerated killers in Britain. Two fine books have resulted, one focused on men who killed women, the other on men who killed men. It is the former, especially the section on intimate partner homicide, that I find most captivating. The Dobashes skilfully blend national statistics with the self-serving testimony of their interviewees, who minimize their lethal acts as things that "happened" rather than things that they did, and apparently believe themselves to be the victims. These insights are essential.    

When Men Murder Women

By R. Emerson Dobash, Russell P. Dobash,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked When Men Murder Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the United States and Great Britain, 20-30% of all homicides involve the killing of a woman by a man, and it is far rarer when a woman is killed by another woman. Unfortunately, this is not a very well understood phenomenon. Most books on the topic discuss serial killings, but those only make up 2% of sexual murder-a sensationalist subset of a subset. There has never before been a comprehensive book that has covered the entire scope of homicide cases in which men
murder women.

Dobash and Dobash, two seasoned researchers and longtime collaborators in the study of violence…


Killings

By Calvin Trillin,

Book cover of Killings

Why this book?

It was Calvin Trillin's hilariously enthusiastic stories about the world's best restaurants (most of which seem to be situated in his hometown of Kansas City) that initially made me one of his many fans. Between 1967 and 1982, however, he also wrote a series of long articles for The New Yorker entitled "U.S. Journal," in which he used singular events, often homicides, as the launchpads for tales rich in local history and lifeways. Sixteen of Trillin's best are assembled here. Has anyone written more penetratingly about how rivalries and resentments are embedded in social settings?  

Killings

By Calvin Trillin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Killings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

True stories of sudden death in the classic collection by a master of American journalism

“Reporters love murders,” Calvin Trillin writes in the introduction to Killings. “In a pinch, what the lawyers call ‘wrongful death’ will do, particularly if it’s sudden.” Killings, first published in 1984 and expanded for this edition, shows Trillin to be such a reporter, drawn time after time to tales of sudden death. But Trillin is attracted less by violence or police procedure than by the way the fabric of people’s lives is suddenly exposed when someone comes to an untimely end.  As Trillin says, Killings…


Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets

By David Simon,

Book cover of Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets

Why this book?

In 1979, Margo Wilson and I were granted access, for research purposes, to police files in Detroit, then the "homicide capital of America." Reading those files, and watching the over-worked homicide detectives in action, we gained great respect for the smart officers who were promoted from the ranks to detective, and I've been fascinated with how they pursue their craft ever since. No one has described this world and what it reveals about everyday lethal violence in America better than reporter David Simon, who was embedded as an "intern" in Baltimore's homicide unit for a year. The hit television series The Wire was based on Simon's book, and I suspect that many fans of that series would like the book even better than the TV show.

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets

By David Simon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Homicide as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the creator of HBO's The Wire, the classic book about homicide investigation that became the basis for the hit television show

The scene is Baltimore. Twice every three days another citizen is shot, stabbed, or bludgeoned to death. At the center of this hurricane of crime is the city's homicide unit, a small brotherhood of hard men who fight for whatever justice is possible in a deadly world.

David Simon was the first reporter ever to gain unlimited access to a homicide unit, and this electrifying book tells the true story of a year on the violent streets of…


Maria Murder and Suicide

By Verrier Elwin,

Book cover of Maria Murder and Suicide

Why this book?

People share a complex core of humanity that transcends cultural differences. Rather than being incomprehensibly strange, the passions that move people in "exotic" societies are all too familiar. Compendia of homicide cases in tribal societies that are in many ways different from the one we inhabit support this claim, and my 5th pick is a particularly readable example. Anthropologist Verrier Elwin amassed court records on 107 homicides among the "Bison-Horn Maria" of central India in the first half of the 20th century. The Maria then lived as slash-and-burn horticulturalists and part-time hunter-gatherers, and were, like other "tribals," left to their own devices by the British Raj unless a violent death provoked state intervention. The killings described here are tragic, and the protagonists, though sparsely introduced, fully human.     

Maria Murder and Suicide

By Verrier Elwin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Maria Murder and Suicide as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

After providing a brief sketch of Maria life and custom, Elwin goes on to examine the records of one hundred cases of murder and fifty cases of suicide, and finally makes valuable suggestions for improving the treatment of aboriginal in jail. The commonest motives for crime among the Bison-horn Maria were found to be sexual jealousy and resentment or shame caused by public rebuke; fatigue and the use of alcohol were also found to be factors.


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