One of the things that gets me out of bed in the morning is my mission to bust the numerous myths and stereotypes around homicide[1]. Whilst crimes like this feature prominently in the broadcast and entertainment media, they are very rare and not many of us will have direct experience of them. This is clearly something to be thankful for but one implication is that our perceptions and understandings of them are informed to a considerable extent by what we see on television and in print. This can be problematic – media depictions of homicide, from the news to prime time television drama, are not always representative and can hinder rather than help us make sense of this type of crime.

However, storylines like “Who Killed Lucy Beale?” in the flagship BBC soap EastEnders do provide criminologists like me with opportunities to separate fact from fiction, rhetoric from reality. This involves looking at official statistics and academic studies to cast a critical eye upon fictional depictions and reassess what we think we know about homicide.

The BBC website for the show currently includes a Lucy Beale ‘Case File’[2], featuring a list of 14 suspects, CCTV clips and other ‘evidence’ including screenshots of Lucy’s social media profiles and audio recordings of her voicemails. This adds to the drama whilst at the same time making this fictional storyline seem like something out of a Crimewatch appeal. Whilst we need to remember that this is not a real case we can use it to establish some facts about homicide.

The best place to focus for a broad overview is upon victims and perpetrators – who are these people? Researchers have been telling us for years that homicide is very much a male phenomenon – these crimes are largely male-perpetrated and men are over-represented as victims[3]. Official data bears this out – the most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics[4] inform us that 90% of suspects and around 2/3 of victims are male.  So drawing upon these figures, the killer of Lucy Beale is much more likely to be male than female. Therefore, if we are basing our answer to “Who killed Lucy?” on this, we can remove the seven female suspects from the list. So Abi Branning, Cindy Williams, Denise Fox, Jane Beale, Lauren Branning, Pam Coker and Whitney Dean are out of the frame.

Moving on to look at the relationship between victims and perpetrators[5], women are more likely to be killed by a partner or ex-partner than men – 53% and 7% respectively. Women are also more likely than men to be killed by a parent or other family member – 17% compared to 4%. Contrast this with male victims, who are more likely than women to be killed by a friend or acquaintance – 42% compared to 9%. So again, if we are going by general trends and patterns, we can forget about Jay Brown and Les Coker. This then leaves five suspects, two in the partner/ex-partner category – Lee Carter and Max Branning – and three in the family category – Ian Beale (Lucy’s father), Peter Beale (Lucy’s brother) and Ben Mitchell (described as Lucy’s ‘half-uncle’ on the BBC website).  So if I was asked to say who I think the killer is – I would say that the most likely suspects are Max Branning and Lee Carter – in that order.

However, I think the most compelling question we need to ask here – as someone I discussed this with today put it – is : “Who cares?” Why are we so preoccupied with “Who killed Lucy Beale?” I think the answer lies in the ‘ideal victim’. Criminologists often draw upon this concept when discussing news coverage of crime victims. Ideal victims are people whose status as a victim is not questioned, they are seen as worthy and deserving of sympathy and compassion. By contrast, there are those whose victimhood is less secure, who are seen as less deserving and even culpable to a degree.  Physical appearance plays a significant role in ideal victimhood: a young, white, blonde woman – indeed, like Lucy Beale – will generate more interest than an older, non-white, man. There is a hierarchy of victimization, where those who acquire the status of ideal victim attract massive levels of attention and those who don’t go virtually unnoticed. Art is imitating life here to a significant degree. Would we be seeing a similar level of interest if the EastEnders storyline was “Who killed Masood Ahmed?” or “Who killed Patrick Trueman?”. I think not, and that says more about us as a society than it does about the fictional world of Albert Square.


[1] I use the term “homicide” because this refers to the act of taking someone else’s life, whilst “murder” and “manslaughter” refer to legal penalties. From what we have seen so far, we are unable to definitely say whether murder or manslaughter applies to Lucy Beale’s killing.

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/11yNbjHjjdryvXnr95N4vy0/investigation-evidence

[3] Brookman, F. (2005) Understanding Homicide, London: Sage; D’Cruze, S., Walklate, S. and Pegg, S. (2006) Murder, London: Routledge; Polk, K. (1994) When Men Kill: Scenarios of Masculine Violence, New York: Cambridge University Press; Rock, P. (1998) After Homicide, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[4] Office for National Statistics. (2015). Crime Statistics, Focus on Violent Crime and Sexual Offences, 2013/14 [Online] Available at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/crime-stats/crime-statistics/focus-on-violent-crime-and-sexual-offences–2013-14/index.html

[5] Referring to victims aged 16 or over.

 

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Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Reader in Criminology and Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University.