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Crime scene: Descendre mal . . . a calculating murder by any other name


I have seen lots of stories recently about people falling from windows.

Some have died, some haven’t but what really grabbed my attention?

Well, I’m currently researching my next book, which is going to describe how the different rooms of our houses have been harnessed to facilitate murder and I’ve been expecting to find some ­contemporary cases of defenestration.

This is a French word which literally means to be thrown out of a window to your death – you are “de” ­“fenestrated” and the French for window is la fenetre.

I suppose that most people will now associate this method of murder with Bran in Game of Thrones being pushed from the window by Jamie.

In the hope of keeping his incestuous affair secret, Jamie pushes Bran from the window, although Bran survived the fall.

However, there are also some very real cases of defenestration including the “Defenestration of Prague” in 1618, which started the Thirty Years War, and of course William, Earl of Douglas, was thrown to his death from a window in Stirling Castle by James II in 1452.

In my research for the book I did find a number of contemporary examples in Canada, China and America of murder by defenestration but I couldn’t discover any recent British cases at all.

This is perhaps because the design of windows has changed so much that this type of crime has been made more
difficult.

But what took me by surprise was the extraordinary number of murders that take place in Britain where the victim has been pushed down the stairs.

This type of murder – although the charge was often later reduced to manslaughter (or culpable homicide in Scotland) – invariably occurred after the victim and the perpetrator had been drinking and there had been some kind of disagreement.

The victim was often described as being “wobbly on their feet”.

There was therefore no intention to kill the victim – there was no mens rea or “guilty mind” on the part of the ­perpetrator – and hence the charge of manslaughter, rather than murder.

But who is to say that this was the case, especially if there were no witnesses to speak up on behalf of the victim?

It also made me wonder about all the “accidents” that are recorded involving the stairs and which lead to a death might have been the result of something more sinister.

I also discovered that there is in fact no technical criminological, or legal term to describe a murder or manslaughter that is the result of the victim being pushed down the stairs.

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That set me thinking.

What could I call this form of crime?

I thought about the word defenestration and again took my inspiration from the French language and this is what I have come up with – “descendre mal”. Literally to descend badly, as descendre in French means to “come down” and mal is “wrong” and also the root of “malevolent”.

So you heard it here first – descendre mal – is the new term that I am proposing to use if someone gets pushed down the stairs.

Oh, and don’t get me started on the unique role that kitchens have played in the history of murder in Britain – that will have to wait until the book is published in 2022.

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