Then he became intrigued by the social factors at play in murder and "whatever it is that makes homicide a particularly American problem."
Twelve years ago, while preparing a report for a conference, he realized that no one had done a long-term study of homicides in America. "So I had to do it," he says.
The results of that investigation are published in his new book "Murder in New York City," (University of California Press, 2001). It looks at 200 years of murder statistics in America's biggest city, and confirms perceptions of the United States as an unusually violent society, particularly during the last part of the 20th century.
The book explores the statistical trends, perpetrators, motives, circumstances, and other historical and social forces that shaped homicides in New York City. Covering a span three times longer than previous studies, Monkkonen combed archives for years to develop the database of 1,700 cases, culled from coroners' inquests, FBI crime reports, city police reports, vital statistics and newspaper reports.
Monkkonen says he chose to focus on New York City because of its size, significance and the availability of long-term records. New York City's political boundaries have stayed fairly consistent over a long period of time, so he was able to draw from coroner's reports, police records, newspaper accounts and other early sources prior to the days of official FBI statistics.
"This long span allows us to look back at a time when guns were rarer, when poverty was more widespread, and when racial discrimination was more intense, and to ask what differences these made," Monkkonen says.
Based on his analysis, Monkkonen contends that urbanization does not necessarily cause violence. The low crime rate at the turn of the century defies most expectations about what causes violence in cities, as it occurred when New York was experiencing immigration, poverty, crowding and corruption. Yet until 1958, New York had a lower homicide rat.
Monkkonen says most murders happen today much the same as it did two centuries ago. Murderers are most often men and murders are most often committed in the heat of passion, as a result of an argument. "Usually, the motives are the need to assert manliness, power or territory," he says.
Eric Monkkonen passed away in 2005, here is his University of California Obituary