Only in Chicago, where murder is a macabre civic pathology and an almost daily habit, would the slaughter of more than 400 people in 2013 be cause for relief. But with the 503 killings of 2012 still haunting the city, this year’s 410 through Dec. 26 is an improve­ment. Con­text, though, counts: These two years flank by nearly equal mar­gins what’s now the typ­ical murder toll here: When 2013 ends Tuesday, Chicago will have aver­aged some 458 killings in each of the last 10 years.

That con­stancy is remark­able, given that murder is not one crime but a con­stel­la­tion of crimes — from tavern brawls to child abuse to gang shoot­ings — in which someone winds up dead. Note in the accom­pa­nying graphic how grad­u­ally the trend line typ­i­cally changes through the decades. Looking at that graphic, you’d think murder has a mind of its own, diverting from a reli­able average one year and, the next year, stub­bornly regressing toward the mean.

No wonder, then, that crim­inal jus­tice researcher James Alan Fox of North­eastern Uni­ver­sity in Boston haz­ards a dis­turbing guess of what hap­pens now if Chicago doesn’t keep finding ways to buck the aver­ages. Fox, who over the years has exam­ined Chicago mur­ders as a con­sul­tant to the Tri­bune Edi­to­rial Board, has a unique view of homi­cide stats: his data­base of America’s more than 600,000 mur­ders over the last 36 years, a trove that even the FBI envies. That unmatched wealth of num­bers tells him:

The good news for Chicago is that your murder toll is way down. But the odds say it’ll prob­ably go up next year.”

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