by Janis Patterson
We all believe that killing someone is easy as pie (remember, I’m speaking of in pixels only here) but it’s not as simple as it seems. The main trick is doing the deed and getting away with it. I mean, letting your character get away with it. Harder still is to make it so your sleuth can find enough clues to solve the mystery without making your killer seem like an idiot or your sleuth some sort of psychic/savant. What’s really hard is when your villain is so smart you really have to work to make it possible for your sleuth to catch him. I’ve had that problem in my current WIP, so I know whereof I speak!
One of the main things to catching a killer is the murder weapon. Guns and knives have traditionally been regarded as men’s weapons of choice, while poison is regarded as a more of a woman’s weapon, the rationale being that women are dainty little creatures of great sensibility who don’t like to see blood and gore. Really? And they kill people? Give me a break.
One of the main choices of murder weapon is dependent on its availability and traceability. A gun? Who owns it and how did the murderer get it? With the forensic ballistics available today – not to mention the creeping cancer of the gun control nuts – it’s harder and harder to make it believable that a villain can just grab a gun, shoot someone and get away with it. Of course, there are workarounds. The gun could be stolen. The gun could be bought on the black market. The gun could be ‘borrowed’ with the intent of framing the legitimate owner. Something else to be considered is that so much information needed to catch the villain – ballistics, registration, etc – is not available to an amateur sleuth unless they can wheedle it out of a policeman.
Forensics today can trace a knife down to the minutest measurement and shape and, if it is unusual enough, to the brand and store from which it came. If I were going to commit a murder with a knife, I’d go to the local Target or WalMart and buy the commonest knife I could, then afterwards boil it in bleach to kill any blood on it and donate it to some charity or other or leave it in a batch of kitchen utensils at a garage sale – after carefully wiping off all fingerprints. Of course, this is assuming the killer is strong enough both internally and externally to handle the strength necessary and the resultant blood, which is going to get all over his clothes. If you want to see how hard it is to stab someone, take your murder knife and stab a big, thick roast. It’s hard to get a knife deep enough to cause a fatal wound, but not as hard as stabbing a real life person, because the roast isn’t fighting you back!
Then there’s poison. First of all, where does the killer get it? Today so many of our commonly available compounds have had their poisonous elements removed or neutered. There’s nicotine, of course, sold for e-cigarettes, and it’s commonly available, but how do you know how much to use, and then there’s the problem of getting it into your victim. Same with prescription meds, which are generally fairly traceable because of limited availability. There are also the plant based poisons, but first you have to know about them, and again think of how much to use for a fatal does and how you’re going to get the resultant product into your victim Unfortunately for the killer plant based poisons are notorious for being both variable and unreliable. Poison contents vary according to the plant, the location where it was grown, the season of the year – and the phase of the moon for all I know. You never really know if you’ve gauged your dosage correctly until your victim either dies or survives. Also, this is considered rather esoteric knowledge, known to a smallish group of people (other than mystery writers) and fairly easily traceable.
For the hardy, there is always the staple of your two hands and a good old fashioned strangling. Of course, you have to know the victim well enough to get that close to him, and you have to be strong, for he will be fighting you. Strangling takes a great deal of strength as well, which basically rules out the delicately built person strangling a larger one. It also is harder than it seems. Life is tenacious, and it takes at least four minutes if not longer to strangle a person until death is assured, no matter how easy and quick it seems on television. Same objections with smothering. Unless the victim is unconscious your villain will both have to subdue and smother. Not easy.
So – is there a perfect murder weapon? Not that I know of. Every one has plusses and minuses, and in its way that is perfect for the mystery writer. You can choose one that fits your villain and your victim, but each method has built-in clues and difficulties that can, with a little accuracy and lots of creativity on your part, make it possible for your sleuth to capture your killer, no matter how smart that villain thinks himself to be.
Also, if you’d like to read the article The American Research Center in Egypt did on me and my upcoming novel A KILLING AT EL KAB, here’s the link – http://www.arce.org/news/u162