The Publicity Paradox

by Janis Patterson

It’s hard not to feel sorry for a poor writer. While most people think we are almost supernatural creatures living fantastic, fairy-tale lives, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, sometimes the truth is downright depressing.

Rather than reclining on a luxurious chaise longue, looking over some spectacular view, dashing off a couple of thousand words while sipping champagne (if you’re a romance writer) or pounding on an ancient mechanical typewriter in some dimly lit room with wonky venetian blinds and a bottle of hard liquor at your elbow (if you’re a mystery writer) or ensconced in a book-lined library with a fancy fountain pen and a bottle of smelling salts handy in case your own genius overcomes you (if you’re a literary writer), the real poor writer of whatever stripe is usually trying to cram his output into the nooks and crannies of his life.

These days it’s rare that a writer can make a complete living solely by his writing; nearly all of us have distractions such as jobs, children, families, homes, responsibilities, health issues and Heaven only knows what other interferences mortal flesh is heir to. That, plus in this whacky modern world of publishing the writer is mainly responsible for editing and publicity, both in the realms of self-publishing AND traditional publishing.

Champagne? We’re lucky if we get a chance to grab a diet Dr Pepper!

For me, publicity is especially galling. I do what I must to keep my and my family’s life going. I work very hard at writing the best books I can. I will admit I suck at publicity, even though I was well trained in doing it, mainly because I don’t like doing it and because I was raised to believe it is slightly trashy to blow one’s own horn.

In my opinion, the worst part is the current trend to spread out your private life and make friends with all your readers. My question is, Why? The fact that I dislike brussels sprouts and refuse to wear the color orange should have nothing to do with the quality or content of my books. Plus, I already have many, many friends – real friends, whom sadly I do not get enough chance to see because I’m always having to work. To be real a friendship has to grow organically. I don’t need a pseudo-friendship connection with a fan who wants to exchange recipes and chat about what we’re having for dinner or give me suggestions about my next book. What I’m fixing/ordering for dinner is no one’s business except for me and my family.

What should matter is the book – the story. That is what the reader should be interested in, not whether I prefer Veuve Cliquot or Prosecco, or drive a BMW or a Chevrolet, or live in a condo downtown or a two story house in the country. We are writers – spinners of tales, creators of worlds, manufacturers of dreams – not zoo animals on display for the amusement and edification of the intrusive public.

It’s our books which matter, our books which the readers buy – not unlimited access to our home and family and private life. Private life should be exactly that – private. Writers write stories and readers read stories. That’s the basic contract between writer and reader… or it should be.

The Murder Person Redux

by Janis Patterson

We’ve talked a lot about the myriad murder weapons present in the average home, and a little about what deadly things a murderer can carry on his person, on which I intend to expand a little after this warning.

If your murderer is going to use something clever (i.e., more than a rock or a gun or a knife) that he carries on his person he not only needs to be extremely smart but very careful. especially if the murder method results in instantaneous death. Then everyone who was with the victim is likely to be carefully scrutinized. We cannot rely on the police overlooking anything suspicious.

So with that caveat in mind, let’s talk about the actual killing. If your villain is going to be gone before death occurs there’s a lot more leeway in method.


How will your murderer handle such risk of exposure? Usually it will involve some specialized equipment,  barring the expected – and lamentably common – belts and scarves, etc. Here is where the ingenuity – and the sneakiness – of the murderer becomes paramount. If specialized equipment is necessary and the murderer can’t manufacture it himself, he must find a safe and secret way of obtaining it. Remember, the more people who know a secret the less of a secret it becomes and the more of a risk exists for the murderer.

If your killer is a woman, jewelry is a good choice. An earring with an edge sharpened so fine it can slice arteries. A garotte wire woven through a chunky metal necklace, though with this method you must be sure that it leaves no identifiable imprint in flesh as chain patterns are very recognizable. There is also the question of disposability. You don’t want to be caught wearing the murder weapon.

One way of murder requires a very daring and brave – if not downright foolhardy – killer. This would not work where there is a possibility of a body search of witnesses and would probably work best in a crowded venue. The murderer secretes a thin needle to the inside of a finger, with thin surgical tubing running up his arm to a bladder secreted somewhere on his person. Under the clothes under the arm to a pocket where it could be manipulated with the free hand would be the best choices. Fill the bladder with the poison of choice – a very fast acting one would be my preference, as you don’t want your victim to remember he felt a sharp prick or that your murderer was standing very close by at the time!

Personally, my choice would be curare, the South American neurotoxin. Fill the bladder, grasp the hand or arm or neck of your victim, make sure the needle enters the skin, squeeze the bladder… almost instantaneous death. And most likely untraceable if you did your sourcing cleverly, as one of the benefits of curare is that it dissipates almost instantly and leaves no trace in the body, which makes finding ‘cause of death’ almost impossible. Of course, your murderer would need superb neuromuscular skills in order to make sure he didn’t jab himself. I’m too much of a klutz to even think of trying this method. I would probably end up being my first victim! And if you worry about supply sourcing, you can order curare over the internet. It’s amazing what you can find out there if you just search creatively.

So – if you want a memorable murder, if you want something different, just let your imagination roam. While it’s terrifying, it’s also true that almost every object in this world can be used as a murder weapon in the hands of a clever villain. Your murderer is limited only by your imagination… and his conscience.

The Murder Person

by Janis Patterson

After the wonderful reception of my last two blogs on the Murder House I couldn’t stop thinking that it was foolish to limit our villain just to the interior of an average house. Murder can be just as deadly and diabolical with what our villain has on his person. Of course, it will require more knowledge, more planning, even more daring than in the theoretically private environs of a house, but a canny villain can be just as deadly with what is on their body.

Of course, there are the obvious things – a belt or scarf or even a necklace for a garotte or perhaps in the right circumstances smothering, a concealed knife or gun, even a blunt instrument such as a few rolls of coins in a sock or scarf – the ‘cosh’ so beloved of old-style gangsters. However – while effective, those tools are crude and totally lacking in imagination. The canny mystery writer wants something more stylish, more imaginative… and less traceable.

The first thing that comes to mind is those sky-high stiletto heels worn by young fashionistas. Properly applied to a suitably vulnerable portion of the anatomy – say the nasal cavity into the brain, or the temple, or with the right knowledge of anatomy the brain stem or any of the major arteries, especially in the neck or groin – they can be very deadly. That is, once our murderer is sure they can walk in them without falling or attention-drawing staggering – something I was never able to master even in my youth. Another drawback is the relatively short space between the heel tip and the beginning of the sole – usually no more than 2 ½ – 3 inches. That would constrict the field of effective use and rule out punctures to the heart.

A nice touch would be to have the murderer be a man dressed as a woman who immediately divests himself of the female clothing – where it could be neither found nor traced to him, a challenging exercise in itself. I’m sure a clever writer could overcome that, though.

Let’s get more creative. Remember a generation or so ago a man was killed on a London street by the means of a small (I mean really tiny) ball filled with ricin (made from the castor bean plant, remember?) injected from the tip of an umbrella by a seeming passer-by? That’s very convoluted and unless the killer is a scientist very dangerous way of getting rid of someone, but it worked. As I remember it took the authorities years to figure it out. However, it has been proved to work and if it fits your scenario, go for it.

More workable are more common poisons, and unless the murderer and victim meet quite often so a long-term poisoning is feasible, they have to be fast-acting. Again there is the crushed OTC pain reliever which will kill over time after one dose by creating a cascade liver failure. This has the benefit of death occurring long – sometimes weeks – after the murderer has dosed the victim, but one drawback is that the resulting necessary powder is a fairly large amount and the taste is quite bitter. However, if the murderer is clever, he can carry a lethal dose on his person, give it all to the victim in some innocuous fashion and, once sure the victim has ingested it all, get away scot-free.

One of the classic means is the poison ring. After all, if it worked for Lucretia Borgia, it should work for our villain. An anecdote – my father was a wonderful and intelligent man who had the same wacky sense of humor as I. Our family had just come back from a trip to Mexico, where Daddy had bought me a poison ring, which I still have. It was a cheap tourist thing, with an obvious hinge on the side of the stone that wouldn’t fool any reasonably alert person. Daddy used saccharine tablets in his coffee, and in play – since he could never remember to bring his tablets with him – I started putting them in my poison ring. Instead of giving them to him, I simply started dumping them into his coffee cup, which Daddy and I both thought highly amusing. (Yes, we were easily amused!) My mother’s thoughts on our charade are not suitable for public pixilation, but she was a very starchily correct lady. How she must have suffered with my father’s and my antics!

Anyway. One day we were having lunch at our club and Daddy was involved in a conversation with a colleague when the waitress came by to fill his coffee cup. As was our custom I reached over, opened my ring and dumped two saccharine tablets into his coffee. The colleague’s eyes widened and – ostentatiously accidentally – he managed to knock the cup off the table, spilling it, before Daddy could take a sip. No one ever said a word – except Mother, who said a great deal of them to Daddy and me later – but we didn’t do the poison ring thing again. Sigh. It was fun while it lasted.

However – you don’t need a real poison ring to get the benefit of similar surreptitiousness. The good ones are incredibly expensive, too. All you need is a (hopefully cheap, since your villain will probably be discarding it right after) large costume jewelry ring where the base of the stone sits high above your finger creating a fair-sized gap big enough to hold a sufficient amount of poison.

Now this is important. It is a terrible fashion faux pas to wear rings on top of gloves, but you have to protect your skin from accidental absorption of the poison. Put a circle larger than the base of the ring of Liquid Glove or NuSkin (there are other brands, too – these are the only ones I can remember at the moment) to create a barrier between your skin and the poison. Depending on the size of the ring and the situation your villain will have to practice to be able to get the poison from under the ring into something your victim will ingest without drawing undue attention.

Now this is important. Once the poison has been delivered, your villain must get rid of the under-ring barrier. As it contains both poison and your contact DNA and possibly your fingerprints, that little circle of fake skin – probably between the size of a quarter and a half-dollar – is a conviction ready to happen, so you must be very careful of how it is disposed of.

For Heaven’s sake, do not eat it – there might be enough residual poison to do your villain a mischief. Don’t just throw it away in a handy waste can, either; destroy it. Cut it into teeny-tiny pieces and flush it, making sure all of it enters the sewer system. Burn it and if there is an ash residue, flush it. Whatever you decide, just make sure it is thoroughly, completely destroyed with no hope of being reconstructed. How many villains have been caught because of inadequate aftercare?

By now you have probably decided that I am thoroughly warped, and you might be right. However – this post has gone on much too long and I haven’t finished. So – if you are brave, or equally warped, think about coming back next month when I (hopefully) finish up with The Murder Person.

Return to the Murder House

by Janis Patterson

I want to thank everyone for their lovely comments both personal and public on my last Ladies of Mystery blog The Murder House. It did surprise me, though, that so many of you said you would take care to stay away from me and would never eat at my house. (Not eating at my house might be a good idea, however, not because I’m particularly murderous, but because I’m a lousy cook!) I do assure you, though, that I am the kindest and most charming of people… as long as I get everything I want, that is!

Unfortunately the last blog only scraped the very top of the dangers awaiting the unwary in an ordinary house. For a creative mystery writer there are all kinds of murderous methods, though some have taken steps to put a stop to some of the dangers.

For example – antifreeze. Yes, the ordinary antifreeze you put in your car. It used to be that all varieties were toxic and, as an added help for the domestic murderer, it tasted sweet! Mixed in a tall, cooling drink it would be almost undetectable. However, there were too many ‘accidents’ over the years, so the manufacturers started replacing the deadly ingredient with one harmless to anything but ice. I’m not sure if all manufacturers complied (but probably – too much risk of lawsuits) but one could always check. Or, if your murderer is very fortunate, they can find a forgotten half-used jug of the old type in someone’s garage. Or perhaps in anticipation of future need, they could have put back a couple of gallons of the ‘good stuff.’

Unfortunately, most murderers are not so forward-looking. All too often murder is a spur-of-the-moment decision – perhaps spur-of-the-week might be a better term, as spur-of-the-moment crimes are usually of the handy blunt instrument or bladed weapon type.

In this case, knowledge is your murderer’s best bet. A walk through a regular medicine chest can be a cornucopia of termination mechanisms. Many people take many medications, and although they are individually benign when taken as directed, when combined or overdosed can be deadly. That you will have to do your own research on – just be sure when you write you don’t put the entire formula or instructions down. We’re entertainers, not teachers… nor should we be accessories!

Two of the medicine chest items come to mind. First is the common diuretic; powdered (obtained either by opening the gelatin capsule or crushing the tablets) it can be given to the victim hidden in food, which will – over time – reduce the potassium in the body to fatal levels. This does take time, however, and requires patience. Second is synthetic epinephrine, perhaps not so common a drug but not at all uncommon; given in large quantities it can and probably will induce a massive heart attack. For the thoughtful murderer, assuming he can get hold of this chemical, it is an almost perfect murder weapon as it metabolizes so quickly it is undetectable almost immediately. Just delay the discovery of the body and what is a murder is regarded as a natural heart attack with no proof to the contrary, except perhaps an injection site, and we’re all clever enough to be able to hide that, aren’t we?

If your victim takes vitamins overdosing or cross-blending of certain of these generally benign substances can be fatal; however, while some supplements can be lethal when combined with others, they are not as strong as regular medicines and can necessitate repeated dosing. Patience – and a lot of dosing – is required, however.

If you want to go out into the garden, even more methods await you. As the wonderful novelist Marilyn Meredith said in her comments about the first Murder House, castor beans grow wild over most of the country and are deadly poison. If one is chemically (and perhaps suicidally) inclined, one can make the deadly poison ricin out of castor beans, but that is an unnecessary step. Just the plain old beans themselves are enough. Chop and use as a garnish, or cook in with tonight’s dinner beans – just be sure that no one else eats any, unless you are intent on creating a massacre. Cover them with chocolate as a candy. A single bean ingested can kill a child, so these are sure-fire killers if used properly.

Another deadly plant is the beautiful oleander, which not only grows wild in the southern part of the country but is used as a decorative yard planting or even a potted plant. Every part of this dark-green, glossy leaved beauty is poisonous, even the large and fabulous flowers – though I believe you’d have to use a lot of the blooms to get the desired fatal result, and just how many flower-laced edibles can you expect a victim to consume? Better to take the leaves, cut them into small bits and candy them to use as decorations on sweets or even some savory dishes. This might require several applications, though. My favorite story of oleander death is how a clever murderer chose fairly long, straight sticks from the plant, skewered hot dogs on them and used them to roast over a campfire during a camping trip. Enough poison leached into the hot dogs to be quickly fatal.

If you remember your ancient history, Socrates was executed by drinking a poison made from hemlock. Hemlock and its equally deadly brother water hemlock grow wild in many parts of the country. It would take no skill at all to pick and make a deadly drink from it. (Not quite within the purview of the Murder House, but close enough to be available to the ordinary murderer.)

Don’t have a green thumb? Don’t worry – there is an entire arsenal under the kitchen sink of almost every house in America. Mix bleach and ammonia and you’ll have chloramine gas, which is both toxic and corrosive. Plus, since both are fairly anonymous looking liquids, they can be placed into other, more innocent containers to make it easier for the victim to mix. Just be sure to get rid of them afterwards so the mixing looks like a stupid accident. However – one has to mix a fairly large amount to be effective unless the mixing is done in a fairly confined space. A small bathroom or shower stall would be ideal…

Nor does the chemical connection have to end there. If you’re interested in more detailed information about how ordinary household chemicals can be to create murder and mayhem, may I suggest you seek out the books THE POOR MAN’S JAMES BOND and THE ANARCHIST’S COOKBOOK. Both are heavy on chemistry and somewhat hard to find, but excellent information.

If you’re willing to cause some destruction, I have heard that burning wool or silk gives off cyanide gas, though how much fabric or how confined a space is required I don’t know. If you’re interested in this, you must do some research.

A thin – like size Zero – knitting needle or a long, old-fashioned hat pin can make a delightful murder weapon. Slip the instrument into the heart, avoiding the rib cage and sternum of course, and leave there for a while. (How you accomplish this is up to you…) The puncture to the heart will not kill the victim immediately, but leave it there a couple of minutes and with each beat the heart will tear the puncture hole a little bit more until there is a large enough breech to make the heart bleed out. Or shove your improvised stiletto up through the base of the skull, hopefully piercing the brainstem and entering the brain; then wiggle it back and forth, causing the semi-gelatinous brain to ‘scramble.’ The only two drawbacks to this method are even a number Zero knitting needle and a hat pin leave an external trace, but it is possible that the hat pin to the brain can be overlooked. If your murderer is lucky – or carefully foresighted – the death occurs in a county with an incompetent or careless ME or, even better, an untrained Coroner.

How to keep your victim still during such a lengthy and invasive procedure, though, is a test of your creativity.

Now go walk through your house and look at everything as if you had never seen them before and visualize how each could be used as a murder weapon. It is astounding and not a little unnerving. Forget exotic poisons and complicated mechanisms. Some of the most efficient and generally untraceable killing tools are right at your fingers. Please – just remember that we are not writing textbooks or instruction manuals. Always leave something out, so the momentarily angry reader won’t be able to duplicate your method. If they’re really going to kill someone they can figure out how, but we don’t have to hand it to them on a plate. Again, I cannot emphasize enough that we are entertainers… we should not be accessories!

The Murder House

by Janis Patterson

In the real world most murders are common, unimaginative things – shooting, stabbing, strangling, blow(s) from a blunt or not so blunt object, occasionally a drowning. Pretty much routine and little finesse.

In a fictional world, however, writers have to be more creative than that. Readers want style and creativity, and most of them marvel at the variety of murder weapons that exist. Exotic poisons, strange firearms, garrotes of unknown material… all so exotic that they are easy for the police or private detective to track down and say, “It was so-and-so who killed him in the library with a whatever…” Then the reader wonders at how could anyone live where the tools of such murderous mayhem are common.

They never stop to think that the average American home is an arsenal of very practical murder weapons. Right – even right now in your own home. Obviously every house has large knives in the kitchen, screwdrivers and shovels, scarves or pantyhose or even curtain-pull rope lying around; some have guns. But even those are all pretty mundane. There are even more murderous riches if one thinks creatively.

(These are only informational examples for writers and mystery readers – please don’t try these at home!)

Grind up a piece of crystal ware (the thin kind works best) until it is a fine powder, then add it to someone’s food.

Certain over-the-counter pain relievers can, if given in specific quantity over a limited amount of time, can cause catastrophic organ failure. (And no, I’m not going to tell you which ones – I repeat, this is purely an informational think piece, not an instruction manual!)

Even a ball point pen jabbed into the neck or groin can cause a rapid and fatal exsanguination if it breaks one of the arteries, but this implies a certain knowledge of anatomy, which can be a clue to the perpetrator.

The water in a vase which held a large bunch of narcissus stems for a fair length of time can be fatal if ingested, but as with all organics getting the right (i.e., strong enough to cause death) dosage can be difficult to estimate.

Certain flowers chopped up into a salad can be fatal, but see the warning above.

There’s the classic case (from Hitchcock, I believe) of the wife who beat her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooked it and served it to the policemen who were investigating her husband’s death. Considering the outrageous price of lamb these days, I assume a large beef or pork roast (preferably bone-in for more heft) would work just as well.

If it’s winter and you have a wood-burning fireplace, a log can be effective as a weapon and then burnt. It can be wrapped in something (perhaps a towel and then a garbage bag?) to keep trace evidence of the wood from adhering on or in the victim.

Plastic wrap from the kitchen or from a dry-cleaners’ bag or a garbage bag can suffocate a victim most efficiently – just be sure to get rid of it thoroughly.

Every household is just full of poisons – for the garden, for bugs, for cleaning, etc. – but one must be careful to get the right dosage and then get rid of the container – or have a very good excuse why it’s there. There’s more to a successful poisoning than just dumping a couple of tablespoons into Uncle Whoever’s morning oatmeal!

Relatively bloodless crimes are always preferable if committed in the home – there is no way to get rid of all blood traces. No matter how much you clean, no matter how much you bleach, there is always the inevitability of a single drop going someplace and that can be enough to convict you.

Even cars are not safe. Don’t simply cut a brake line – a clean straight cut can be obvious even if the car burns. Instead take a sharp rock and pierce the line, allowing a little of the fluid to leak out at a time and making it look as if the line was damaged because of a road hazard. Just be sure to get rid of the rock and don’t touch the line or car’s undercarriage – fingerprints and smudges in the existing dirt are sure signs of tampering.

Got a smoker in the house? Soak some tobacco in a small amount of alcohol (vodka will do) and the liquid becomes a nicotine extract. Internally it will kill; depending on the toxicity, it can also be fatal when applied externally to the skin. Just be sure to not get any on yours!

Certain nutritional supplements can be ground up and added to food – some are incredibly toxic, others take a time of assiduous application to work. The best kind are the ones that occur naturally in the body and – unless there is cause to think this might have been an unnatural death they will not be tested for in an autopsy… because they occur naturally in the body!

A final thought – if you’re going to commit murder in what you think is an untraceable or exotic way, you might consider doing it in a county that has a Coroner instead of a Medical Examiner. MEs are physicians who can sometimes spot a suspicious death even if the evidence is slight – and they can do an autopsy. Coroners are usually not physicians and are elected and a lot of the time won’t call it murder unless there are obvious holes from blade or bullet or crushed body parts. If you are planning an away-from-home murder, you might want to do some discreet research!

Feeling unsafe now? This is just the tip of the informational iceberg. I’ve barely touched on the lethal objects that a clever murderer can use. The trick in a book is to choose something relatively simple and readily available that the readers will understand and can relate to. (Though not too closely, I hope!) I’ve read mysteries with exotic poisons from ones that come from plants which will grow only on some remote tropical island to the skin secretions of jungle frogs. They’re fascinating, but the question that beggars any semblance of reality is how do ordinary people get ahold of such things? When greedy John wants to do away with rich Aunt Jennifer he’s much more likely to grab a crystal glass to crush or a tin of ant poison rich with arsenic than track down an exotic poisonous frog. And if he happens to work with exotic reptiles, I sincerely hope he’s not so stupid as to ignore the fact that if Auntie died of tropical frog poison he’s going to be the prime suspect!

Although, (sound of mental wheels turning) it would be a lovely red herring and a way to frame John by his up to now goody two shoes cousin Jim who secretly has massive gambling depts… though the question would still be how did he get the stuff? What if…

Help. Stop me before I plot again.