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.

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.

Curses! The Poor Abused Asterisk

by Janis Patterson

At least it used to be mistreated by overuse. Now, with the new ‘freedom’ (or abuse, as some would say) of the language, the poor asterisk has almost been forced into retirement.

These days there seems to be no depth to how low some users of the language can go. Years ago in the rare times they were used, vulgar words were filled with asterisks, such as ‘f**k’ and ‘d*mn’ ‘p*n*s’ and – well, you know what I mean. Nowadays more often than not those words are not only fully spelled but repeated several times as if the writer wants to make sure you see them and – probably – expects you to applaud or at least acknowledge their courage and honesty in using them.

Sorry, I’m not buying that.

I’m a purist about language. Language is perhaps the highest order of civilization, one which allows precise and exact communication for the exchange of ideas. To let it not only sink down to but revel in dirty words is to me a crime.

Ah, you say, but aren’t you being judgmental to condemn certain words as being ‘dirty’?

You bet I am. I believe when a word describes something dirty or societally disapproved of, a function or action not welcome in polite discourse, it should be judged. (I can hear some of you muttering most unflattering things such as censorship and prudery, but – hey – this is my column and I’m going to say what I really think.)

I was raised to believe that language is a living thing, and like all living things it should be handled with respect, if not reverence. There was a time – for most of history, actually – when use of ‘those words’ was a sure marker of either being very uneducated or very lower class, or probably both. Then suddenly the earth heaved and to use them became a mark of modernity, of freedom from antique societal restraints. And, like most revolutions, it went too far.

In the literary arena writers had to straddle both worlds – to be modern enough to interest readers and publishers who put sales above mores, but still, for those who loved and respected language or more honestly feared the censors, they tried to preserve the integrity of the language and moderate offensiveness. An impossible task.

Thus the necessity for the asterisk. It found itself inserted into words that were at best questionable and at worse obscene, turning them into a form of code understood by all, but still standing barely under the edge of decency’s shadow. In those antique days, it is to be noted that villains and bad people were the ones who used those words, even with asterisks inserted. You could almost tell who was a villain and who was a hero/heroine just by the language they used. Sort of like smoking is used as such an indicator today.

No longer, though, and both language and culture are the poorer for it. When a so-called hero or heroine rips out with what I will call the full version of the ‘f-bomb,’ ‘the c-word,’ ‘the n-word’ or any other rude/pornographic/nasty word they immediately drop in my estimation. If the usage is egregious enough, the book usually does too, all the way to the wastebasket.

While mysteries have produced more than their share of curse words, usually masculine-type expletives, it is romance novels which blew the lid off any semblance of scatological restraint. In the late 70s and early 80s romance went from a dreamy landscape of feelings and handholdings to a clinically correct – albeit originally rife with euphemism – technical manual of lovemaking and the physical parts used to do it. Not all, understand – even today you can still find romances filled with dreamy feelings and chaste kisses, but sometimes it’s a difficult hunt.

Maybe I’m just a dinosaur who lives in a different age. If so, so be it. I know what I like, and I will stand up for it. That does not mean, however, I am a total nerd. In person I have been known to let fly with a hearty ‘d*mn’ when I put a finger through a brand new pair of pantyhose or a loud ‘bl**dy h*ll’ on the rare occasion, but usually only when alone. I have been known to write those words too, but not often and usually only with villains and other slime – the only exceptions being when an insertion or six (usually mild words, like d*mn or h*ll) were not only insisted on but demanded by a publisher. (I guess they were wanting to appear au courant with ‘modern’ usage.) I’ll admit to being sometimes overly picky and proper, but not to being positively antediluvian.

I know there are those who do not find those ‘asterisk words’ – bowdlerized or not – as offensive as I do. That is their right, but on the other hand it is my right not to like, use or choose to read them. Chacun à son goût!

To Gore or Not To Gore… And How Much?

by Janis Patterson

When one writes mysteries, one has to come face to the face with the problem of violence – when, to whom and how much. Almost every mystery – those for grown-ups, that is – includes an assault and/or a death. It is very rare to see a mystery without one or the other and usually both. Dead bodies are pretty much the raison d’etre of a mystery!

The question is, how did the body get dead, where is it found, what condition is it in, and how much – if any – of the actual crime do we show?

What they’re now calling cozy mysteries – the kind with a ditzy amateur sleuth with a terrible love life, a cute job, probably a shoe obsession and perhaps intelligent animals which may or may not solve the actual mystery themselves – usually back away from violence and its aftermath as much as possible. (And yes, I know there are exceptions, but it is the exception that proves the rule!) The dead body that propels the story is so sanitized and occasionally de-humanized that in some stories it resembles little more than a stage prop. Which is distressing but not surprising, as more and more publishers are demanding that the body appear in the first few pages if not on the first page itself. This makes it hard for the reader to regard said dead body as little more than a plot device instead of something that was once a living, breathing complete human being. (In case you didn’t know, this ‘where does the body appear’ thing is one of my hot buttons!)

What we used to call cozies are now in the labeling limbo of ‘traditional mysteries’ which to me means more realistic characters, more realistic actions by those characters, but with only minimal violence. There is blood, but only a tangential mention. My favorite description (taken from one of my own books, of course) talks about the body hastily covered with a now-stained bedspread (at the time of my sleuth’s arrival) with just a lip of wet red peeking out from under the edge. Enough description to evoke a feeling of horror at such a heinous and violent act, but most definitely not enough to revolt or sicken the reader. It’s sometimes a difficult balancing act.

In a hard-boiled or noir mystery, the violence is not only part of but sometimes seems to be the reason for the story. Descriptions of violence, whether or not they result in death, are often and lovingly detailed. Remember how often Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer either was beaten up (each blow described) or beat up the bad guy (each blow described.) He wasn’t the only one, either. There are scores of such novels celebrating violence written every day.

My personal bête noir example of gratuitous violence is Robert Ludlum. Yes, his novels are generally classified with thrillers, but in each one there is a mystery, and I’m trying to make a point here. I have publicly called his books ‘the pornography of death.’ Think about it – in sexual pornography nothing is hidden; every moan, every stroke, every touch, every single action is described, usually in loving and minute detail. Ludlum’s (and others’) do the same thing with violence. Every split of skin from a blow. The explosion of skin and the fountain of blood caused by the entry of a bullet… or a spear, or some other penetrating object. The crisping and blackening of skin as it begins to burn. Personally, I find it sickening, but considering how these books sell I’m obviously in the minority!

My feelings toward violence in my books are sort of like mine about sex in my books. They both happen, and we as readers know they happen, as we see the results, but they do not happen ‘on screen’ and there are no overly graphic descriptions.

Once a couple of decades ago I was doing make-up on the set of a horror film. A grizzled old hand and I were watching as an actor was being glued (yes, glued!) into his costume. The gaffer snorted derisively, saying that clump of foam and make-up wasn’t really scary.

Well, it was pretty scary-looking to me! When I told him, he said the purpose of a horror film was to scare people, and not all people were scared by all things. To really scare people, he said, you give a suggestion – a shadow, a hand or a tentacle, and let people create in their own head the thing that scared them the most. “Don’t show the monster,” he said. “Let people create their own monster.”

It’s the same thing with violence. A suggestion – ‘a lip of wet red peeking out’ – can evoke more feelings, more visceral reaction, than an entire thesaurus of detailed description. And that’s why I don’t write overt gore.