The Perfect Murder Weapon

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

Clues, Clues Everywhere, or The Truth Hiding in Plain Sight

by Janis Patterson

What is a clue? I can hear all of you now saying “Duh! A clue is something the sleuth notices that helps solve the crime.”

Okay, that’s right – as far as it goes. The problem is, how do we make a series of clues that will help solve the crime that is neither so blatant that the story is over on page 19 or is so esoteric that the reader doesn’t understand it even after the crime has been solved and the clues explained?

I remember reading an Ellery Queen mystery (sorry I don’t remember the title – I was only seven or so) where the deciding clue was based on a particular letter of the Phoenician alphabet. The murder was cleverly done, as I recall, but the idea that both the killer and the sleuth (Mr. Queen) would be in the same rather mundane place at the same time and both know the Phoenician alphabet so jarred on my infant sensibilities that I remember it to this day. As I recall the setting was a house party at a rich man’s mansion, but I might be wrong about that.

Adding in clues is sort of like adding garlic to a casserole; too little and it is flat and uninteresting, but too many and it is unappetizing or perhaps even unswallowable.

In my opinion, the best clues are the ones that grow out of the characters and the storyline in an almost organic process. The truly best clues are the ones that sometimes even you don’t know are there.

An example. Years ago, when I was writing my first Janis Patterson mystery THE HOLLOW HOUSE I knew from the beginning who the murderer was going to be, but as I am a pantser, not much else. The story was ticking along quite well until about five chapters from the end, when I suddenly realized that my pre-determined murderer could not have done it. I floundered around for a while, then all of a sudden ‘Wow! Of course! So-and-so did it.’ And I wrote on, for another half chapter or so before once again it came to me that my new murderer couldn’t have done it. Truth is, from that first realization to the climax I changed the murderer some five times. Finally, as I was desperately trying to decide who did it, I suddenly realized who it was – someone I had never considered.

I don’t know why I had never considered this person, but it was perfect. The only bad thing was I knew I’d have to go back through the whole book and put in clues pointing to this person. Sigh. However… when I did start through the book, the clues implicating this person were all there already. I think I added two.

So – clues not only have to be there, they have to be subtle. How did I do it? I don’t know. The creation of a book, in case you hadn’t noticed, is very much akin to magic.

One way, I believe, was put forward by some famous mystery writer years ago – sorry, but I don’t remember which one. He said that the best way was to make everyone capable of being the murderer, then exonerate them one by one, just like your sleuth. I know there are those mystery writers who pre-plot every clue, and there are some who do it very well. Joy go with them. I can’t do that – I would be so bored that the book would never be written. I guess I have to be as much of a sleuth uncovering the truth as my detective.

Commercial : For those of you in the Denver area and those of you going there to attend the Historical Novel Society conference, I will be there both at the booksigning and presenting a paper on Egyptology and Elizabeth Peters. Ms. Peters (aka Barbara Michaels and Dr. Barbara Mertz) was an incredible author and a friend. She is very much missed.