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.

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!

The Experiment – Continued

by Janis Patterson

If sales of my books go any lower, it looks like I’m going to have to start paying people not to read my books. Yes, that’s an exaggeration (I hope!) but it’s also in danger of becoming quite true. And I will admit it hurts to see my books languish at the bottom of the charts, especially since some of them have been on bestseller lists (international, not US – go figure that!) and some have won prizes while others, both appalling rubbish as well as tomes much more literary than mine, sell like the proverbial hotcakes.

Late last year I bewailed my position and decided to start an experiment. I was going KU. Now as a fiscal conservative, I abominate the idea of anything that reeks of potential monopoly, but I also dislike the idea of not making any money for all the work I have done on my books. I have always had all my books – those which I control – wide, meaning they were available just about everywhere ebooks books can be bought. Sales have been so bad they would have to work a week to inch their way up to pathetic.

So, since most of what sales I did have were coming from Amazon and none from two of the other major outlets, I decided to start an experiment. I pulled three test books from wide distribution and put them into KU, which means exclusive with Amazon.

The results were good – for my wallet – but disheartening from a free market point of view. Sales inched up a tiny bit, but what astounded me was the page reads. No, I’m not going to give exact numbers, mainly because they are no one’s business but mine and would be considered embarrassingly low for most other writers, but they were a very large jump for me, and have increased almost daily from the beginning of the experiment. Yes, the money for KU page reads is distressingly low, but even a low return is better than no return.

However, only part of me believes that. By being in KU am I contributing to the stifling (and perhaps eventual extinction) of the free market by encouraging a possible monopoly? Part of me thinks so but part of me wants to be compensated for the time and money I spend to make my books available to the public.

By being in KU am I keeping my books away from those who shop on platforms other than Amazon? Yes, but they weren’t buying from me anyway, so what difference does it make, except that with KU at least I have the potential of earning due recompense for my labors.

I know I’m talking a lot about money – I’m not really greedy, but workmen are worthy of their hire; my books have made international best seller lists and won prizes. They – and I – deserve better treatment and recognition, and if being in KU does that I will respond.

It has taken a long time and a lot of thought to come to this point, but with my usual decisiveness I have chosen to keep feet in both camps. Those books which have performed well wide – for example, CURSE OF THE EXILE and A KILLING AT EL KAB – will stay wide. New books – released this year, such as A WELL-MANNERED MURDER and ROMANCE AT SPANISH ROCK – have been put directly into KU.  The other five books I have ready for release, plus any others I will finish in the foreseeable future, will be decided on a case-by-case basis… that, or the phase of the moon and my mood at the moment.

https://ladiesofmystery.com/2021/02/10/the-experiment—continued/(opens in a new tab)

It is true that the customer drives the market, and the vendor/writer has to follow the trends. Right now the trend is to KU, and if this trend continues, I will eventually move everything to KU. If the ebook industry does become a monopoly, all will change – and probably not for the better – but the reader has no one but himself to blame.

Writing as Discovery

by Janis Patterson

Want to start a lively ‘discussion’ among writers? All you have to do is say something about how ‘plotting’ or ‘pantsing’ is superior. It doesn’t make any difference which; both have their outspoken and extremely vocal adherents. Just make sure you can hold your ground or you have a direct path to an exit. Both sides have passionate adherents.

For those who aren’t familiar with the terms (if there are any of you left out there!) ‘plotting’ is basically an outline, yes, like you used to make in elementary school, but adapted toward a book. Whether it’s the old Roman numeral/Arabic numeral/alphanumeric letter – i.e., bullet point type of outline – or a paragraph style, the outline is a detailed road map of every twist and turn in your story. ‘Pantsing’ is taken from the old phrase ‘seat of your pants,’ meaning you just write and see what happens.

In general, pantsers tend to do more re-writing than plotters, but plotters spend more time on pre-writing work.

I am an avowed pantser. Sort of. My personal system is sort of like a suspension bridge. I know where the story begins. I know where the story will pretty much end – but that has been known to change. I know a couple of plot points in between, though they can be shifted a bit during writing. Then all that’s left is to spin the webwork of the story between them. Does my story change while I’m writing? Yes, it can and has, and I think that’s a good thing, because that means the story is growing organically and being true to itself and – more importantly – to its characters.

Plotters vary from those who put down only a few plot points and notes to those who put in every raise of the hero’s eyebrow and every shrug of the heroine’s shoulders. They also do lots of pre-plotting work, making character sheets, location maps and doing interviews with their characters. I once saw a character worksheet that was at least 5 pages long and included such things as the character’s favorite flavor of JellO and their maternal grandmother’s maiden name. Personally, I’ve had close friends for decades and I don’t know that much about them!

Always willing to improve my craft, I once took a much touted ten-box plotting course that was supposed to be almost magical in creating a book’s structure. A stubborn person, I finished it even though I knew from the second or third lesson that it wasn’t for me. After all, I had paid for it and believe in getting my money’s worth.

Basically you put every turning point and every reaction into one of the ten boxes. An outline, just minus the Roman and Arabic numerals. Using this system I plotted a pretty good romantic suspense novel about Egypt, antiquities smuggling, trust issues, terrorism and a dirty bomb thrown in for good measure.

It will never be written, at least not by me. By the time the last box was filled in I was so bored with the whole idea I never wanted to see it again. Believe me, it shows in the final product when the writer is bored with the project. No matter how good the writer is, the book is lifeless and mechanical.

Don’t think this is a vote either for or against plotting or pantsing. It’s one of those things to which there is no one ‘right’ answer for everyone. The writer has to decide for himself what works for him. And perhaps it is the reader who is the ultimate judge, though most don’t have the slightest idea of the writer’s process. They just know if they like the book or not.

So what do I do? I get an idea for an opening situation, I sit down and I start to write. If the idea is sound, if the story is a good one, the characters just take over and I become more scribe than writer. Do I have to go back and do some re-writing when the plot changes direction? Occasionally, but it only makes the story stronger. Sometimes it surprises me what comes up on the screen as I write, and to my mind that is a good thing. Remember, someone – I don’t remember who – said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, and a wonderful holiday season!