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!