On A Writer’s Responsibility…


by Janis Patterson


The other night The Husband and I were out to dinner with some of his friends whom I knew very slightly. The wives were nattering on about something so totally mind-numbing that I was half-way listening to the men. They are all sport rocketry enthusiasts – something I know very little about and personally find watching paint dry much more interesting – and were taking about the various propellants used in rocket engines.


One of them laughed about a particular one and said if they weren’t careful they could make a pretty nifty bomb using XYZ. Perhaps unwisely, I said yes, they could, but it would be foolish, as XYZ was disproportionate in explosive value versus weight/size besides being so basically unstable that it was very dangerous to use in the quantity needed to do any significant damage. Plus, it would need a special detonator that would be very easy for the police to trace.


Startled, they all looked at me as if I had lifted my sweater to reveal a suicide vest. The Husband was quick to enlighten them, saying that I was a novelist and that he had helped me research explosives for a work in progress. Obviously intrigued, they peppered me with questions about various fuels and propellants and their non-rocket related destructive capabilities, then became rather petulant when I refused to answer them as completely as they wished.


I probably could have answered all their questions sufficiently to give them a great deal of destructive knowledge, but even though these were all decent and law-abiding men, I didn’t. Why take the risk if I were wrong? Besides, I never tell everything I know, either in print or in person.
Why? Because I write novels, which should be momentary escapes for ordinary people – not technical manuals. I long ago decided that I should never put anything in a story that someone can use to hurt someone else. The idea, yes, or I wouldn’t have a story. Enough facts to have a feeling of verisimilitude, yes. A blueprint, no. There’s no way I can stop people bent on destruction from seeking out all the information they need about any kind of killing tool – and it is out there if they’re determined – but I don’t have to help them.


For example, years ago at an NRA convention I met a salesman who, on finding I was a mystery novelist, delighted in telling me how to get a ballistically clean and therefore untraceable bullet – i.e., how to kill someone with a bullet that had no rifling, no striations, no markings at all. He seemed so proud of himself and then asked me when I put that in a novel would I mention his name. Horrified, I told him NO most definitely, then begged him not to tell anyone else.


I write about crime. I want to entertain, and entertain only. I don’t want to teach or make it easy for some demented person to eliminate another without leaving clues. Sadly, that made the third way I have found to have a ballistically clean bullet. Those who want to can find the information if they search assiduously enough, but I don’t have to help them.


I believe it is the writer’s responsibility to entertain, and perhaps maybe even teach some (hopefully benign) facts. It is not our responsibility to become an instructor – and therefore, in spirit at least, an accessory.


So – I imitate my betters by using selective censorship and obfuscation. Some of my characters do horrible things, but while readers are given enough facts to know what is happening, none are able to recreate the crime. At least, not from what I write. Not everyone out there – especially on the internet – is so responsible. And that is sad.

Who? When?

by Janis Patterson

If there’s one thing in the writing world you learn very quickly it’s that no matter what you do you cannot please everyone. Sometimes it seems almost impossible to please anyone! Another thing you learn is that the ‘rules’ change almost as quickly as the weather.

Well, I don’t believe in ‘rules’ – other than the hard and fast ones like good grammar and spelling and a cohesive, interesting book, of course. What I dislike are the God-like pronouncements of how a story should be structured. Such as in romance, for example, say you have to have a ‘cute meet’ between the hero and heroine in the first three pages or (in certain kinds of romance) a hot sexual encounter no later than the second chapter. A corollary in mystery is that the body has to appear early in the book – ideally in the first three pages.

Well, being by nature a dedicated contrarian, I find such ‘rules’ to be inimical to the integrity of a story. They smack of ‘writing by pattern’ and while each genre has certain expectations like as a happy ending and justice done such arbitrary ‘rules’ are the antithesis of creativity… and all too often good storytelling.

That said, I have written – sometimes at the ‘behest’ (i.e., orders) of a publisher or out of pure mischief –  some stories that follow these ‘rules’ and some which most delightfully turned them on their heads. One example is a Regency Romance (written as Janis Susan May) where the hero and heroine, though lovers a decade or so before, do not meet in the here-and-now present of the novel until the last chapter. This particular book has won a couple of awards… and been used as an example of how not to write a romance.

On a different note, I once wrote a mystery where the body appeared as demanded in the second or third paragraph, and that was a very hard book to write. Murder is by definition a violent crime, no matter how delicately it is committed, and one should feel outraged that someone – anyone – should have their life taken from them. However, there is almost a prerequisite that to feel sympathy for a character you have to know them, and that’s almost impossible when said character first appears as a lifeless lump on someone’s rug.

How do you create empathy for a character about whom no one knows anything and feels less? This victim, this human, this person, is perforce little more than a stage prop who elicits very little feeling or sympathy. I gave him a name, simply because it was more convenient than calling him ‘the body’ or ‘the decedent’ or ‘the dead guy,’ but although he had the requisite number of arms and legs he never really became a real person – merely a humanoid construct.

I have been dinged and called down because in my mysteries (save that one) the murder doesn’t happen until one-third or one-half through the book. I feel by giving the reader such a delay it creates two mysteries instead of one. The first is, who is going to be murdered? while the second is, who is going to be the murder?

When I write a murder I want the reader to be outraged at the deliberate taking of a human life, no matter how much that person deserved to be offed – and believe me, in my mysteries there are several characters who deserve it. Don’t know why bad people are so interesting, but they are, so I always have several of them… just like in real life.

A murder victim – whether in a book or in real life – deserves to be more than a stage prop.

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.

Where? When?

by Janis Patterson

It is one of the so-called pieces of wisdom in mystery-land the body should appear as quickly as possible, just as in some parts of romance-land the hero and heroine have sex almost immediately after they meet. I’ve even read some stories where they end up in bed before they’ve been introduced!

Haven’t these writers ever heard the phrase “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey”?

This isn’t a new rant of mine – you’ve probably heard it in one form or another before, but I believe it bears repeating, especially in mystery-land. Murder is a terrible crime. It permanently alters everyone even remotely touched by it. It should not be treated as an hors d’oeuvre.

Back when I was traditionally publishing I allowed the house editor to convince me (convince, as in “We won’t publish your book if you don’t!”) to bring on the body as early as possible in the first chapter. I wanted to be published by this particular house, so always an over-achiever I put the discovery of the body on the second page, and it was a grand disservice both to the poor thing and to the story. The victim had no history, no backstory, no personality, and there was no emotion, no sense of loss in his passing. In other words, he was nothing but a stage prop. (“Hey, Fred, put the body down stage left!”) Even a villain – which he was – deserves a more fitting end than that.

Of course, we had learned something about him by the end of the book because to solve a murder you must know why someone would want to kill him, but it was dry and anticlimactic – nothing but tags that eventually pointed the way to his killer.

I am a whole-story kind of person. I believe that to feel the kind of outrage that murder should engender we have to know the people involved in the tale so that when there is a murder we feel a sense of loss, of outrage (even if the character deserved his ignominious and premature death) and a sense of satisfaction when the murderer is finally run to earth and justice is served.

Not everyone agrees with me. I have been severely dinged and chastised for having the murder occur close to the middle of one of my mysteries. It’s a good story, it has a large cast of characters (three of whom are killed) and it is a complex story, with the solution inextricably interwoven with the dynamics among the characters. But apparently that’s not fast enough to be acceptable for some readers. Neither, I hasten to add, was the setting – a scholarly Egyptological conference without a tea shop, a B&B or knitting store in sight. One correspondent was particularly incensed that the entire conference did not shut down in order to bring the murderer to justice. I don’t understand that; yes, everyone is somehow altered when murder enters their sphere, but unless they are close to the crime or the victim few change their entire focus. Most of us would probably cling desperately to what is normal in an effort to bring stability back – unless, of course, the murder affects them personally, which changes everything.

As I’ve said before, murder is an horrific crime. Both it and its victim need to be treated with a certain respect and dignity. To cheapen death is to cheapen life.