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.

Poise Versus Panic By Patricia Smith Wood

imageSince I’m a Gemini, I have many “twin” features. Sometimes I’m one side, sometimes I’m the other.

I’ll give you an example. I can often take two different sides of an argument. Not as much as I once could (I think I’m getting set in my ways), but when called upon, I can. That means I can sometimes talk myself “down off the ceiling” when I get upset about something, or am too invested in one outcome over another.

I think most of us would prefer to respond to problems with poise, as opposed to panic, but sometimes, we just don’t pull it off. I’m going to tell you about two women who did.

I belong to the Croak & Dagger New Mexico Chapter of Sisters in Crime. As most chapters do, we have an interesting speaker (or two) at each of our meetings. For our February meeting, our program chair had secured two very interesting women who just happened to also be members of our chapter. One was a medical doctor with lots of emergency room experience, and the other was a Ph.D. in biology who had been a dean at the University of Wisconsin. They would talk to us about poisons—a subject they were both well versed in. They had given the same talk to a large group of writers at a conference in Las Vegas last summer, and they graciously agreed to provide it for us.

Well, naturally, mystery writers are interested in ways to kill people, so we were looking forward to the presentation. The two experts were going to give us a slide show to impart their information. Our intrepid program chair had contacted the officials at our meeting place (a community center) and requested a slide projector and a laptop for the night of the meeting. This was not an unusual request, and we had often asked for and received equipment such as this for a program. Everything was on track.

Until it wasn’t. Our program chair showed up early at the community center and found only a projector set up in the room—not the needed laptop. She immediately contacted the front desk and inquired. She explained she had been promised the equipment would be there, ready for the presentation no later than 6:30. The two young women (volunteers) shrugged. They knew nothing. It wasn’t their job.

I arrived within seconds of these revelations. I’m the membership chair (and immediate past president) of the group. I hadn’t known there would be slide presentation so was surprised at the problem. I called my husband and asked him to bring a laptop to me which we had used a number of times for slide shows. He did. I tried to set it up, there was a problem. Nobody there knew how to fix it, including me.

If you were a presenter, how would you feel right about now? What would you do? Say you’ll do it another time? Throw up your hands and pout? That’s NOT what our two ladies did.

They used their notes (and the laptop screen) to go through their presentation verbally. They took turns, went through the list of most potent poisons and where they come from. They explained the ways in which someone might be introduced to each poison. They answered questions and thoroughly captured their audience. It was a wonderful presentation.

No, we, the audience, did not get to see the slides. I’m sure that would have been wonderful. But that isn’t the point. Some people (and maybe even me) might have lost their cool, thrown a tantrum because the equipment they needed wasn’t available, or walked out and left us without a program. Not these ladies.

They didn’t pout—they were (and are) poised. They behaved like the professionals they are. They showed us all how to react to a minor disaster.

Which is, as it turns out, to do whatever you can to fix it, but if you can’t, do the best you can under the circumstances. I must admit I was inspired as much by the way they handled the situation as I was with the actual presentation. It’s a lesson I hope I don’t soon forget.

When I grow up, I want to be just like those two ladies.