Plotting a murder mystery requires answering a few basic questions, starting with who dies, how and why. One is tempted to choose the idiot in the black Lexus (who tailgated so closely, you could see the whites of his eyes in the rearview mirror), swerved into a merge lane to drive past the crawling traffic and then cut right in front of you, nearly clipping your bumper and who then gave you the finger when you beeped your horn. Visions of his battered Lexus lying at the bottom of a ravine (recently filled with cow dung) whet your literary juices … but we digress. Back to the question at hand: whom to kill and how? (“Colonel Mustard in the library with a wrench” has been done. Mrs. Mustard had nagged her husband to fix the plumbing for the eleventeenth time that morning while he was in the middle of working the crossword puzzle, so, really, who can blame him?)
Recently, one of us spent some time at the gun range with other mystery writers engaged in “field research.” No one was killed at the range, tempting as it was to eliminate the competition in our target market segment (no pun intended). We had the opportunity to handle a weapon that is responsible for more than half the murders in the United States: the handgun. (Another ten to fifteen per cent of murders are from rifles.) Both of us served in the military, where we learned to fire a semiautomatic weapon in the interests of national defense, but given the difficulty of fitting an M16 into a purse – even a really big purse – learning to wield a handgun is something both of us have separately given a whirl to, for different reasons. (Not to make light of learning to use a deadly weapon, which really is a serious responsibility.)
As a murder weapon, handguns are pretty straightforward. The question of caliber needs to be decided, as not all handguns are created equal in terms of stopping power and accuracy. We don’t want to get too graphic here, but killing someone with a .22 caliber requires a high degree of accuracy while using a larger caliber induces more damage but necessitates carrying around a heavier weapon. As one of us explained to another woman contemplating a handgun purchase, “A .38 doesn’t have enough stopping power, a .45 has too much recoil, but a 9MM, as Goldilocks would say, is just about right. Oh, and you can’t go wrong with a black one – always a good fashion choice.”
Your choices in literary gun-related deaths – other than “point, aim, shoot and hide the body” are limited. Yes, you could have an accident while hunting rabbits (is it really an accident? “Wabbits are vewy, vewy twicky,” as Elmer Fudd reminds us). A forgettable minor character could be felled by a trick shot requiring a richochet off a steel beam. A detective could be puzzled by an interesting pattern of holes (twelve shots in the back forming the border of Albania).
In mysteries set in the world of police, criminals and professional detectives, it is easy to explain away a panoply of armed suspects. However, our protagonist, a 20-something female technology consultant living in San Francisco, does not spend her life in this world and doesn’t conveniently subscribe to Murderers Monthly and isn’t conversant in rifling patterns, blood spatters, and other arcane elements of death-by-bullet. Not that we are ruling out guns for future murders, but for the novels we’re currently working on, we’ve chosen other means of eliminating characters (no, not WhiteOut – we prefer modern methods, such as the search and replace function in Word – tee hee!). Enjoying as we do a well-placed send-up of technology, we are trying to figure out how someone can die during an upgrade. (Heaven knows many end users have been viciously tortured during them.) Considering how much software and hardware now permeates our world, including medical devices, cars, “smart” meters and other types of devices that used to be “unwired and a lot more reliable,” there is almost no place for Joe-Bob or Janey-Sue to hide from technology these days, so much of which can be turned to the dark side – we have reason to know.
After Guns, Cutting and Stabbing is the next most popular murder method (ten to fifteen percent), followed by Personal Weapons (hand, feet, fists) and Other (poison, explosives, narcotics, etc.), each of which accounts for five to ten percent of murders. Completing the list are Blunt Objects (~ five percent) and Fire.
Readers of mysteries know that many authors gravitate towards these less popular forms of murder as they provide an opportunity for some originality, e.g., the cricket bat (Blunt Object) used in Outsourcing Murder. In all honesty, we don’t know if the cricket bat is the most commonly-used Blunt Object since FBI statistics did not provide further category detail. (Is running a car off the road a Blunt Object or Other? What if the car bursts into flames after running the victim off the road, does it qualify as Fire? Again, we don’t know.)
Using a less common form of murder also allows the author to develop a mini-mystery about the specific item used. For example, in the case of a blunt trauma to the head: what object was used? Of what significance is the object? Who has it and is that person guilty? Why hit someone over the head instead of inserting the weapon in an interesting orifice? (“Ear,” of course, what else would we mean?)
In Denial of Service (available October, 2012) the murder weapon falls under Cutting and Stabbing. No further details at this time – you’ll have to read it – but the murder weapon is not just any old knife and is personally significant to the victim. And in book 3 – underway but not named – the weapon of choice is Other.
Certainly the choice of the murder weapon is not independent of the killer’s motive and frame of mind. In simple terms, was this a planned murder? If so, then the killer is much more likely to use a gun or poison, rather than the antique silver candlestick on the mantle (does anybody know why there was a wrench in the library for Colonel Mustard to oh-so-conveniently use?). But an impulse kill … well, the possibilities are endless: knocked unconscious and stomped to death by camels; hit over the head with a Stradivarius and thrown off a twenty-story building; pushed into an exhibit of hungry sharks; or all of the above. We get giddy just thinking about it.
Regardless of how the victim was done in, in a comic mystery there is one other factor that is illustrated by an anecdotal story about Franklin Roosevelt, who surmised that nobody actually listens to the polite mutterings that take place in a reception line. He decided to test his theory by saying, as he shook the hand of countless people at a reception in the White House, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” The story goes that nobody heard what he said, except one reporter who nodded, smiled back and responded, “Well, she certainly had it coming, didn’t she?” Murder is serious business, but in at least a few cases, we admit to thoughts of “Well, he certainly had it coming, didn’t he?” as we plot a character’s demise.