There’s Method in My Murders

Dial M for Murder 1954

It’s a bit harder for a mystery writer to come up with murder methods today. I don’t mean it’s harder to find them. It’s just that readers are more sophisticated and expect police and even amateur detectives to work with much more difficult scenarios. Your villain has to be wilier not only in their methods of homicide, but also in methods of evading discovery. And today’s crime writer must take care to not get caught in a mistake by a reader who happens to be knowledgeable in a particular field. With email and the internet, they feel compelled to let you know when you’ve goofed. And they will tell their friends: “Don’t bother reading this book, the author doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

One of the most helpful sites in my own research has been FBI homicide statistics from the 2019 Crime in the United States report. If you’re interested in a state-by-state breakdown of commonly used weapons, this is fascinating stuff. The most common weapon in the U.S. is the handgun—no surprise there. While we may deplore the plethora of handguns in film, television and novels, they only mirror reality, at least here in the U.S.

After firearms comes the ever popular “blunt instrument”, often just long pieces of wood, metal tools, objet d’art, whatever comes to hand, so to speak. Pretty simple, but know that the reader will be looking for the DNA results.

There’s a category of murder the FBI labeled as “hands, fists and feet” which brings up interesting pictures in the mind of a writer. Then for most U.S. states, knives and other cutting instruments come somewhere between firearms and fists. And there’s a small section that includes homicides by poison, explosives, fire and narcotics. For various reasons, poisons have largely gone out of favor in this century, in true crime as well as fiction. Until the 19th century, poisons couldn’t even be detected in the human body, making them the perfect weapon. But today, with advanced technology and toxicology, homicidal poisonings are statistically rare. Anyone who watches CSI, Law & Order, NCIS, etc., knows there’s no longer such a thing as an “untraceable poison”, which was a favorite of writers even in the last century.

I did use strangulation in one of my murder stories because I felt the killer’s motive was more up close and personal. My perpetrator was not the kind of person who would keep a gun handy or be inclined to beat someone to death. But he could be overcome with rage as well as fear that the person who meant so much to him would leave him for someone else. He went into what they call a blind rage and strangled his victim. Strangulation was used a lot in older stories, but again, today there’s the possibility of DNA on the cord or cloth.

Arson can be a method of homicide, but it’s more often used to make identifying the body difficult. And it’s tricky for a perpetrator (and a writer) as technology becomes ever more advanced. The leaps that technology has taken means that being an arson investigator now involves one of the most rigorous of training requirements, training that didn’t exist thirty years ago.

It’s still possible to come up with even stranger and more bizarre methods of homicide if you want to put in the time for the research. Those novels are fun to read and write, but for the most part, far-fetched no longer shocks, and readers are sophisticated, knowledgeable and what’s worse, skeptical. We writers have to work harder to get you all to go along with a plot and give us what we call your “willing suspension of disbelief”.

So … What goofs have you caught in your murder reading? Did you decide to let it go because it was a favorite author? Or did you throw the book across the room in disgust?