Whenever there’s a murder, either in real life or in crime fiction, there’s a murder weapon. Very often, the weapon that’s used depends on the killer and the victim. It also depends on how preplanned the crime was. In a crime of sudden anger or a crime that wasn’t supposed to be murder (i.e. “I was only trying to scare _____...”), the weapon might be something handy. In a more premeditated crime, the murderer may bring a weapon along. Either way, one of the murderer’s first goals is to either hide or get rid of the weapon, or erase any connection he or she might have with the weapon. That’s not easy to do if the weapon can be traced to the killer (e.g. a gun that’s registered to a particular owner, or strangulation marks that are consistent with a suspect’s hands). So murderers often use weapons that aren’t as traceable, and some of them are quite unusual, as we’ll see.
Some killers use supposed accidents as weapons. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a young teenager during a fête. In the course of his investigation, Poirot finds that the girl may have been killed to keep her from telling something that she knew. As Poirot is putting the pieces of the puzzle together, the young girl’s grandfather has a fall from a bridge one night after he’s been to his local. His death is ruled accidental; after all, he’d been drinking, and as it was, he was elderly. But Poirot is convinced that his death is linked to that of his granddaughter. In this case, the weapon is a push into the water.
There’s a similar motif in Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Knew Shakespeare. In that novel, Jim Qwilleran, a former big-city newspaper reporter, and Braun’s sleuth, has recently moved to the small town of Pickax, in the North Central United States. One night, the eccentric publisher of the Pickax Picayune, Senior Goodwinter, dies in a car accident as he’s crossing an old plank bridge. At first, his death is ruled an accident, but Qwilleran is soon suspicious. He’s got a liking for Goodwinter’s son, too, so he begins to investigate. In this case, one could argue that the killer uses Goodwinter’s car as the weapon.
Some killers use something belonging to the victim. That way, it’s much harder to trace the weapon to the killer. For example, in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot investigates a series of murders that are linked by warnings that the killer sends before each death. One of the victims, Betty Barnard, is strangled with her own belt, a “thick, knitted affair” that doesn’t show fingerprints. In James Yaffe’s A Nice Murder for Mom, former Bronx police officer Dave accepts a job in rural Mesa Grande, Colorado. Shortly afterwards, he gets involved in investigating the murder of Stuart Bellamy, a pompous, arrogant, much-disliked professor at local Mesa Grande College. Bellamy’s been killed by a blow to the head with one of his own possessions - a large, heavy paperweight in the shape of a book. In Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden, Oxford history don Daniel Kind and DCI Hannah Scarlett investigate the murder of Warren Howe, a landscaper who was killed with his own scythe.
Sometimes, murderers choose very unusual weapons. Sometimes the unusual weapon is chosen so as to “cover” a murder. For example, in both Carol O’Connell’s Shell Game and Louise Penny’s Still Life, arrows from precisely-aimed bows are used as murder weapons. In both cases, the weapon is used to make the murders look like accidents. Penny’s The Cruelest Month is also an example of an unusual murder weapon that’s used so the death will look like an accident. In that novel, the rural Québec town of Three Pines is excited when Madame Blavatsky, a Hungarian psychic, who’s staying at the local Bed and Breakfast, agrees to hold a séance. It turns out that the woman is neither Hungarian nor a psychic, but everyone agrees to go ahead with the séance. The first attempt isn’t successful, but another one is scheduled at the old Hadley house, which is said to be “evil.” On the night of the séance, Madeleine Favreu suddenly dies, apparently frightened to death. It turns out, though, that her death was not from fear, but from a lethal dose of a diet drug. Now, Inspector Armand Gamache has to find out who wanted Madeleine dead.
At other times, the killer chooses a very unusual weapon because it’ll be hard to trace. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, in which Poirot investigates the murder of a charwoman whom everyone believes was killed by her lodger. What’s odd about the killing is that the murder weapon was never found; also, the fatal blow to the back of victim’s head could have been caused by more than one kind of weapon, so at first, there’s no connection between the weapon and the killer. When Poirot pieces together what really happened, we find that the weapon was an unusual object that belonged to someone else, and that it was used in part because it wouldn’t be likely to be traced back to the real killer.
Some killers choose unusual murder weapons because they have a personal significance. That’s the case in Minette Walters' The Scold’s Bridle, the story of the dysfunctional Gillespie family. Old Mathilda Gillespie has been suffering for a long time with painful arthritis and other ailments, so when her body is found in her bathtub one day, with her wrists slit, everyone thinks it’s suicide. What’s extremely unusual, though, is that Mathilda is wearing a scold’s bridle, an ancient medieval device with tongue clamps used to punish nagging women. The bridle is an old family heirloom. Mathilda was an unpleasant, much-disliked woman, so no-one in the village mourns her death. When Mathilda’s will is read, everyone is shocked to discover that she’s left her considerable fortune not to anyone in her family, but to her doctor, Sarah Blakeney. It looks now as though Mathilda’s death was not suicide, but murder, and Sarah is the prime suspect. In order to clear her name, Sarah looks into Mathilda’s past, which is revealed through her diaries, to find out who the real killer was.
A very unusual murder weapon is used in Arthur Porges’ short story, Horse-Collar Homicide, which features his sleuth, pathologist Dr. Joel Hoffman. Hoffman’s originally stumped when he’s asked to find the cause of death for an aging patriarch of the Lakewood family, who dies suddenly while in the middle of an archaic game. The game, which is played in the barn of the family’s estate, involves hanging up a horse-collar and making faces through the collar, so that one’s face is framed by the collar. The stranger the expression, the better, as the winner of the game is the one who gets the most laughs. As Hoffman examines the body, he finds several odd lesions on the man’s brain, and begins to believe that Lakewood’s been murdered. As it turns out, there’s more than one suspect. Lakewood was a tyrant whom most of the family resents. The real question in this story is how a healthy man suddenly dies from framing his face in a horse-collar. The answer to the question is an ingenious use of electricity.
I must admit that one of my favorite unusual (and ingenious) murder weapons is used in Roald Dahl’s short story Lamb to the Slaughter. That’s the story of Patrick Maloney, a police officer, and his wife, Mary. One evening, Patrick comes home from work and breaks the news to his wife that he’s leaving her. At first, Mary doesn’t want to believe it’s true, but Patrick makes it clear that he’s serious. So Mary’s response is murder. What’s so ingenious in this story isn’t that we don’t know who the murderer is; what’s ingenious is her method of murder. I don’t want to spoil it, so here is the link to the story, so that you can read it yourself. It won’t take long – promise : ).
Which novels make use of your favorite unusual murder weapons?