Saturday, December 12, 2009

Not your ordinary, everyday murder weapon...

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?

18 comments:

  1. I always liked defenestration as a method of silencing someone. I first encountered this in a fantasy novel by David Eddings where the 'good guys' were forced to defenestrate a guard to prevent him from sound this alarm.

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    1. Sounds exactly like something Silk would do ;)

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  2. Cassandra - You have a solid point. Defenestration is a very useful kind of murder weapon. It's easy to make it look like an accident, and as a writer, one can be as graphic or restrained as the context requires in describing what happens. It's quite flexible, too, and the murderer doesn't have to bring any tools or other weapons along.

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  3. I find Cassandra's first sentence positively sinister. But it does remind me that when teaching the European survey course, many years ago now, I used to rather relish bringing up the Defenestration of Prague (1618, the 1419 D of P predating the years of the course, although, as defenestrations go, I think it the better of the two). Lovely word, defenestration. I did myself on once occasion nearly get knocked off my perch by four litres of frozen ice cream hurtling out the top of an upright freezer. But that wasn't in a novel, and as my soon-to-be-ex wife was lurking round the corner and, I thought, sniggering, I don't think there was much mystery in it.

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  4. I don't think I have a favorite .. there's just too many. I do, however, enjoy novels where the writer uses an unusual murder weapon as opposed to just using a gun or a knife. I think it adds a little bit more to the mystery trying to figure out if there was a personal significance for using it or it was just handy.

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  5. Philip - I'm very glad that the ice cream wasn't fatal : ). It's funny you would mention the word defenestration itself; it really does have a lot of appeal, doesn't it? As a linguist, I've always liked the word. And, as I mentioned to Cassandra, the act itself doesn't necessarily require tools, expertise, and the like, so it's quite handy.

    Thanks for mentioning the Defenestrations of Prague; I'll have to look those up. I enjoy history very much, but I don't know all that I should about Eastern European history.


    Mason - You have a nicely-made point. Sometimes, a murder is committed with a certain weapon for a particular, personal reason and that certainly does add to the mystery. It's also interesting when an unusual weapon ends up being a clue to the murderer.

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  6. You know, I'm a fan of very, very ordinary murder methods, actually. Did they fall down the stairs, or were they pushed? Were they the victim of a hit and run...or were they targeted.

    But I like poison, too. :)

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  7. Elizabeth - I know exactly what you mean about ordinary kinds of murder weapons. Something like a fall, a car accident, or a drowning can be easily used to "hide" a murder, and it adds a layer of suspense (i.e. Will the sleuth be able to prove murder?). Poisoning can be like that, too : ).

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  8. Congratulations, Margot, on your blogging award! http://tinyurl.com/yasrskx

    I like most murder methods but the ones I remember are the quirky ones. The gardener who was planted in Agatha Raisin's "The Potted Gardener" is one of my favorites. I like methods of killing that have a bit of irony. Guns and knives would be my least favourite. Thanks, Margot, and enjoy your well deserved recognition!

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  9. Thanks so much, Bobbi : ). I have so much respect for Elizabeth, her great writing and her terrific blog , that this was quite an honor for me.

    Also, thanks for reminding me of The Potted Gardener. That story does, indeed have an interesting, quirky kind of murder method. No spoilers, folks; you'll enjoy it lots more if you read it "cold."

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  10. I remember reading, and enjoying, that Roald Dahl story, particularly the role that the detective inspector unwittingly played in destroying the evidence!

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  11. That's one of my favorite parts about that story, Maxine : ). Such a wonderful twist, isn't it? Thanks for bringing it up.

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  12. Lamb to the Slaughter is one of my favorite episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents"!

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  13. Defenestration - I had forgotten what it meant so I had to check it first. Actually I have used it as a method myself :D Very useful.

    I also like Martin´s scythe plus the Roald Dahl story, but it is important that the weapon is realistic in the context. In Denmark shooting weapons are still fairly unusual so I have only shot my victims once.

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  14. That's admirably restrained of you, Dorte!

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  15. Yes, isn´t it, Maxine? (but I can assure you my killer hit the bull´s eye ;))

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  16. In one of Dr Thorndyke's story/novel (by R Austin Freeman) the murderer used a knife made of dry ice. That evaporated after a while and the police were at a loss to find out the murder weapon. Can you name the story? I do not know the answer.

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  17. the most interesting non ordinary weapon was a woman who murdered her very fat husband by injecting him with a lethal dose of insulin. Death by heart attack was assumed because he was so fat and no wounds could be found ,not even where she punctured him with the syringe. That's because she cleverly deliverded the fatal puncture deep in his navel !

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