I Blame Stephen King

I Blame Stephen King for what he said in On Writing - Book Cover of On Writing
It’s all King’s fault.
The mystery reader should have a fair chance to detect the criminal in a logical manner. I blame Stephen King for an overall lack of fair play in recent mystery writing. He unfettered the imagination of a generation of writers.

In On Writing, King proposed starting a written story with the question: what if ____ happened? For example, what if a left-handed albino gerbil grew to the size of a house and ate people who had French accents or ate French Fries? He didn’t present that situation exactly, but you get the picture. He and other of his ilk have freed the imagination of mystery writers to the point where the laws of logic, nature, and physics are ignored.

Readers, however, use these laws to solve the mystery as vicarious detectives. The violation of them is not a twist, but a felonious act of dissembling that should be punishable by … I don’t know what. It’s at least a misdemeanor-level violation of the writer’s code.

Too much imagination without knowledge of anatomy and physiology creates a fantasy, not a murder mystery. You can’t smother a victim with mini-marshmallows up his nose; he’ll breathe through his mouth. People don’t die of alcohol intoxication on three stiff martinis, unless they weigh less than 30 pounds and have never had a drink in their lives. 

Great detectives exclude the impossible to leave behind the probable and likely. That is how readers work through a mystery as well. We all like to solve the case before the detective. If the method of the murder is physically impossible, how can we solve it? Likewise, if the killer’s occupation precludes him or her from being the killer, we are unfairly bamboozled.

Ribs are much closer together than they appear in diagrams.
Ribs are much closer together than this!
I recently attended a mystery writer’s meeting at which several published authors spoke. The moderator asked each to describe the most bizarre murder method they’d written. One described a sociopathic adolescent who walked down a street and stabbed a scalpel through the anterior chest wall lacerating the victim’s aorta. The victim then walked a short distance before dropping dead, never complaining.  

Problems with this scenario: one, the aorta is not a superficial structure, take it from someone who has had part of his replaced at surgery. Normally it sits 2 or more inches behind the breastbone. To puncture it requires a deep stab with a scalpel or even a steak knife. It can’t be accomplished by a simple pat or inconspicuous thrust.  

Two, twelve ribs stripe across the anterior chest wall, creating broad areas of impenetrable bone, between them are smaller areas of soft tissue. (All the illustrations show too much space between the ribs. Feel your ribs. See how little space there is between them?) Without locating the ribs through palpation, it is difficult to find a way between them. Have you ever tried to use a knife to separate barbequed ribs?

Problem number three, if you were to nick an aorta with a scalpel the rapid loss of blood would kill the victim in seconds. Even a pinhole is fatal over minutes. The pain of the penetration of a scalpel would make the victim yodel out and freeze in his tracks. The scalpel would be handle deep in the person’s chest provided that you didn’t accidently hit a rib and break the blade. The clothing next to the wound would drip crimson within in milliseconds. But wouldn’t that ruin the writer’s scenario, oh well?  

Another member of the presenting group offered information she’d learned at a conference: that Ethylene Glycol, especially in anti-freeze, is the most frequently used poison. However, this simple fact is misleading.

Glycool can be dangerous, but not always fatal.
Anti-freeze can freeze your auntie dead.
Ethylene Glycol is a poison whose effect is dose related. That means it has differing effects depending on the concentration of the poison in your blood. While anti-freeze is routinely deadly when cats and dogs and smaller mammals drink it, humans must imbibed much larger amounts. Homo sapiens have larger blood volumes. A victim who does not receive a high enough concentration ends up blind or otherwise injured but not dead. So although the facts are correct, it is the most commonly used fatal poison at the present time, it is not routinely fatal. 

If you are going to kill off a victim in your murder mystery maybe you want to consult a physician first. You don’t want your victim hanging around after chapter twenty-five ready to name his assailant. Dr. D.P. Lyle (an award winning writer and physician) performs a service for writers by vetting their medical questions on his website.

If you are a writer of murder mysteries, know I am watching you and I want you to get it medically correct. It makes the story authentic.

In a corollary argument, don’t have your murderer’s identity make it impossible for him to be a suspect. That is not playing fair either. I recently read a book by an excellent mystery writer who is covering the world of murder mysteries A to Z. In it, the murderer is also the ME who performed the autopsy on the two victims. This fact violates all laws of criminal forensics. Anyone remotely socially interactive with the victims cannot be involved in the autopsy. The murderer-doctor did autopsies on both victims. He married the widow of the first victim and employed the second victim. I have no problem with physicians as suspects. In my unpublished manuscript, my protagonist is a physician and accused of two murderers. However, when the murderer performs the autopsies, the writer is not playing fair. By performing the autopsies the ME/murderer appears cleared of involvement. This breach of protocol was unfair to the reader and a complete subterfuge.

The reader deserves better. Regardless of what Stephen King might say.

TheMadMutt aka Dr. Madison Muttnick aka Dr. Lewis Preschel
. Wouldn’t you be Mad, too?


  1. jill

    so informational! Great!

  2. Andrew Lenza

    I always learn a great deal from your articles, Dr. Lew. Good stuff. Of course, every analysis appears “self-evident” once an expert in the field explains it so deftly.

  3. E. F. Watkins

    Right you are! But though I know you meant it tongue-in-cheek, Stephen King was writing “fantasy”–a.k.a., horror–so the same rules do not apply to realistic mysteries. I also read once that most of the outrageous murders committed by the hero(?) of American Psycho were anatomically improbable or impossible. I was fortunate for many years to have a retired MD as the leader of my weekly critique group. He could generally tell me if the murder or injury I was planning to inflict on a fictional victim was believable–or if he didn’t know off the top of his head, he could tell me how to find out. Very helpful!!

  4. Dr. Lewis Preschel

    E.F. every mystery writer should have a physician to help plan their murders. I find it really hard to talk with my tongue so far in my cheek.
    Thanks for the comments. The real threshold for any murder method in fiction is whether or not the average reader finds it believable. As a physician my understanding should not be average. I should understand the cause of death in detail, its plausibility and probability. Therefore what I might find incongruous, the average reader probably does not give a second thought.
    It makes me a medical curmudgeon with an inflamed sense of righteousness. It is a real problem sometimes because it can ruin a perfectly good mystery for me.

  5. Arthur Frank

    Stephen King’s ON WRITING is a well known and well read book on writing that is suitable for the general community of authors. I don’t know if what he says is always the best for mystery writers, because his genre of choice is horror, where he happens to be a Master of the Universe. If you want graphic descriptions of the victim in the last moments of his life, then Stephen King is the man. If your genre is mystery/thriller , then perhaps Lessons on a Lifetime of Writing – A Novelist Looks at his Craft by David Morrell might be a better choice. You will remember Morrell as the author of RAMBO , a founder of ITW and so much more. If the good old fashioned ways of bumping people off are just not good enough, then the writer should invest in the various books that Doug Lyle has on the market. Doug is clearly an expert on surreptitious elimination of humans, and the trace evidence that outs the murderer. He comes from California where that stuff happens regularly. In the end, it is the writer that is responsible for the quality of their own product, much moreso than the publisher, the editor, or the reviewer. You can cheat the reader once or twice, but if you do it regularly, you are better off to take your royalties and buy a Burger King franchise , because the reader pretty soon will stop buying your books. Or you could switch genre to fantasy, where such goings on are not only acceptable, but also requisite. Many thanks to Dr Lewis Preschel for his continuing inputs to this blog. He is the resident expert on physical maladies and probable fatalities. Live Long and Prosper. Art Frank

  6. Dr. Lewis Preschel

    Thanks Art, but DP Lyle MD is the resident expert with his column in Mystery Writers of America’s newsletter. He has a website at which you can find his email address. He will answer questions about medicine and writing.

  7. Gemma Files

    You know, there actually was a Scandanavian case in which a serial killer turned out to be the local M.E., and was indeed responsible for autopsying his own victims, thus destroying vital evidence. I don’t really see how he could’ve been kept from doing it, unless telepathy was involved on the part of his superiors; similarly, I don’t see how such a plot twist is any more or less “playing fair” in a narrative sense than making one of the cops investigating the case the murderer, which is a trope that gets used constantly.

  8. Dr. Lewis Preschel

    Gemma Files what made this unfair was the ME’s personal involvement with the victims and the fact that he was personally acquainted with both. I do not believe that a police officer would be allowed to investigate his partner’s murder. I don’t not believe an ME would be allowed to autopsy his secretary or his assistance body. That was the problem with the manuscript I sighted. However, you point up a very good theme. When we read or see a movie we are willing to suspend our disbelief. It is the author’s duty to know how far our suspension can go. If he or she is talented, then in the environment they create we believe everything. If they are not, we put down the book or maybe leave the movie.
    That brings me back to Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher. My disbelief will snap well before I accept that situation.

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