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.
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.
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.