Wednesday, May 28, 2008

How to Commit a Murder

by Raelene Gorlinsky

Do you write mysteries or romantic suspense? How do you do your research? So many details to consider! What type of gun was used, how many bullets does it hold and what type of wound do they make, what is the gun's accuracy and range, how loud is it, where could the murderer have obtained it? Oh, you poisoned the murderee? What poison, how long does it take to kill someone, what are the effects, is it detectable in post-mortem testing, how and where is the poison available... And then after your character is dead, there are all the police and forensic procedures, then the lawyers and courtroom.

And don't think you can fake any of this. Nowadays everyone watches Forensic Files and Court TV and Unsolved Murders and Cold Cases, and a dozen other reality shows about crime. Granted, those shows are for entertainment and aren't always completely accurate, but the ones that report on real cases and investigations are thorough and realistic. So your average person nowadays can know quite a lot about how crimes are committed and investigated. And they will spot flaws and errors in your story.

When it comes to researching all those pesky details for your story crime, a number of authors have recommended the Howdunit series of books from Writer's Digest Books. I have not read them, so I can't personally say how accurate or useful they are, or how up-to-date the information (the first book in the series is from 1990). But judging from the titles and book descriptions, they cover almost everything you'd need to know, and in considerable detail.

Armed and Dangerous: A Writer's Guide to Weapons
Body Trauma: A Writer's Guide to Wounds and Injuries
Cause of Death: A Writer's Guide to Death, Murder and Forensic Medicine
Deadly Doses: A Writer's Guide to Poisons
Missing Persons: A Writer's Guide to Finding the Lost, the Abducted and the Escaped
Murder One: A Writer's Guide to Homicide
Private Eyes: A Writer's Guide to Private Investigating
Scene of the Crime: A Writer's Guide to Crime-Scene Investigation
Howdunit Book of Poisons
Howdunit Book of Police Procedures and Investigation
Howdunit: How Crimes are Committed and Solved

And there are many similar nonfiction reference and research books available. Just search Amazon.

In fact, I find it rather worrying -- I don't mind authors reading this stuff, but how do we keep it out of the hands of the potential criminals? ;-)

So what sources (books or other) do you recommend as the most accurate for planning a murder?


Anonymous said...

I find that thorough planning, rehearsals, and sufficient contingency planning make most of the reference works unnecessary.

Lynn LaFleur said...

I belong to a wonderful Yahoo group where the owner is a retired crime scene analyst. There are police in the group, paramedics, doctors...all kinds of professional people who are so giving with their info. I now know exactly how to murder someone with prescription drugs. :-)

Here's the URL:


Maggie Nash said...

I have spoken to an ex undercover cop and current police, and also have a few acquaintances who are judges. The undercover cop had some amazing stories and gave me some brilliant insight into the psyche of the undercover police and why they do it. True crime stories are also useful, if not chilling.

The most chilling book I have read is on psychopaths and is written by an Australian forensic psychologist. It is called "Touched by the Devil" and is by John Clarke and Andy Shea. I found I couldn't read more than a chapter at a time as it gave me nightmares to think that the stories in this book were all true and that psychopaths could be people hunting anywhere. Even sitting next to me on the train. *brrr* It still gives me the creeps. Great reference though :-)

You can find it on Amazon :-)

Amy Ruttan said...

My Evil Day Job is a law clerk. So for my training I did a class on Forensics and have a FANTASTIC text book on Forensics from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

I know laws are different in Canada, but forensics is pretty much the same.

I've also participated in a Jury Trial, won't say the crime but it wasn't fun, what was interesting was the crash course in fingerprinting I got.

And my local RWA chapter had a Forensic Police office, who trains at the Police College in Ontario, explain forensics and fingerprinting. From the time of Sherlock Holmes on.

I've been fortunate to learn a lot.

I've just never got around to writing a murder mystery yet.


Terry Odell said...

Like, Lynn, I belong to crimescenewriters. I'll also recommend Lee Lofland's blog, The Graveyard Shift. He wrote "Police Procedure & Investigations" and is willing to answer questions. I also like "Forensics for Dummies" by Dr. Doug Lyle.

And I buy beer for some local homicide detectives. They're a very good source of information. I used to email them, but I'm now on the sheriff's office 'list' and any emails I send to their work addresses will bounce. Makes me feel kind of important.

The hardest part is writing something "real" because everyone assumes that the CSI shows get it right. They don't.