One of the decisions that crime writers make is what the murder weapon will be (if the crime story involves murder). You’d think that wouldn’t be difficult; after all, there are a number of ways that people can die. But it’s not always that easy a choice. For one thing, some weapons (like firearms) need either some sort of training or a license. And in many countries, guns aren’t easy to get. Other weapons (like certain poisons) require special knowledge and/or access.
But most murderers, both real and fictional, don’t have a lot of special knowledge. So, they need to choose weapons that don’t require any, and that (hopefully) don’t incriminate them. Even so, there are a lot of options, and many of those are simple, everyday things that are near to hand.
In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp and the police to solve a series of murders. The murders have in common that Poirot receives a cryptic warning note before each on, and that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. As you can imagine, the police look for commonalities among the murders, but there aren’t many. The murderer doesn’t even use the same sort of weapon each time. In one case, the victim is strangled with her own belt. In two others, the victims are killed by blows to the head. Nothing about the weapons can be linked to a particular person, and that adds to the complexity of this case. The police can’t, say, try to find out who bought a certain kind of weed or pest killer, or who owns a certain sort of gun. Christie fans can tell you, too, that she does a similar thing in other stories, too.
As L.R. Wright’s The Suspect begins, eighty-year-old George Wilcox has just murdered eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. In this case, Wright had to choose a weapon that could be wielded by a man Wilcox’s age and that wouldn’t require special background or knowledge. The problem is solved neatly when Wilcox picks up an empty shell casing being used as a sort of bookend/decoration. It’s manageable enough that a man of eighty can use it, but big and heavy enough to do the job. And it becomes important when RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg begins to investigate the murder. At first, the police suspect an itinerant fish salesman, but it’s not long before Alberg’s attention turns to Wilcox. The only thing is, there doesn’t seem to be a motive (or, more accurately, there is one, but it’s revealed as the novel goes on). There’s also no sign of the murder weapon, which could at least be tested for evidence. It’s an interesting match of wits as Alberg gets closer to the truth, and Wilcox works to mislead him.
Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Progressive Dinner Deadly features her sleuth, retired teacher Myrtle Clover. In the novel, Myrtle’s been trying to get her book club to feature more literary novels than the blockbuster bestsellers they’ve been discussing. With a rift forming, the decision is made to turn the group into a progressive dinner group. Each month, the group will move from one member’s house to the next, with each member providing one course of a full meal (i.e., appetizers in one home, soup in another, and so on). On the first night of this new venture, one of the club members, Jill Caulfield, is murdered by a blow to the head with one of her own heavy pans. The most likely suspect is her husband, Cullen, but Myrtle soon finds that more than one person had a motive for murder. In this case, the murderer takes advantage of a handy weapon that belongs to the victim, and that doesn’t require any special knowledge.
In Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit, Sydney police detectives Ella Marconi and Murray Shakespeare face a baffling case. Marko Meixner has been killed by falling (or jumping, or being pushed) under an oncoming train. Earlier in the day, he was in severe psychological distress, raving that he was in danger for his life. In fact, paramedics took him for a psychological evaluation. So, at first, the Powers That Be are inclined to call this death a suicide, and they leave it at that. But Marconi and Shakespeare are not convinced, and they look into the matter more deeply. As it turns out, Meixner was murdered, but it’s not easy to find out who the killer is. There were crowds of people around at the time of the murder, so even the CCTV footage doesn’t show clearly any one person who approached the victim and pushed him. And a push like that doesn’t require great strength or particular knowledge, so the murder method doesn’t narrow down the list of suspects. In the end, it turns out that Meixner wasn’t as far removed from reality as it may have seemed. As you’ll know, there are a lot of other novels, too, where victims are pushed to their deaths. It’s an effective method that doesn’t automatically implicate any one person, and that doesn’t require a lot of preparation.
Drowning is also a murder method that doesn’t require a lot of strength, special training, or even knowledge of the victim. So, it’s no surprise that that method’s used in several crime novels. For instance, Vaseem Khan’s first Inspector Chopra novel, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, is the story of the death of Santosh Achrekar, who’s found dead of drowning in a Mumbai sewage creek. At first, it looks as though the victim had too much to drink, fell into the creek, and drowned. But his mother is sure there’s more going on, and she demands that the police find out what really happened. Inspector Ashwin Chopra listens to what the woman has to say, and he decides to look into the matter more closely. He finds out that this young man’s death was, indeed, deliberate, and that it leads to some very high (and dangerous) places.
Murder methods and weapons don’t have to be sophisticated to be successful. And sometimes, using everyday things like pans, water, clothing, etc. makes it even harder to find out who a killer is. Little wonder we see those things in so many crime novels.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by T Bone Burnett.
12 thoughts on “The Murder Weapon*”
Fascinating, Margot. And what I like about your posts is that they always include books and authors that I haven’t come across before and I always want to read them. The only book I’ve read of this selection is The ABC Murders, so I’m on the lookout for the others.
Thanks, Margaret. I’m really glad you enjoy what you find here. I learn about new-to-me books every time I visit your blog, too, and it’s one of the things I really enjoy about your posts. That’s one thing I really love about the online reading/book community: I’m always finding new things to read!
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It’s the murder weapon – or rather the effects of the murder weapon – which tend to make me steer clear of modern crime novels. In the past, the emphasis was often on the puzzle, and the weapon could be ingenious but wasn’t always so grim and gory. Nowadays, however, the murder methods have got so extreme that I often can’t take them! I’ll probably stick to Christie and her cleverness!
Christie certainly was clever, KBR! I know what you mean, too, about modern crime novels and murder weapons. Sometimes they really are gory, and/or the murder is drawn out. That doesn’t appeal to me at all; I get pulled right out of the story. I think it’s possible to have a compelling story that doesn’t make use of that sort of gore, and I much prefer that approach.
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Ah, the murderer in Progressive Dinner Deadly is a person after my own heart – whenever I feel inclined to murder anyone I tend to threaten that I’ll hit them over the head with a frying pan! So far I have restrained myself from ever actually putting this method to the test, so it’s good to get confirmation that it’s effective… 😉
It certainly is, FictionFan! And a heavy frying pan can be washed and put away or hidden, etc… Of course, I do not condone actually carrying out that threat; your restraint is well-advised… 😉 But seriously, common items like frying pans can come in handy as fictional murder weapons, especially if the killer doesn’t have a lot of special knowledge or training.
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An interesting post Margot. Louise Penny has been creative on occasion with murder including an arrow in the first book and an electrocution on ice in another. In her current book, The Madness of Crowds, which I am reading it is a small log which disappear when thrown upon a bonfire.
Thanks, Bill. And you’re right, of course, about Louise Penny. She’s come up with some very creative ideas for murder weapons, and she makes them plausible. That idea of a log that gets thrown on a fire is very clever; it reminds me in a sense of Roald Dahl’s short story, Lamb to the Slaughter, where the murder weapon is baked and eaten…
Thanks for the reminder of The Suspect, Margot. It’s been on the TBR pile for too long.
That one’s an innovative take on the sort of person who murders, Col, and Wright did, I thought, a really effective job of keeping me engaged, even though we know who the murderer is right from the start. If/when you get to it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.
Thanks for the lovely mention here, Margot!
It’s always a pleasure to mention your work, Elizabeth!