Miss Scarlet in the library with the candlestick…or was it the revolver…or the wrench…or the…
Warning: This article contains “spoilers.”
One of the most difficult things a mystery writer needs to do is to find a unique way for her, or his, victim to die. Let’s face it. Gunshot, stabbing, poison…it’s all been done. If you take a poll and ask mystery fans what the most unique way the victim met their end, chances are everyone will say. “The leg of lamb thing.” They may not remember that it occurred in the story, “Lamb to the Slaughter” (1954) or that it was written by Roald Dahl, but they remember that a wife hit her husband over the head with a frozen leg of lamb. She then cooked the leg and served it to the police who came to investigate her husband’s murder. You’ve got to omit that it was original… and hard to beat.
Roald Dahl is perhaps best known as a writer of children’s books – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, & Matilda among others – and perhaps because of the creativity in these books he was able to come up with some different ways to commit murder, or at least death by misadventure. The short story The Way Up to Heaven was published in The New Yorker, in 1954. Once again, a wife does in her husband. Mrs. Foster had an irrational fear of missing a train, or boat, or plane. For years, her husband appears to increase her fears by little delaying tactics. With a scheduled six-week trip to visit her children in Paris, and with the servants given time off with half-pay, Mrs. Foster is impatiently waiting in the car, for her husband who wants to be dropped at his club on the way to the airport. She heads back to the house to tell him to hurry up and hears a sound that she identifies. She returns to the car and goes to the airport. Six weeks later she returns and calmly calls the elevator repair company to come and fix the elevator which appears to be stuck between floors, only to find her husband inside.
If you’re like me, you’ve begun traipsing through your memory cells to call up a unique fictional death. My memory says C. J. Box may have topped Dahl when he does in an eco-warrior with an exploding cow. (I kid you not.) It’s in the second of his long running series featuring game warden Joe Pickett, Savage Run (2002).
Edgar Allen Poe had an orangutan as the guilty party in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Other animals have featured as murder weapons: Arthur Conan Doyle used an Indian Swamp Adder in Sherlock Holmes’ adventure The Speckled Band, and in a Holmes pastiche, A Taste for Honey, H. F. Heard had Mycroft investigating a murder by bees. Not to be outdone, Berkeley Gray used a lion in Conquest After Midnight (1957).
It’s only natural to expect creative thinking from the halls of higher learning, and we aren’t disappointed in how these bright lights of knowledge can commit murder. Michael Innes wrote The Weight of the Evidence in 1943, in which Professor Pluckrose is dead – either from murder, an act of God, or attacking Martians. He’s been struck down by a falling meteorite.
In Matricide at St. Martha’s (1994), Ruth Dudley Edwards has the murderer remove the stops on the ladders that roll along the library shelves, enabling access to the books that are normally out of reach. The stops prevent the ladders from crashing into the wall and when Head Mistress Dame Maud gives an energetic shove to the ladder, and climbs up it, there is nothing to stop the ladder and Dame Maud is catapulted out the library window.
The leg of lamb may be the most unusual item with which to bash the victims head, but other writers have tried to find different weapons with which to cosh their unsuspecting victims. Stephen King uses a typewriter in Misery, and while an ordinary bottle would do a certain amount of damage, Ngaio Marsh decides a jeroboam of champagne would more than do the deed in Vintage Murder (1937). (I’d call it a terrible waste, but that’s just me. Even if the bottle didn’t break, the police would take it away as evidence.) Golf clubs have been used several times. Of course, hitting someone over the head means that you have to do the deed so it’s hard to establish an alibi. Dorothy Sayers, clever woman that she was, solved that problem by booby-trapping a heavy pot in Busman’s Holiday (1937). I contend that it’s not a sure-fire method, someone unintended might trip the trap and you could kill the wrong person.
Sometimes a weapon is so unusual it even confounds the investigator. In A Fatal Grace (2006), Louise Penny kills her unlikeable victim by electrocution. This is more difficult than one might think. Gone are the days when you could toss the hairdryer, or radio, into a bathtub and sizzle your victim. Now appliances have automatic shutoffs to prevent accidental electrocution. Instead of death you’re likely to ruin your hairdryer, or blow a fuse. Not only is it a difficult way to commit murder, but Penny had her victim standing on a frozen lake, in front of most of the village, watching a curling match. When the victim collapses everyone assumes it is from a heart-attack.
If you are personally searching for a unique murder weapon, you might want to check out Bloody Bonsai (1998) by Peter Abresch. You’ll also get a quick guide on how to fashion your bonsai tree into a weapon.
Poisoning has one great advantage to the mystery writer; it usually takes time for the death to occur which gives the villain a chance to build an alibi. Agatha Christie made death by poison a more commonplace method of murder, but she didn’t come up with the most unusual ways of administering said substance. Perhaps the most unique method was cyanide planted inside a temporary tooth filing in Death in the Dentist’s Chair (1934) by pulp fiction writer Cornell Woolrich.
On the other hand, you might want to give the winning nod for best poisoning method to J. D. MacDonald for his short story, Tune In On Station Homicide (1948). In this story, with a great twist at the end, curare is administered through a mechanical silent alarm watch. In 1978, Charlotte MacLeod poisoned nose drops in Rest You Merry. I think the most classic murder by poison takes place in Umberto Eco’s historical novel, The Name of the Rose (1980). William of Baskerville, a Franciscan friar is asked by the abbot to investigate the death of the renowned illuminator and translator, Venantius. William eventually discovered that he was poisoned by cyanide which had been put onto the corner of the pages of the book he was translating. The pages were such that a person would naturally lick their fingers to turn the page.
Finding a unique way to murder your victims may become an impossible task for writers. Not only does it require imagination, but there will come a point in time when it has all been done. Until that time, I say to all writers, “Be creative. And please, won’t someone let the butler do it?”