Knocking ‘em Dead:
Killing your Victim
In the murder mystery business, a lot of bodies are bound to pile up. How the victims are killed is usually an integral part of the plot as the modus operandi will leave behind clues that move forward the investigation. When killing someone it is therefore important to consider how this pivotal event will guide your plotting. I would go so far as to advise one plot the investigation, then choose the cause of death that best fits the plot.
As the author of the Porter Cassel Mystery Series I have an unusual perspective on murder. The series revolves around the investigation of forest fires involving fatalities. What is particularly interesting with a forest fire is that a fatality does not have to be intentional for the determination of murder. If a fire is set intentionally, with no homicidal motivation, and someone is killed as a result of the fire, the arsonist is criminally responsible for the fatality. If the arsonist intended to kill using the fire, he is charged with first degree murder. If he didn’t intend to kill, he is charged with a lower count of murder, or manslaughter. Either way, the arsonist is on the hook, and this has allowed me considerable scope in the development of murder mystery series based on fire investigation.
Another interesting facet of fire investigation is the relationship between arson and other related crimes. Arson is often used as a secondary crime to obliterate evidence of a primary crime, with the obvious motivation to avoid detection and prosecution. For example, a murder may be covered up by setting the crime scene—either a building or a forest—on fire. This is an efficient way to sanitize a crime scene as fire will destroy virtually all fingerprints and most biological evidence. It also complicates a crime scene as the fire will wreak havoc with the surrounding environment, increasing the difficulty of locating the crime scene. Add to this frequent unintentional contamination of the scene by firefighters unaware of the sinister existence of another, more serious crime, and you have a highly complex murder to solve—therefore a complex investigation. Even without murder, wildfire arson is statistically the most difficult crime in the world to solve.
If arson is used as a secondary crime, the author has almost unlimited options in how to bump off the victim. Hang them, shoot them, stab them, poison them. Read them bad poetry until they do themselves in. Once they’re dead, burn the body and surrounding area. In fact, the victim doesn’t need to be killed where the fire is set—they can be killed elsewhere and the body moved. Now you’ve got two geographically separate crime scenes. Writing an effective and satisfying mystery is about making the murder as complicated as possible. Keep in mind, as you’re complicating the killing, that you’ll need to solve the crime, or crimes, in a logical and believable manner. Don’t paint yourself into a corner. Do the research. I love research—in fact, I find it more interesting than writing. Learning new things. Gaining access to places and people you would never have if you weren’t an author. But that’s a subject for another time. For now, rub your hands together with sinister glee, and plan to kill someone.
On paper, of course. Authors are nice people.
Dave Hugelschaffer is the author of the Porter Cassel mystery series, based on forest fire investigation. As a former forest ranger and wild land firefighter, he writes from a position of experience that provides the series with authenticity, and the reader insight into a world rarely explored in mystery fiction.