James Hayman: Lainie Goff, the beautiful young attorney who is murdered in my second thriller The Chill of Night is the victim of something called pithing. The villain placed the tip of a thin bladed knife (an ice pick would have done as well) into the small indentation at the back of Lainie’s neck just below the spot where the skull joins the neck and pushed the blade in between the C2 and C3 vertebrae. This severed Lainie’s spinal cord from her brainstem and resulted in virtually instantaneous death. Her body fell like a marionette that has had its strings cut.
I learned about my villain’s method of dispatching Lainie from Dr. Doug Lyle’s terrific little book Murder and Mayhem which is a compendium of Lyle’s answers to medical and forensic questions sent to him by crime writers all over the country. Lyle is a cardiologist who practices in Southern California but he has built a second career as an invaluable resource for those of us who need to know about murder and the effect various injuries have on a victim’s body. Most of the questions and answers in the book were originally published in Lyle’s monthly column for the Mystery Writers of America called The Doctor is In.
As I was browsing through Murder and Mayhem again last night, searching for an interesting way to dispatch a victim in my next thriller, I realized once again that Lyle’s book is not only a useful tool for crime writers but that it also makes good reading, full of medical information one might find interesting even if you aren’t planning to knock off a character in a book or, for that matter, your irritating next door neighbor.
For example one of the questions asked by a curious writer and answered by Lyle is What is the mechanism of death in a suicide by hanging? On page 18 we learn, “If the victim drops several feet, the noose would indeed fracture his neck and death would be fairly instantaneous. He would simply fall and hang limply. Yes, he would likely evacuate his bladder and bowels, and the smell would be as expected. On the other hand, if the fall is short, as in kicking a stool or chair out of the way…his neck would not break and death would be from strangulation. It would be slow and painful, with a great deal of kicking and struggling. When death finally occurs…his face would be purplish and engorged with blood. His eyes would protrude, perhaps his tongue would be swollen and protruding, and his neck would be excoriated from the struggle against the rope. Also the conjunctivae––the pink part of the inside of the eyelid––would show petechial hemorrhages.” Lyle goes on to add several more paragraphs of medical information about hanging that the writer might or might not need to know.
Among hundreds of other questions answered in the book are What injuries occur when someone is thrown down a stairway? Find the answer on page 25. How dangerous is it to transport heroin in a swallowed condom? Page 89. What are the symptoms and treatment of a “sucking chest wound?” Page 43. How quickly would someone die after drinking alcohol laced with Xanax? Page 184. Do bodies move during cremation? Page 273.
One of my personal favorites is the following question from a writer, Will oleander poison a cat? The answer to this one (on page 275) is that it depends on the amount. “Have the poisoner give the cat a very small amount, and he will get sick but survive…(For death to occur) just crush up a single leaf or flower and feed it to the cat in some food or meat. That should do it.”
I have no idea why this particular writer wanted to kill a cat or, indeed, if this particular method of “catricide” ever found its way into his or her book. But at least, in the unlikely event that I decide to murder a household pet in any of my own future books, now I have a method far more interesting than simply stuffing the helpless victim in a bag and tossing it in the ocean.