James Hayman: It’s pretty much a given that in mysteries and suspense thrillers that there’s got to be a victim. Somebody or, in some books, a whole bunch of somebodies have got to be done in. One of the interesting challenges for the crime writer is coming up with an original idea on how to commit murder.
The immediate means of death may be straightforward. The literature is replete with killers who dispatch their victim or victims by shooting them, stabbing them, whacking them on the head, strangling them with ropes belts or hands or pushing them from a high place. A rooftop. A cliff. But even in these cases there is often a twist that makes the murder more than a simple, if evil act.
In real life murder is often prosaic. One of the most common forms of violent death in Maine or, I suppose, anywhere else is domestic violence. Most typically a husband gets pissed off at his wife, loses control, and kills her. Maybe with his fists. Maybe with a gun. Maybe with a knife. Often the death is the culmination of years of beatings and abuse. It’s awful. It’s tragic. It happens. But it doesn’t make for a story that readers will stay with for three or four hundred pages.
People who read thrillers and murder mysteries read them for entertainment. They want to be drawn in to the story by something more devious, more sinister or, sometimes, more bizarre than some bully beating the crap out of his wife because he’s bored or because his dinner is served cold or he had a bad day at work.
In fiction, we as writers have to tickle the imagination of our readers and keep them reading. We can do this by making not only the motive for murder and the personalities of our killers and victims interesting, but also by inventing means of murder so devious or so awful that the reader can’t imagine it happening to anyone, even a character in a book.
Hannibal Lechter eating the faces of his victims is one obvious example. But a writer needn’t go to such extremes to achieve the goal.
A few years ago, when I was beginning to write my first thriller, The Cutting, I attended a Stonecoast novel writing workshop in Freeport. In one of the sessions, the workshop leader, author Michael Kimball, posed the questions, “What is the most terrifying experience you can imagine? What is the worst way to die you can think of?”
The class came up with a number of answers, some involving the level of pain inflicted. Being tortured to death, for example. Being burned to death and so on. One person said the idea of drowning was what frightened her the most. But I (admittedly a claustrophobic) and several others in our group, said what scared us most was the idea of being buried alive. Kimball agreed and we were given an in-class assignment to write a short piece about the experience. After which we discussed Kimball’s terrific thriller Undone.
In the opening scene of Undone, a character named Bobby Swift has agreed to allow himself be buried alive as part of an elaborate scheme to fake his own death in order to keep $2 million he and his wife have borrowed for a supposed business deal. His wife Noel is then supposed to dig him up and the two are supposed to take off together for a life of fun and games in the Cayman Islands where the money can be banked in an anonymous account. But, guess what? Bobby’s wife has other plans and no intention of splitting the money. Some of the most terrifying and compelling scenes I’ve ever read are of Bobby lying in a coffin in the ground and slowly realizing, as his air runs out, that he’s been royally screwed.
A far more famous variation on the buried alive theme is the one in Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story, The Cask of Amontillado, which was written in 1846. In this story the narrator, a stone mason, lures his victim, a man he despises, who is a self-impressed connoisseur of fine wines named Fortunato, to his cellar by telling him that he has acquired something that could pass for Amontillado, a light Spanish sherry. He tells Fortunato he needs someone skilled enough to taste the sherry and tell him if it is the real thing. He says that if Fortunato is too busy he will ask a man named Luchesi to taste it.
Fortunato considers Luchesi a competitor and scoffs, claiming that Luchesi is an amateur, who could not tell if a sherry was a real Amontillado or not. Thus seduced, Fortunato enters the killer’s underground wine vault and where he is made ill by fumes of limestone rising from the ground. He is told by the killer that the antidote to dizziness from limestone is sherry.
Fortunato starts drinking the Amontillado and becomes intoxicated. The killer then proceeds to wall in the wine vault. We read in fascinated horror as the killer fills in the last of the bricks and we hear Fortunato’s desperate pleas to allow him to escape. But it is not to be. The last line of the tale is a Latin phrase meaning “May he rest in peace.”
In my own first suspense thriller, The Cutting, though no one is buried alive, the means of murder are also key to the horror of the tale. In The Cutting, the villain dispatches his conscious but restrained victims (in all but one instance attractive young women, the outlier being an attractive young man) by cutting open their chests with a scalpel, spreading their ribs and removing their hearts. The ostensible motive is to make money by profitably using the hearts in black-market organ transplants. But as we read we begin to understand that the killer’s motives are far more complex than simply making money.
Clearly, there are many, many other examples of books where the means of murder is key to the plot and goes far beyond the ordinary “bang-bang, you’re dead.” I would love it if in the comments section, my fellow crime writers and other readers of this blog offer their own favorite examples of unique and interesting ways to dispatch a hapless victim.