By Wm. Garret Cothran
If one is writing a story and it requires a little murder, mayhem or even a touch of the macabre to get things going then a certain level of planning is required.
The first thing one must determine is if the story even requires details for the crime. Some stories need a murder or mugging to occur but only as a narrative device to move the story along. Batman needs his parents to die but he does not need an in-depth investigation of the murder in order for an audience to see some super-jacked billionaire beat up the lower classes. Just as that Alternate History story does not need Adolf Hitler’s assassin to be ever caught by those clever and dedicated men of the Munich police.
Yet sometimes the crime takes center stage. As discussed in previous articles, many Alternate History tales are framed within the confines of a police investigation. With said investigation being used as the window into the world thanks to all of the places a police detective can go not only within the Alternate History world but nearly any world. Police enjoy powers of the state and in effect can go anywhere and talk to anyone so long as they have a modicum of reasons to do so. But no one is here for that, let’s get to some MURDER. Murder most foul!
This brings us to a very big part of the process of writing up a murder. As mystery writer James Patterson put it, “when you write about a crime you actually must take the time and mental effort to plan out a crime as if you were actually going to do it.” It is perhaps this aspect of mystery writing that causes some people to be put off by the entire exercise or possible suspect that they will fall victim to some GCHQ sting just by thinking out such things. Well, and this is important, calm down. Calm? Good. So long as you do not go out and actually commit a crime any of this planning is perfectly fine so long as it is for a story. If one is really worried about looking like a criminal… maybe not write mysteries.
The best advice given in writing out a murder or, in fact, any crime, is to think of motive, opportunity, and means. Television and films will stress means, motive, and opportunity but thinking of these in this order is not good when writing up a crime.
Motive means: why is the criminal doing what they are doing? Why do they hate, distrust, or need to remove a person so badly they will kill for it? From a writing standpoint this is almost more important than the murder itself. You can always rewrite how a crime occurs but the motive needs to be clear and easy to understand. Even if petty, a reader needs a motive for a crime.
Opportunity is simply: can they commit the crime and have a chance of not being caught? The difficulty in being able to commit the crime can in turn effect how the writer determines the means or how the crime is committed. Writing an assassination of a world leader requires different skills, locations, and equipment then it is to just deal with that unfaithful spouse. Try and keep this in mind for plotting out the crime.
Now that is out of the way, we will look at two separate murder plots. Both were written by different people but look towards the similarities in the action alongside differences.
I asked others to come up with means, methods, and, if needed, motives to commit a murder. Those who assisted in this little exercise are thanked and should forever be viewed with suspicion whenever something goes wrong to someone in the neighborhood (That, in case one was unaware, was a joke).
Before beginning the rules set up were:
You have a relationship with the victim. It is up to you if you have a key.
The victim lives in the location shown above. There are no cameras, no security system. There is just one front door, one back door, and one window.
It is up to you if the crime is premeditated or heat of passion. The only goal is that you MUST get away with it.
Write up what you do. If you have chosen the murder to be premeditated... research as needed. If you have chosen the heat of passion option... NO RESEARCH ALLOWED.
Except for the specifics of the location, one should always follow the same rules.
Determine the relationship between the killer and the victim.
Always write with the assumption the killer wants to get away with what they did.
Lastly, determine premeditation or heat of passion.
Simply put: did they plan out the crime, in which the author has almost a mandate to research the ways the crime would occur, or did it just suddenly happen? If it just suddenly happened then research should be limited to what the killer in the story would actually know at the time, they committed the crime. A police officer does not clean up a crime scene like a defense lawyer would, nor would a college student make an alibi the same way a mobster would.
To Raymond Chandler, author of The Big Sleep, the most important thing is not that someone gets away with it or even that the criminal is caught but “for one brief moment the reader thinks but for the grace of God go I…” That tends to mean the killer is not some mad criminal genius but some guy who a person can relate to. If you focus on heat of passion killings, then try for more working class criminals, or for a spurned lover who was a “nice guy” till he snapped. Someone who a reader can identify with, and at the same time, feel the tension as the police are closing in on them.
With all of this said let us look at how some other people would commit a crime.
The Case Of Too Many Clues
The killer is the victim's ex. She dumped him, he's angry.
She lives on the second floor of an apartment building. He has a key he told her he'd lost a few months earlier.
Around 3 AM, he drives from his place to another street a couple blocks over from her building. Parks where he thinks it's kind of dark and nobody looks to be awake. He goes for a walk, coincidentally wearing all black, and when he gets to her building, he puts on black gloves and draws up his hood and sneaks around back.
There's no sign of activity in the ground floor unit below the victim's place. The killer climbs up to the balcony and opens the door with a key that he told her he'd lost. Pockets key, goes inside.
He's not sure he'll have time to make a mess after the killing, so tiptoes into the kitchen and quietly opens a few drawers and cupboards. Tiptoes into the living room and quietly makes a bit of a mess by re-arranging sofa cushions, DVDs, and all that. He takes a couple of books with him and tiptoes to the "top" of the wall dividing living room and dining room, then throws the books into the living room and presses up against the wall with knife drawn.
As intended, the noise rouses the victim. There is an exclamation, a pause, muttering, and then movement. Light from the bedroom. The killer squints as the hall light comes on. His ex appears to his right, pausing to stare at her living room, then notes the movement on the left as he pivots to attack her. He plows into her, perhaps knocking her into the north exterior wall, and stabs her repeatedly.
He stumbles into the bedroom, opens the drawers of her end table and grabs a bit of jewelry from her dresser. Comes back out, grabs her purse from the front entrance, and puts the knife away. Goes out the balcony again, doesn't close the door, climbs down, and gets part way to the sidewalk before remembering to take off his now-bloody hoodie. He wads it up in one hand and tries to casually walk back to his car.
A few minutes later, having apparently reached his car unseen, he drives off to a different part of town and tosses the hoodie, gloves, and knife into a dumpster in an industrial area, then goes home and washes the rest of his clothes and himself and decides that if the cops show up, he just had a peaceful sleep that night.
Now you have read through it, take a moment and ask yourself two questions:
First, does your detective know how blood works?
Second, does your detective have a brain in his head?
If you answer yes to both almost instantly he will see this as a murder and not a robbery gone wrong.
If it is yes to one, but not the other, the detective needs to move around a little and speak to other experts.
If no? Well someone got away with a crime.
The scenario given has a home invasion but a silly one. Why silly? DVD’s. Books. Things a person who climbs up a balcony would not steal. Likewise, items of clear value are taken only after the murder has occurred. How do we know it is after? Blood. The scenario above shows a rapid attack from someone lying in wait. That is messy. So messy one would be covered in blood. Blood on the hallway leading to the bedroom. Blood on the drawers where the jewelry was kept, and blood on the purse, balcony door, and the balcony itself. So in one instant it is clear the killer both planned out a murder and staged it but perhaps more importantly the killer knew where the jewelry was.
With such information in hand, take a less-then-observant police officer, or someone who does not care about solving crime on “the bad side of town,” and the above crime can end another way altogether. This, however, is a common case of what some defense lawyers call, “too clever for their own good.” They mapped out a plan, an idea, and more but at the same time ignored details which only come from experience. Namely when you brutally stab someone… they bleed. It is, though, a good example of the sort of errors that can occur during a crime of passion: the author accepted and ran with the concept that the criminal did not think things fully through and the protagonist did not carry out detailed research before hand, so it does do well to meet the fourth rule.
The Case of the Convenient Key
This is meant to be a plan that I wouldn't necessarily expect to even be successful at the murder part:
With a key and wearing gloves, the murderer enters whilst the victim is asleep, and smothers them with their pillow.
They open the window, smash it with a brick from outside, and then close it again.
Make a mess to indicate more of a struggle (assuming they didn't end up having one anyway), before leaving, locking the door behind them, and keeping the key to casually reveal when questioned by the police, preferably before they reveal they think there was a break-in (without implying it's an alibi).
You know who would love this crime? Alfred Hitchcock. The Master of Suspense himself once said that to plan a murder one needed “to think of the most basic act of brutality and then remove every action which is not needed to show the audience their macabre inclinations.”
Hitchcock would love this crime because it is actually really simple. Unlike the bloody events above which require scaling a building and taking goods of which one has to know the location.
One problem here is reality versus fiction: Fiction tells us a minute under a pillow and a person is dead forever. Reality tells us you need to smother an adult for almost ten minutes for them to die.
However, the window is broken, from the proper side, and the entire thing looks like a strange random killing. The only flaws in this are making a struggle occur after the killing which would result in the appearance that the murder took place beyond the site of the crime. That in turn means “staging” the scene. And if it looks as though it was staged, the broken window can and will be questioned.
The next issue is also with the window. Not only did someone shut the window but ,if you look at the breaks, it is two broken windows from the same brick. Moreover, glass would be on the ground, and in walking on it, you would spread it over to the scene of the crime. Said glass could even be in the killer’s shoes.
Outside of this the crime is rather effective. Simple, fast, and it gives the killer a rather plausible excuse in “well I had a key… so why break a window?” It is important to note as not every single crime must be complex for a reader to view it as effective.
Case of the Flaming Hoody
Wear the cheapest hoodie I can find, preferably one that's way too big.
Enter the room late at night, lockpicking the door to avoid the police concluding that the suspect had to have a key.
Stab them with a nondescript kitchen knife, then Molotov the apartment as I leave.
Dump the hoodie and knife ASAP in a river in a discrete location.
This brings up things which some writers may find annoying, while others may play off as unimportant. On the surface, this seems like a superior version of the Case of the Convenient Key, as it handles the broken window, and removes evidence by the fire. Yet look at the plan again.
It is premeditated for sure, given what is brought to the scene of the crime, but the bigger issue is skill: the killer here needs to either already know how to pick a lock or learn to do so. If they already know… well then, they either are a criminal or a locksmith. Either way a record exists, making the lack of a key no longer important.
Second is the Molotov Cocktail. Right now: how do you make it? Think about it in your head. Okay? Now, imagine walking around with that on you. How far away do you need to be in order to throw such a thing and not risk harm? That requires practice. Practice means someone may see you.
Next is the “nondescript kitchen knife.” Well, that reads off as cheap. Remember that time you ate a steak and had a cheap knife? Recall how difficult that was? Well, something many killers in real life learn, and a growing number of fictional killers can relate to, is the knife breaking. Brutal, and violent actions with a cheap knife end up breaking the knife.
So now the planned perfect murder results in a broken knife, a screaming victim, and the organized plan going to hell forcing the killer to improvise. Never think a plan going wrong for the killer is a bad thing for the writer. Mistakes are common, and likewise a mistake by a killer can become a fine narrative red herring for the reader to follow, as the (incorrect) assumption is: there are no mistakes in murder.
The Case of the Careful Planner
If I'm honest, since it's specified that there is a relationship with the target, to the extent that I have a key, the first thing I would do would be to avoid committing the murder in the victim's flat. The obvious suspects, and people that will be looked at will be people with a known relationship with the target.
The second thing I would consider is whether or not it is possible to give the police someone else to look at very closely. Police have limited resources, and if they're investigating someone else, that's fine by me. It tends to be the case that if there is someone who looks like a really good suspect, then facts get looked at in a way that supports that. It's a natural tendency of people to make the evidence fit what they "know" happened, and once that's achieved, there's less attention on other possibilities.
Timing is another matter to consider. If there is a situation that is dragging police manpower elsewhere (the President of America is due to address a demonstration by Extinction Rebellion, or whatever), then that is a good time. The fewer police resources around at the time, and the more "other stuff" they have to worry about, the more likely this little escapade is to drift to the bottom of the To Be Done pile.
As for method, it's hard to beat the old plastic bag. No blood, no murder weapon that needs disposing of later, no obvious wounds. With luck, it's assumed that the target had a heart attack. Plastic bag over the head. Wait until breathing stops. Remove plastic bag, and remove from scene. Good luck finding the murder weapon. That, of course, presupposes I am bigger and stronger than the target, and able to overpower them easily.
But, first and foremost, I'd avoid the victim's flat like the plague. I have a known connection with the place, and the first line of defense is to be not a suspect.
Now this right here is not a good “book” murder but a really good example of planning a murder. It breaks down the various issues and concerns of the killer, stresses what needs to be focused on, and shows that the killer in the story is thinking not just of the victim but the investigation around the victim.
While others did the same, their planning was based on the crime itself, and not the build up to (and the after-effects of) the crime itself. The only issue here is the murder weapon. As the focus is to perform the crime away from the victim’s home, it will mean the victims hands are free. A plastic bag can kill someone but that person needs to not only hold the bag in place for almost ten minutes, but hope the victim does not move around so much as to make a hole in the bag. Still, while the murder itself seems a tad lackluster the thought process is something to consider.
If any kind of advice can be given for a writer working on a murder the best is: write it all up and then put it in a drawer somewhere.
Write about the victim before the crime, write about the detective in his private time, or anything else. When time has passed, pull out the murder and read it over. Look for flaws, see if something you wrote down a week ago now seems silly. There are a slew of mystery writers in the world to look towards for inspiration or advice. Yet as morbid as it seems, until someone actually sits down and maps out how to commit a murder in their mind, they cannot really write something that points to all the minute details of such an act, nor can they consider all the mistakes one would engage in. Thus as with any writing the only way to perfect it is to get out and start writing.
Wm. Garrett Cothran is the author of How Tall Is The Grass In Germany? published by Sea Lion Press