The Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is moving along on our treacherous trip through the alphabet. Our tour leader Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise assures me that there’s still lots yet to see. Thanks, Kerrie, for managing all of our arrangements. Today our group has arrived at the River of H Hotel and Spa and everyone’s eager for a chance to settle in and relax. We’ve heard there’s a particularly good hot wrap here for those interested. While everybody’s booking massages, calling home and taking ‘photos, I’ll share my contribution for the week: horse-collars, herbs and other highly unusual homicides.
I’m sure that we can all think of dozens and dozens of crime novels where the victim dies by stabbing, gunshot wound, drowning and so on. Those are believable ways to murder too. But sometimes it makes for an interesting change when the victim dies in a more unusual way. Of course the risk of that is loss of credibility, but if it’s done well, it can be really effective.
We see an example of this in Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table. In that novel, Hercule Poirot gets an invitation to dinner at the home of the very mysterious and eccentric Mr. Shaitana. This isn’t going to be a typical kind of dinner party though. Shaitana has invited seven other guests. Three, like Poirot, are sleuths. The other four are people Mr. Shaitana believes have gotten away with murder. He hints as much during the meal and everyone feels a little uncomfortable. After the dinner, the group divides into two to play bridge. At some time during the evening, one of the guests stabs Mr. Shaitana. The only suspects are the four people who are possibly guilty of other murders. So the four sleuths work together to find out with of the guests killed their host. Part of this investigation is looking into each guest’s past. That’s how the sleuths discover that one of the guests Anne Meredith was companion to a Mrs. Benson, who died after ingesting hat paint which she thought was her usual dose of Syrup of Figs. At the inquest the death was ruled accidental. But was it??
Of all things, a hiccup turns out to be murderous in John D. MacDonald’s short story Homicidal Hiccup. Johnny Howard and his gang run Baker City. They’ve got a stranglehold on most of the local businesses and everyone’s afraid of the consequences of going up against Howard. That is, until Walter Maybree moves to town and buys the local drugstore. Maybree wants to run a ‘clean’ business and after a time, several other locals stand up for him and help to guard him and his soda shop. Howard is now losing respect and wants desperately to get rid of Maybree. So he and his girlfriend Bonny Gerlacher devise a plan. She’ll go into the drugstore disguised as a teenager from the local high school. Once there she’ll use a drink straw to shoot poison at Maybree when he steps close to her. That’s until a natural human reaction – a hiccup – changes everything…
Arthur Porges’ short story Horse-Collar Homicide features pathologist Dr. Joel Hoffman, who gets a very unusual case. Wealthy Leonard Lakewood has suddenly died and at first it looks as though he had a massive stroke. But some hints in the pathology results suggest that this wasn’t a stroke. So Hoffman decides to talk to the family. It turns out that at the time of his death Lakewood was leading the family in a game called ‘grinning through a horse collar.’ In this game a horse collar is suspended so that it hangs at about the height of a human face. Then, players take turns putting their faces through the horse collar and making the most ridiculous expressions they can. The winner is the player who gets the most laughs. Lakewood died during his turn and when he learns this, Hoffman begins to wonder how a horse collar could kill a man without even touching him. After a little more searching, he finds out how the thing was managed and he discovers that just about everyone in Lakewood’s family had a motive for murder.
There’s also an unusual murder weapon in Louise Penny’s The Cruelest Month. A well-known Hungarian psychic Madame Blavatsky has taken a room at the local B & B in the small town of Three Pines, in rural Québec. She is persuaded to give a séance and plans are made for everyone to attend. Then it comes out that Madame Blavatsky is not who she says she is. Still, it’s decided to go ahead with the séance since the plans are already in place. While the séance is taking place, Madeleine Favreau, who’s recently returned to Three Pines after a serious bout with illness, suddenly dies. At first everyone believes she was frightened to death. But the explanation is both simpler and more complicated than that. It turns out that the victim died of a lethal overdose of an herb called Ephedra, often used in diet drugs. Once it’s proven that Madeleine Favreau was murdered, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team look into her past to find out who would have wanted to kill her.
Could a haunting really kill? So it seems at first in Helene Tursten’s Night Rounds. One night during a blackout at Löwander Hospital, one of the nurses Marianne Svärd is killed. Another nurse Linda Svensson goes missing; her body is later discovered hung in a seldom-used attic in the hospital. Göteborg police detective Irene Huss and her team investigate the hospital, since everything seems to come back to something that’s going on there. One of the leads they follow is the fifty-year-old story of the death of Tekla Olsson, also a nurse. She hung herself in the same place where Linda Svensson’s body is discovered. What’s more, a few people report seeing her ghost just before the blackout. Is Tekla Olsson haunting the hospital? Huss and her team don’t think this case has a paranormal explanation and in fact, they find a very prosaic motive. But the thought that the hospital might be haunted does play a role in the novel.
In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri comes up against the possibility that a holy being has committed murder. Puri learns through newspapers and TV reports that a former client Dr. Suresh Jha has been killed, and it looks very much as though the murderer is the goddess Kali. Puri can’t resist looking into the case, and soon learns how the murder came about. According to reports, Jha was attending a meeting of The Laughter Club, which uses laughter as therapy. During the meeting, Kali appeared and stabbed him. To a lot of people this murder makes sense, since Jha’s mission in life was to debunk ‘The Godmen,’ religious charlatans who prey on people’s vulnerability. A lot of people believe that Kali really killed Jha in retribution for his being an unbeliever. Puri doesn’t think that’s true though, and he and his team look into the case more deeply. As it turns out, the truth is just about as strange as the story that everyone believes…
So you see, not all murderers make use of everyday weapons like knives, rope, lead pipes or revolvers. There are some other, highly unusual, weapons out there. Now, may I offer you a cup of homeopathic herbal tea?