The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Knives

KnivesWhat a kick – the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme has arrived in exciting K City, our eleventh stop on this jitter-filled journey we’re taking. One of the big attractions here is K & K’s Bar and Grill, where you can get some delicious food. Right now though everyone’s posting their ‘photos to Facebook and Twitter, so I’ll take this time to offer my contribution for this week: knives.

Knives are one of the more common weapons in crime fiction and that makes sense when you think about it. They’re easy to acquire, they don’t require any special preparation or background and when they’re sharp enough, just about anyone can use them. There are far, far too many examples for me to mention them all in this one post, so I’ll just offer a few.

One of the most famous knives used in crime fiction appears in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is en route through Europe on the Orient Express train. On the second night of that journey he is stabbed. Hercule Poirot is on the same train and he is persuaded to look into the case before the official police come on board at the next frontier. Poirot discovers who killed Ratchett and why, and there’s actually an interesting postscript, so to speak, about the knife. It’s mentioned later in Cards on the Table. In that novel Poirot investigates the murder (also with a knife, as it happens) of the eccentric Mr. Shaitana during a dinner party. There are only four possible suspects, so it’s a very interesting psychological puzzle. At one point, one of the suspects Anne Meredith and her roommate Rhoda Dawes pay a visit to Poirot. While they’re there he invites Rhoda to see the knife and in that invitation, Christie gives a major spoiler to Murder on the Orient Express. So if you haven’t read that one, read it before you read Cards on the Table

In Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Fathers, Cale Hanniford pays a visit to former NYPD cop Matthew Scudder. Hanniford’s daughter Wendy was brutally stabbed in her apartment and Hanniford wants to know what led to the murder. The police have caught the most likely suspect, Wendy’s roommate Richard Vanderrpoel, so Hanniford believes the case is solved. But he’s been estranged from Wendy for a long time and wants to know what kind of person she became. Scudder agrees to ask some questions, starting with an interview with Vanderpoel. That conversation doesn’t help much as Vanderpoel is either mentally unhinged or under the influence of drugs. Still, he says some things that make Scudder wonder whether he is really guilty. Shortly after that, Vanderpoel commits suicide. Now Scudder is even more curious about what exactly happened to Wendy Hanniford and he keeps digging for answers. As it turns out, both young people’s deaths have everything to do with their pasts.

Martin Edwards’ All The Lonely People features Liverpool attorney Harry Devlin, and begins when Devlin gets a surprise visit from his ex-wife Liz. He’s still in love with her, so his first hope is that she wants to patch things up. Instead, she says that she’s run away from her current lover Mick Coghlin because she’s afraid of him. She wants to stay with Devlin for a few days until she decides what to do next. Devlin agrees, still hoping he and Liz can get back together. The next night though, Liz is stabbed and her body left in an alley. It’s not long before the police begin to suspect that Devlin is guilty. So in part to clear his name, and in part to deal with his feelings for Liz, he begins to investigate. To find out the truth, he’s going to have to learn an uncomfortable about Liz’ complicated life.

In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, former prospector Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins is stabbed one night after a drunken quarrel. The police, including Aboiginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest, are called to Green Swamp Well where the murder happened. Tempest’s boss Bruce Cockburn believes that John ‘Wireless’ Petherbridge, with whom Ozolins had quarreled, is guilty. But Tempest sees little signs that something more might be going on than a drunken fight that ended tragically. So she begins to ask questions. Eventually, she finds that Ozolins was killed because he’d stumbled onto something that some very dangerous people wanted to keep secret.

T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton tells the story of the stabbing death of the very enigmatic Sarena Gunasekera. When her body is found at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head near Eastbourne, the police find evidence that the killer is Elton Spears. Spears is a troubled young man with a history of mental problems and of inappropriate conduct towards women. There’s enough strong evidence against Spears that he’s held over for trial and in fact, the police think it’s an open-and-shut case. But some of the Spears’ comments suggest that he isn’t the murderer. Besides, under British law, Spears is considered innocent until proven guilty. So, solicitor Jim Harwood begins the work of representing Spears, with whom he’s worked before. Together with barrister Harry Douglas, Harwood intends to do everything he can to ensure that Spears is acquitted. That includes looking deeply into the victim’s life to see who else might have wanted to kill her. As it turns out, there are several hidden layers to Sarena and as we find out about her past, we also learn that more than one person could have wanted her dead.

And then there’s Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second. That novel begins on a bus, when three young people begin bullying Luke Murray. The harassment keeps up until Jason Barnes, who’s on the same bus, tells the others to stop. He gets off the bus, as does Luke, but so do the bullies, and the fight escalates. When it’s over, Luke has been gravely injured and may die, and Jason has been stabbed to death. The police investigate what happened, interviewing everyone and slowly getting to the truth about who the killer was. In the process we learn how the incident affects both boys’ families as well as how it affects Emma Curtis, who was on the bus when the tragedy started.

Of course, knives can also be handy for self-protection, as we also find out in a lot of crime fiction novels. I don’t want to give away titles because I think it has more impact when the reader doesn’t know that knife is going to be pulled out just in time to save the day, so to speak. But if you’ve read novels where that happens, you know what I mean.

Still, knives are extremely dangerous, mostly because they’re so accessible and it doesn’t take much for them to do a lot of damage. Now, I’m sure you’re ready for a good meal. How about we go to K & K’s Bar & Grill with the others and watch the staff chop up the steaks and the veges?  😉


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Cath Staincliffe, Lawrence Block, Martin Edwards, T.J. Cooke

28 responses to “The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Knives

  1. A knife plays a crucial role in Silver Blaze, too, though in a slightly different way…

    And what about that very early entry into the Transgressor Fiction genre – MacBeth? 😉

    • FictionFan – Ah, yes, Silver Blaze! True that the knife doesn’t play the same role there, but still, it is key. And yes, The Scottish Play has a very important role for a knife… Don’t tell me Shakespeare’s work doesn’t count as crime fiction…

  2. Peter Reynard

    What an appropriate word for this week. I should have read the post before I slice my finger on an ultra sharp knife. 🙂
    I love all of the books you mention Margot. Murder on the orient express is great of course. And one of the things that stood out to me from Defending Elton is the name of the victim. Gunasekara is a Sri Lankan name if I’m not mistaken and I rarely (if ever) encounter Sri Lankans in mystery stories.

    • Peter – Thank you – And you have a good memory. Sarena (from Defending Elton) is from Sri Lanka and you’re right; you don’t see a lot of names from there. Oh, and do be careful with that knife, won’t you? Wouldn’t want any accidents would we? 😉

  3. Very nice post again, Margot. I usually think of stabbing with a knife as requiring some strength, but your point about the sharpness is very good. If sharp enough, and aimed in the right places, it meets little resistance when it goes in. In one Midsomer Murders episode that I watched recently, the pathologist notes that some important organs have very little protection.

    Otherwise, I could think of no further examples of death by knife. I would assume that most such murders would have to be planned, not spontaneous, although I am sure that could happen.

    • Tracy – Thank you – You know, you make a really interesting point about planned vs spontaneous murders. I think honestly that it depends on the situation. The stabbing in Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table is more or less spontaneous. Well it’s not carefully pre-planned at any rate. And yet, there are other stabbings in crime fiction that are more carefully-planned. Hmmm… now you’ve got me thinking about the difference between planned and ‘heat of the moment’ kinds of murders. Thanks for the inspiration.

  4. Anne H

    John Dickson Carr, the man who manages to find more or less plausible explanations for the truly incredible, does it with a knife in Seeing is Believing (aka Cross of Murder).

  5. Killing with a knife is so different than with a gun. A very different kind of killer indeed. I prefer poison.

    • Patti – That’s true about knives. I think it’s a more personal kind of killing when you use a knife. With a gun, a killer can keep a bit of distance, but not with a knife.

  6. IN Mrs McGinty’s Dead – one of my favourite Christies – there is something called, I think, a sugar chopper used as a weapon. I think it’s a kind of knife, but I’ve never been able to picture it! I did love the cleverness of using the reality of village life – it was an ugly curio that had been bought or sold at various church fetes and bazaars, so nobody could say exactly who had owned it at the time of the murder.

    • Moira – Oh, yes, the sugar hammer! For what it’s worth, here is an image that’s helped me picture it. Such a very innovative murder weapon – I’m glad you mentioned it. And yes, I love the way Christie shows how village life works in her stories. I also happen to have a real fondness for Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. A great story and actually the first Christie I ever read.

  7. I remember reading a mystery one time and the victim was stabbed but the knife could not be found. 🙂 Can’t remember the title.

  8. Anne H

    Would that be The Tealeaf by Edgar Jepson and Robert Eustace? It’s in Dorothy L Sayers’ anthology called Detection Mystery Horror, along with another called The Blue Sequin by Austin Freeman. Both titles refer to a clue to the real nature of the weapon used in a stabbing.

  9. col

    Margot, from your examples I’m only familiar with Block and Scudder. From my own reading in the past, my mind has drawn a blank, but I surely must have read about knives and stabbings….off now to scratch my head, slightly chastened!

    • Col – I always find it interesting how there are things we do remember about books (e.g. characters, etc..), and things we simply forget. I’ve done that too.

  10. Knives *shudder*. Not really for me. At least the description of the stabbings in Murder on the Orient Express isn’t too graphic.

    • Sarah – That’s true. Some novels where the victim is stabbed do have some fairly graphic scenes and I’m not a big fan of those. But Christie did it effectively (i.e. not gratuitously) in several of her novels.

  11. Anne H

    With time to reflect. I’ve discovered more amazing facts about murder by sharp blade:
    Inspector Roderick Alleyn, Inspector Alan Grant and Albert Campion all debuted in cases involving a stabbing:
    A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh, The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey, The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham.
    The Carr novel I cited was published under his Carter Dickson pseudonym – it’s a Sir Henry Merrivale title. However the first two Carrs, set in Paris with Insp Bencolin, involve one death by stabbing and one beheading by sword.
    A method of choice for a beginning crime writer, perhaps?

    • Anne – Oh, you’ve got some fabulous examples there! Your mention of A Man Lay Dead reminds me of Caroline Graham’s Death of Hollow Man, in which an actor also is murdered on stage. And that eerie game in The Crime at Black Dudley really adds to the suspense of the story. I thought Tey did a great job of making the murder in The Man in the Queue so public and yet done so effectively. All terrific stories!
      Thanks to for the information about the Carr novels. It is interesting isn’t it that a lot of first novels in series include stabbings. Something definitely to think about…

  12. I’ve investigated many more murders committed with knives than with guns. There’s a couple of reasons. One is that Canada has fairly rigid gun control, but no knife control. Two is that most murders are spontaneous; fueled by rage. Knives are in every house and most street people carry knives for protection because guns are controlled and knives aren’t. So the numbers dictate that knives are the #1 murder weapon.

    So when writing murder mysteries, it’s believable for the weapon to be a knife. There’s a couple more things to know about writing knife death scenes. Because it’s necessary to have hand-to-hand contact to kill someone with a knife, usually the victim has defensive wounds on their hands and arms. The amount and location of the wounds are a huge clue as to what was going on during the act. Bloodstain patterns will coincide with the wounds and this physical evidence can make or break a defense of self-defense.

    Also, the number of wounds on the victim is a clear indicator of motive. A hit, for instance, may be a quick slice across the throat whereas I’ve seen a jealous rage result in more than 50 lacerations. This is called ‘Venting The Tank’ and is a huge red flag identifying the perpetrator.

    So keep this in mind when scripting your scenes. Motive, means, and opportunity have to jive.

    • Garry – Thanks very much for your insights on this. I’ve always thought it would make more sense, in the heat of an angry quarrel, to use a knife. It just makes sense for exactly the reasons you point out. I really appreciate the insights about the kinds of wounds the victim would have too. All of those details just make a mystery that much more believable, and that’s what adds to a story’s quality.

  13. I hope you see this comment, Margot. First off, have you ever seen the series JONATHAN CREEK? It’s British, it’s odd, and I think it is very clever. Have you seen it?

    I recently saw a PBS special where David Sauchet (I think that’s how you spell his name) traveled on the Orient Express. David played Poirot (my favorite interpretation). The special is quite good, going into the history of the train, Christie’s connection with the train, AND about the story.

    I love these Alphabet Series you do. I hope you keep doing it. I can’t read them immediately, but I do save them all, and I DO read them! Cheers!


    On 6/16/13, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…

    • I haven’t seen the Jonathan Creek series, although you’re not the first one to say that it’s good. I should try it probably. And thanks for mentioning that PBS special on Suchet. He really is terrific isn’t he? I think one of the things I like best is how closely he resembles my view of Poirot. I liked watching those series.
      And thanks much for the kind words. I’m enjoying the Alphabet meme too.

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