I Can Make it Disappear*

Vanishing Murder WeaponsWhen there’s a murder, whether it’s real or fictional, the police put a lot of effort into trying to find the murder weapon. Often it links the killer with the crime. So, murderers have to think about what they’re going to do with the weapon they use. Sometimes (as in cases of pushes from heights, strangling or drowning) the killer can hide his or her tracks more easily. But not all murderers have that option. After all, it takes some effort to lure your victim to the top of a cliff if you haven’t planned carefully. And not all killers have the physical strength it can take to strangle someone.

This all means that sometimes, the killer has to make a weapon disappear, or seem to disappear. There are lots of examples of ingenious ways to do that in crime fiction. Here are just a few to get started.

In Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger, postman Joseph Higgins is brought to Heron Park Military Hospital with a fractured femur. An operation is planned, and the surgical team gathers. Higgins dies on the table and at first, it looks as though it was a tragic accident – a surgery gone wrong. Kent County Police Inspector Cockrill is assigned to the hospital to do the routine paperwork that’s required for an unexpected death like this. He begins by asking perfunctory questions and it’s assumed the case will be closed quickly. But then, one of the nurses, Sister Marion Bates, has too much to drink at a party and blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered. What’s more, she says, she knows how it was done. Later that night she too dies. And this time it’s a clear case of murder. Now Cockrill looks more deeply into the Higgins case. He concentrates his attention on the people who were present during the operation and at first, he doesn’t get very far. But eventually he figures out exactly how the murder was accomplished. It turns out that the killer had a very clever way of getting rid of the weapon.

Georgette Heyer’s A Blunt Instrument actually mentions the murder weapon in the title. This novel concerns the death of wealthy businessman Ernest Fletcher. When he is bludgeoned in his study, Sergeant Hemingway and Superintendent Hannasyde take on the investigation. One thing they want to do of course is to find the weapon. But that proves to be more difficult than it might seem. It’s clear that Fletcher was killed by a blunt instrument, but there’s no obvious weapon in his study. That can only mean that the killer hid it (but a thorough search turns up nothing), or took it away (but witnesses say that no-one carried anything out of the house that night). A weapon big enough to kill like that couldn’t be hidden in a pocket, so it’s very unclear what happened to it. Still, the police continue to do their jobs and begin to look into the possible motives of Fletcher’s family members and others he knew. Eventually they pin their suspicions on Charlie Carpenter, a young man with a dubious reputation and a history of blackmail. But when they track him down, they discover that he’s been murdered too, in the same way as Fletcher. And again, there is no sign of a murder weapon anywhere. In the end, we discover who killed both men and why. And it turns out that the killer had a very innovative way to make the murder weapon ‘vanish.’

Arthur Porges’ short story Horse-Collar Homicide features an unusual sort of ‘disappearing murder weapon.’ Pathologist Dr. Joel Hoffman is assigned to examine the body of Leonard Lakewood, a wealthy tycoon who suddenly collapsed at a family gathering. At first it looks as though Lakewood died of a massive stroke, and even Hoffman is prepared to sign off on that explanation. But there are certain points about the autopsy/laboratory results that aren’t consistent with a stroke. So Hoffman talks to the members of the Lakewood family to get more information. He learns that at the time of Lakewood’s death, he was leading the family in an antique game called ‘grinning through a horse-collar.’ A horse-collar is suspended at about the height of a human face. Then, the players take turns putting their faces through the collar and creating the funniest facial expressions they can. The winner is the player who gets the most laughs. Lakewood wasn’t strangled, so the horse-collar couldn’t have been used in that way. It takes some time, but in the end, Hoffman figures out exactly what the weapon was, and how it ‘vanished.’

In Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), we meet C.C. de Poitiers. To the public, she’s a celebrated ‘life coach’ who’s made a huge success from her book Be Calm and from her associated businesses. In private, she’s malicious, verbally cruel and completely self-involved. She decides to move her family to the rural Québec town of Three Pines, where she intends to open a new Be Calm business. Trouble starts right away, since she is not exactly popular among the people who live in Three Pines. And matters quickly go from bad to worse. Then, she attends the traditional Boxing Day curling match that takes place in the area. During the game, she suddenly collapses and dies. The cause turns out to be electrocution. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team are called in, and are quickly faced with a problem: how was the electric shock delivered? There aren’t super-length electrical cords lying around, and the murder scene is outdoors, not near any obvious source of power. Once the investigation team discovers exactly how the victim was electrocuted, they face the task of finding out who the killer is. In this case, you could say that the victim’s own past and personality have everything to do with her death.

Everyone is different of course, but in my opinion, one of the the most ingenious ways to make a weapon disappear is in Roald Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter. One evening, police officer Patrick Maloney comes home with some news that shocks his wife Mary. Not long afterwards, he is murdered. Mary alerts the police, who come immediately (the victim is, after all, a ‘brother in blue’). The officers can immediately see that Patrick’s dead, but they can’t find the murder weapon. Because of this, they’re not going to be able to link the crime to the culprit. If you haven’t read this story (or if it’s been a while), you can read it right here.

And in my own Publish or Perish, police officers Donna Crandall and Lloyd Simmons investigate two murders. In one of them, the killer takes advantage of the fact that it’s winter in Pennsylvania, and that means lots of large icicles. Of course, when ice gets warm enough, well, it melts… Former police detective-turned-professor Joel Williams takes an interest in the murders because the first victim is Nick Merrill, a graduate student Williams knew. So he works with the police to find out who’s behind the killings.

Making a murder weapon ‘vanish’ isn’t always easy. For instance, police can trace guns much of the time, and with effort, one can trace something like a poison back to the person who administered it. So murderers sometimes have to be creative about what they do with their weapons, especially if they themselves can’t leave the scene of the crime or provide an alibi. I’ll bet you can think of lots more examples of this in crime fiction than I can. So, over to you.
 
 
 
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Magic.

24 Comments

Filed under Arthur Porges, Christianna Brand, Georgette Heyer, Louise Penny, Roald Dahl

24 responses to “I Can Make it Disappear*

  1. Lamb to Slaughter is one of my favourite examples of the ‘perfect murder’. I love all of these examples! The most unusual murder weapon I remember (and one which is quite easy to ‘lose’ although it doesn’t disappear) is in The Silence of the Rain by Garcia-Roza.

    • Marina Sofia – I love Lamb to the Slaughter too! It’s an absolute classic. And I’m glad you mentioned Silence of the Rain, too. It shows how sometimes weapons can ‘disappear’ even if they don’t really disappear.

  2. I’ve heard that icicles are dangerous. And you’re right, when they melt, they disappear. Ice bullets do not work, they can’t be made but icicles are very capable of injuring or killing someone. What now scares me is the plastic guns that are made with the 3D printers. They can then be melted to form something else. Excellent post.

    • Thanks, Clarissa. You have a point too about those new guns. I am not in the least an expert on them, but from what I’ve heard and read, the implications of them are frightening.

  3. The Hollow by Agatha Christie is a yours-and-mine favourite – and the murder weapon, and the holster, do the rounds in all kinds of unlikely ways – featuring (IIRC) a blind man, a hedge, a sculpture and some sewing….

    • Moira – It is indeed one of my top reads, and I know it is for you too. And yes, there are all sorts of ways in which that weapon ‘disappears’ without really being gone. You have a good memory too, as those are exactly the things involved…

  4. Kathy D.

    Raold Dahl’s story is ingenious. How the murder weapon is figured out is beyond me.
    Yet I now wonder what methods of murder are untraceable? Any types of poison? Salvation of a Saint has a brilliant murder method, its detection Holmsian.
    I watched an interview with Isabel Allende, the Chilean writer, who has written a mystery. She researched murder methods, and said, if asked, she could list those which would never be detected. Exotic poisons were at the top of the list.
    Also, there are train “accidents,” such as in the brilliant British State of Play, and car “accidents.” When people are pushed in front of a car or train, it’s hard to detect whether it was intentional or not, however, a good detective can figure it out.

    • Kathy – I couldn’t agree more. Dahl had a brilliant idea for a weapon. And you’re right that there are some murders, whether through poison, ‘accident,’ or some other way, that probably aren’t detected as murders. In those cases, the killer gets away with it because the weapon is that well-‘hidden.’

  5. Margot: In The Guilty Plea by Robert Rotenberg, in a scene adapted from a real life Toronto case, the accused wife brings the bloody knife that killed her husband to her lawyer in a bag. What the lawyer does with the knife will be discovered by those who read the book.

  6. Lamb to the Slaughter is just brilliant. I wonder if anyone has ever copied his idea.

  7. You can always train your snake to respond to a whistle and climb up a bell-rope… only one of Conan Doyle’s many strange ways to get rid of an unusual weapon…

  8. Bill Pronzini’s short story ‘Proof off Guilt’ employs a truly unique method to make a gun disappear – I cannot say more …

  9. Thank you for reminding me of Lamb to the Slaughter – I do love Roald Dahl’s short stories and that has to be one of the best of them all.

  10. Murder weapons arinteretsing aren’t they? I was thinking about this recently when I was talking to someone about guns. It’s not something I know anything about and yet you can’t really have a murder weapon that you’re an expert in!. You need to research these things. No wonder AC used poison so much given her pharmaceutical training.

    • Sarah – I think Christie’s background was really helpful in crafting her murder plots. To be honest, I don’t know much about guns either. That’s part of the reason I don’t use them a lot in my stories. Still, as you say, if you do the research, you can find out what you need to know to make a story plausible.

  11. Col

    I’m unfamiliar with your examples TBH. I may try the last one given at some point! 🙂

  12. I like it when the weapon is hidden in plain sight. Though it doesn’t exactly involve a weapon, I recall the case in The Purloined Letter where … well, I don’t want to be too much of a spoiler!

    • Bryan – Yes, The Purloined Letter is a great example of something in plain view, isn’t it? And I do think it’s clever when a murder weapon ‘disappears’ – even when it doesn’t.

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