When 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.