Questions of Life and Death

By Elaine Viets

I like researching a mystery. I get to ask the wildest questions in the pursuit of facts.
A helpful homicide detective answers mundane question like these:
Does my cop have enough to get a search warrant? How about an arrest?
A poison expert shares her arcane knowledge of death. I was surprised how many perilous hazards lurked under the kitchen sink or in the garage.
Sure, I can look up some of these questions online, but it’s not as much fun. I like hands on research.
Here are a few of my favorite research questions.

Can a body fit in your car trunk?
I sprung this question on a sweet, silver-haired couple who owned a Lincoln Town Car, the same car as Margery Flax in my Dead-End Job mysteries. They were in a shopping center parking lot when I asked that question. Maybe I have an honest face. Or, since they were Florida residents, they were used to crazies. For whatever reason, they obligingly opened their trunk.
Yep, the Town Car trunk was definitely big enough for a body. Two, if the bodies were small.

How do you open a locked door with a credit card?
My cousin showed me how to do this. I’m not using her name because she is definitely light-fingered. She’s especially good with cheap button locks. She demonstrated her skill repeatedly, but I belong to the fumble-fingered side of the family. I did learn that “loiding” a door is a lot harder than it looks on TV.

Can you kill a person with a wine bottle?
“Empty or full?” the pathologist asked me. She was used to my crazy questions.
“A full bottle is a better weapon,” she said. Then she gave me another tip. “If you’re looking for another way to kill a person, please don’t use the old ‘hit-their-head-on-the-coffee-table’ to murder someone. That’s harder than it looks.”

How do you defrost a dead body?
This question for Ice Blonde stumped several pathologists. I finally found one who’d defrosted an intoxicated woman who ran out the door of her home and froze to death.
He told me, “You’ll need two body bags. Use a white one if you can, and then the heavy black bag. The white makes it easier to see the hairs and fibers when the decedent defrosts. Put the person in the white body bag first, then in the heavy black bag. Keep the decedent at room temperature, about 72 degrees, so the body will thaw naturally.
“What does your victim weigh?”
“About a hundred-fifteen pounds,” I said.
“The person will take about thirty-six, maybe forty-eight hours to defrost.”
I have a fairly high tolerance for forensic details, but defrosting someone like a piece of meat made my stomach do a backflip.

There was more. While the person was defrosting, the pathologist has to check the body every two hours. The hands and feet would probably defrost first, and then the pathologist could get scrapings from under the nails. As the defrosting progressed, the pathologist would draw blood and get fluids, including ocular fluid from the eyes, and if the person was a woman, check for seminal fluid in the vaginal vault.
Had enough information? Yeah, me, too.

How do you hot-wire a car?
A friendly mechanic spent an hour giving me lessons until I could describe the process. Don’t worry. Your vehicles are safe – nothing sparked no matter how many times I tried.

What off-beat questions have you asked for research, TKZers?

Now in audio! All my Angela Richman mysteries and the first three Dead-End Job novels. Listen to them during your 30-day free trial with Scribd.

44 thoughts on “Questions of Life and Death

  1. Good morning, Elaine. Thanks for the entertaining post.

    I don’t have an offbeat question to share. I would note, however, that you can get three bodies in a Lincoln Towncar trunk if you use a chainsaw.

  2. I needed to know if my character could fit through the rear cab window of a F-150. I went to a car dealership’s parking lot, and it was the ONLY time nobody approached me to try to sell me a car. I also posed the question to whatever the social media alternative was back then, and was shocked the people actually TRIED it in the name of helpfulness. The answer was “Yes” but there would be bruising.

  3. Interesting post, Elaine.

    If the villain could slip into a patient room in the hospital, at night, undetected, what solution could be injected into the IV that would cause cardiac arrest and death, and could not be detected later as a drug or foreign substance?

    Sometimes I worry about us (writers) dreaming up ways to kill people. Has anyone ever done any research to measure the effect on our brains?

    Have a wonderful day!

  4. Mike Romeo drives a restored ’65 Mustang convertible. I had a mental note to check on some details, and knew it would take time to track them down. But then the other day I came out of the post office, and parked next to me was a…classic Mustang convertible. An old gent was just about to get in. I said, “Nice ride. What year?” It was a ’67, but he knew all about the Mustang and was more than happy to answer my questions right then and there. Serendipity!

  5. Great post. I don’t have the patients when I have Google to help me.

    However, I once emailed a psychologist I knew if waking dreams were common. Couldn’t find a definitive answer.

  6. This may not fall into the off-beat category, but it was interesting. I was asking a police officer about interrogating a suspect and he offered a bit of information I didn’t even think to ask about. He told me it’s perfectly acceptable and legal for a policeman to lie to a suspect in order to get more information. He can say, “A witness saw you shoot Mr. Smith” even though there is no such witness.

    Hmmm. Is anybody else surprised by that?

  7. Love this post, Elaine, and I appreciated your examples, even the ones that made me squirm a bit. I haven’t had the opportunity to interview an expert yet.

    My mystery series is set in a public library in the 1980s, when I started in my career in library land, so I have a lot to draw on in terms of setting. I did spend some time reading online about how to kill someone with an injected air bubble, a method used by Dorothy Sayers in a Lord Peter novel, as well as knock someone out with a chemical substance which can be delivered in a beverage.

    Have a wonderful day!

  8. Wow, Elaine! I’ll never read another thriller/murder mystery with the same mindset again. I’m sure I’ll have to stop and figure out how did she do that?

    Thanks for the Thursday eye-opener . . . 🙂

    My research is pretty tame compared to yours. Like, what would make a cinnamon bear chuck hibernation in the dead of winter? I talked to a taxidermist friend to get the answer to that.

    Or, what kind of gun would my character carry in the wilderness to protect himself from said bear? For that one, I had to walk all the way to my living room and ask the husband.

    Research is about half the fun of writing.

      • Unpubbed as yet, Elaine. But, I just sent it to an agent who requested to see it this morning! And it was the 2nd MS she requested from me…we’re going to work a bit on the first one I sent. I was fairly jazzed that she didn’t reject the first, but actually wants to work with me on it. Fingers crossing…

        The answer is: if it is an uncharacteristically mild winter, a bear might wake up hungry and forage, especially a female with cubs. That tidbit worked in very nicely to my MS.

    • I saw an interesting Quora question, the other day, about what it takes to kill a monster wild pig. These things are bigger than a cow and much more massive. One harrowing story was from a woman whose family always carries serious handguns when they walk near their home. A monster hog charged them, and they all emptied their guns into it before it dropped dead at their feet. None of them missed. That’s horror movie level scary.

  9. Elaine, this is hilarious b/c it’s so true for writers. When I ask weird questions of sources, they often comment, “But you look like such a nice lady.”

    A retired ER doc is a good friend who never blinks an eye as she shares lots of gory, gruesome details at the dinner table. While she and I chat up a storm, sometimes other people at the table turn this sickly shade of green.

    • I have to be careful discussing gory details at dinner, Debbie. It helps to dine with other mystery writers — as long as they won’t steal you ideas.

  10. A great column today. Through your books I have learned some “useful” information. Like to take bodies south the the Jefferson Barracks Bridge to dump them. They won’t be surfacing again until New Orleans if ever.

  11. Some trunks have a way to escape them, too, either out the back or through the back seat. That’s another feature you might want to look into.

    I spent a lot of years attending and helping to run science fiction conventions, and you’ll find an incredible amount of scientists, IT pros, college professors in all fields, medical doctors, military people, cops, and weapons experts of the sword and combat type. Nerds run the world. Fear them! And every last one LOVES to talk to writers about their expertise. I tended toward more general questions about mindsets, etc. Some of the fighters were particularly useful because the idea of starting a physical fight is pretty alien to this hobbit matron.

  12. Really enjoying these stories. One Saturday I stopped by the local tire company and asked the mechanic on duty to show me how to loosen a tie-rod so a car would wreck. Evidently, he hadn’t heard me say I was a writer. When he got over his shock, he showed me, and I used it in one of my cold case novels.

    • Oops. I should have added that part in my blog, Patricia.
      And then pray no one you know dies by the same method.

        • But wouldn’t that make the writer the chief suspect, Kay? People sometimes ask my husband if he’s worried because I know so many ways to kill people. He says, “I’m the safest man in South Florida.”

  13. One of my more interesting questions I asked our state forensic specialist at the ME’s office. How long does it take for adipocere (corpse wax) to form on a body in cold water? And what temperature is ideal?

    For the first time in forever I stumped her. She brought in the state anthropologist and the two gave me homework assignments: to find the test dates and water temps for the town well (where I wanted to put the body). Once I had that info. they provided fascinating details about how and why adipocere forms, along with the answers to my initial questions. If anyone’s curious, I shared their findings on my blog.

  14. I had never heard the term “vaginal vault” before. Nice alliteration, but it’s bringing me some weird visual images that I didn’t need. 😉

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