Today writers can’t just kill somebody. They’ve got to get it right or they lose readers. Before I became a suspense/thriller author, I investigated over 3,000 unsolved deaths as a forensic field agent for a county medical examiner’s office in Texas. Although it was not a consideration at the time, my advanced training and real life experiences equipped me for the killing sprees in my novels. Because few writers have these exposures and rarely witness life unedited, today more than ever it is vital they find other ways to get murder right.
The readers of mystery and suspense are more sophisticated and knowledgeable in the fields of crime and murder. With growing exposure to a plethora of CSI television shows, true crime documentaries, and blockbuster movies about twisted psychopaths, diabolical serial killers, and sick mass murderers, our reading audience understands how it all happens and know the likely evidence that leads to perpetrators. Writing a mesmerizing murder scene or crisp caper requires today’s authors to know the possibilities; planting legitimate clues, presentation and logical discovery, not missing the obvious, and the accurate treatment of the facts. Today, understanding the death investigation and discovery process is a must.
My first case as a forensic investigator was a ride-along with a senior agent. The call came into the medical examiner’s office as a multiple gunshot wound to the chest. We raced to the scene moments after the discovery of the body in an affluent neighborhood. Being new and fresh out of training, I knew right away we were dealing with a well-crafted homicide. The senior agent was older and a man of few words. As I drove, he blew smoke out the window and announced we were going to a suicide. The rest of the ride was quiet. Looking down my rookie nose, I thought the old guy was burned out. A suicide case was less paperwork than a homicide. How could anyone take multiple bullets in the chest and it not be a homicide?
The deceased, sixty-year-old white male, was slouched over on a back porch swing, multiple gunshot wounds to the chest, gun clenched in his cold, stiff hand. After I counted five entrance wounds, I whispered to the senior agent, “You still think this is a suicide?” He said nothing, just stood over me and nodded in the affirmative.
After photographing (documenting) the death scene from all angles, we placed the weapon in a plastic bag and labeled. We put paper bags over the hands of the deceased and authorized transport of the body to the county morgue. We interviewed family and friends. The deceased was in early stages of rigor mortis placing time of death in a six to ten hour window.
At the institute of forensic science we test fired the weapon—five shots. A gunpowder residue sample was taken from our shooting hand and the hand of the deceased. They were assessed analytically and qualitatively via mass spectroscopy and other advanced detection instrumentation. Gunshot residue can contain various amounts of lead, barium, antimony, sulfur, aluminum, potassium, copper, titanium, zinc and more. Test results confirmed the gun was in the hand of the deceased when fired five times.
I was not convinced—being new and smarter than everyone else on my first case. The victim could not have physically shot himself five times—like the old story of the suicide where the man backed into the knife five times. I knew the diabolical killer put the gun in the victim’s hand and forced five rounds into the man’s chest. And I didn’t like the way the son-in-law acted at the death scene—very mechanical, no emotion, seemed to dodge questions, and just the way he behaved with his weeping spouse. The truth would come out after I delved into the victim’s history, his financials, and the story about his son-in-law. With or without my senior field agent on board, I would not stop until I found the veiled reason this man was killed.
It was not until the autopsy that the story came into focus. Four of the five shots into the chest missed the heart and internal structures that would cause immediate death (such as major arteries). One bullet found the heart. And because the bullets used were a mix between Colt and Remington, we were able to determine the bullet that hit the heart was the last fired.
I won’t go into contact wounds, patterns, and gunpowder burn anomalies. I won’t go into angles of entry and exit or the smokeless gunpowder today that can change everything but contains over twenty detectable compounds. I won’t talk about the suicide history uncovered or the doctor appointment where the deceased learned he had a brain tumor eight hours before he was found dead on the porch swing. What I will say is it took the field investigation, forensic testing, and the autopsy to get it right…regardless how it looked or felt.
This is just one example of how a traumatic death in today’s world is solved. People that do this every day understand cause and manner of death can only be determined when we replace speculation and emotion with logic and facts. As writers creating killers and death scenes, we can write our best chilling, thought provoking stories when we understand the advanced tools and processes employed in a modern world to catch the bad guys.
I encourage writers of suspense and mystery to make use of the internet to read about forensics and real cases. Attend writer conferences to hear from experts in forensics (which I often do). Visit a medical examiner’s office and the county morgue. Observe an autopsy. Ride with a homicide detective to see how the real world works today. If you are going to write about murder, I believe you get your best stories when you know more than your readers: how crime scenes are processed, how autopsies are conducted, the important clues and how to plant them. When writers get it right, readers come back for more.