by Janis Patterson
I’ll admit it – I’m terrible. When people ask me what I do, I smile sweetly, give them my best grandmotherly twinkle and say in soft, mellifluous tones, “I kill people.” It’s a great shtick, makes them remember me and gives me an opening to talk about my writing and books.
But the act of killing is not lighthearted and shouldn’t be taken lightly. As mystery writers we are very dangerous people. We know how to get rid of people in so many ways it’s a wonder that anyone ever talks to us, let alone comes to visit. Still we continue to research and study and learn about ways to kill people, all the while trying to improve our books and our craft. What we must never forget is that there are people out there who care nothing about books or craft – they are interested in killing. For real.
But I can hear someone saying, “If we can find the information, why can’t they? Why should we be made responsible?”
Yes, they could find the same information, but the question is, would they? Perhaps they’re too stupid. Perhaps they’re too lazy or it’s too much work. Perhaps … any number of reasons. Maybe they will anyway. I’m just saying that mystery writers have an obligation not to help them.
So how do we have a story? Well, a lot of things are in our collective consciousness. Anyone knows that a gun or a knife will kill. Using one of them is generally pretty simple. Poisons are more problematic. We all know that arsenic kills, but as writers we don’t have to give out the product and brand name and how to get the arsenic out of it. We can outline a murder, but leave out a crucial step or two. We’re writing entertainment, not training manuals.
This is definitely a self-policing step, and sometimes we have to exercise self-control to use it. A couple of years ago The Husband and I went to the national NRA convention. (Fascinating and great fun!) Once there, a gun manufacturer was enthralled that I wrote mysteries and was most helpful about answering a couple of questions I had. Then he started telling me things – a few I’ve used in the intervening years – and one thing that absolutely horrified me.
This man told me how to commit a murder with a fairly large bullet and yet leave no ballistic trace. No rifling on the projectile. A completely clean and untraceable bullet. I found that fascinating, but I’ll never use it. It’s too simple and can be done by anyone – and leave no trace by which the murderer can be found. He was absolutely gleeful and was hinting about having his name in the book as a reference source. I thanked him for the information, told him I would never use it, and begged him not to tell anyone else. He was startled, but after I explained that such information could be used by criminals, I think he understood. How odd that he couldn’t see that for himself, but other people’s thought processes are often strange and inexplicable things.
Have I ever used this handy tidbit? No. Have I thought about it? Oh, yes – it’s one of my favorite fantasies. A book about an unprecedented and untraceable way of shooting someone and – if you’re the slightest bit smart – getting away with it. Boy, that’s a formula for an Edgar if I ever heard one.
But fantasies are nothing but between-the-ears dreams and of harm to no one. I have accepted my dream Edgar for that unwritten book several times, and enjoyed it thoroughly each time. If I were to use such a device in a real book, however, I would be on tenterhooks fearing to hear that it had been used in reality, and that I could not bear. It would make me at best an accomplice, at worst… well, something horrible that I don’t want to be. That’s why I’ll never use that tantalizing bit of information in a book – and why all mystery writers should be very careful what they write.