Thursday, September 2, 2010


Talking about murder

So far Ladies' Killing Thursdays have focused on research and how easy the internet has made that task. There's no limit to the facts you can ferret out if your willing to move your curser far enough. But another form of research – and my favourite – is talking to people who know things I don't know, especially things that can be used for criminal purposes.

I asked my pharmacist how to doctor a nitroglycerine spray in such a way that it would kill. She gave me her first thoughts on the subject and then called me at home after she'd discussed it with her colleagues. She felt she'd come up with a method that was fast and almost undetectable. I was grateful for the time she took and gave her a copy of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in which the story appeared. But I have to admit that in this case the price was high. Now whenever I walk into the drugstore, she hollers from the back of the store. "Hey Sue, have you killed anyone lately?" She and the rest of the staff get a great kick out of this witticism but I'm the one who has to look into the faces of the other customers and watch their eyes slide away from mine in alarm.

Generally speaking, I find people more than willing to part with gory details. I buttonhole people at dinner parties and make surreptitious notes on the napkins. I talked to a refugee from Vietnam at a bus stop and the result is a story in the upcoming International Association of Crime Writers' anthology.

My husband and I have a cottage on the same lake as the Queen's University Biology Station. The students and staff there have been generous with information on deadly plants and mushrooms and have offered to explain how their bat and bird recording equipment works and how a body might disappear forever inside one of the abandoned feldspar mines on the property.

Of course, this type of research doesn't always work. My doctor used to be a fount of information on methods of death but he's moved his practice to Toronto and his replacement isn't nearly as forthcoming and indeed, seems to be in a great hurry to get me safely out of the office. And my dental hygienist pretends she hasn't heard the question and gouges my gums even harder. I may have to look for a new dentist.

Have any of you had luck conducting research by talking to people? Or not?

Sue Pike has published nineteen stories and won several awards including an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Crime Story. Her latest, Where the Snow Lay Dinted will appear in the December issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Sue and her husband and an opinionated Australian Shepherd named Cooper spend the winter months in Ottawa and the rest of the time at a mysterious cottage on the Rideau Lakes.


  1. I totally agree about just getting out there and talking to people. Not only do you find useful information and often, tidbits that come from personal experiences, but also a wealth of other writing information such as gestures, expressions, etc.

  2. So true, and so much more fun that the internet. It gets lonely in our garrets, with no one to talk to but our imaginary friends.

  3. Of course, all those medical professionals may start ducking down alleys to avoid you. But in the meantime, soak it all up!

    Closet Confidential: a Charlotte Adams mystery

  4. i've spent considerable time over the past five years talking to, and becoming friends with, members of the Tucson police department - without their help, i'd NEVER have started a police procedural, a giant research-laden street away from my 7 free-flowing PI novels

    what's more, in making these friends, i've been referred to many other people who are open to talking with me about their jobs

    all of this started half a century ago when i had polio and spent 2 months in a hospital, where i learned that talking to people not only made time past, but got me into understanding, and helping, others

  5. as the rest of you haven't quite said, but clearly implied - talking involves listening and observing, instead of just keeping up a steady stream of talk from youyouyou and paying little attention to anybody else

  6. How right you are, David. You have to let the silence grow, listen and then ask another question. People love to be consulted, to be recognized as having special knowledge.

  7. There's always something new coming along to ask people about. I'd like to know if the invasive giant hogweed has been used to maim anyone as the sap blinds, blisters and leaves it's victims sun sensitive. Could you don goggles and a mask and harvest this sap for later use? Does anyone know?

  8. What an intriguing idea, Joan. I think you should post it on Facebook, too.

  9. Joan - from Wikipedia

    Giant Hogweed is a phototoxic plant. Its sap can cause phytophotodermatitis (severe skin inflammations) when the skin is exposed to sunlight or to UV-rays. Initially the skin colours red and starts itching. Then blisters form as in burns within 48 hours. They form black or purplish scars that can last several years. Hospitalisation may be necessary.[1] Presence of minute amounts of sap in the eyes can lead to temporary or even permanent blindness.[2] These reactions are caused by the presence of linear derivatives of furocoumarin in its leaves, roots, stems, flowers and seeds. These chemicals can get into the nucleus of the epithelial cells, forming a bond with the DNA, causing the cells to die. The brown colour is caused by the production of melanin by furocoumarins. In Germany, where this plant has become a real nuisance, there were about 16,000 victims in 2003[citation needed].
    Children should be kept away from Giant Hogweed. Protective clothing, including eye protection, should be worn when handling or digging it. If skin is exposed, the affected area should be washed thoroughly with soap and water and the exposed skin protected from the sun for several days.[1]

  10. Giant hogweed is fairly rare. Not so wild parsnip, that is running amok in the ditches and fields, and causes the same reaction. I know a couple of people who have touched it, both had to go to the hospital.