How Shall I Kill Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

One of the challenges mystery writers face is coming up with new ways of killing people. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of methods. If you’re stuck for ideas, all you need to do is consult the classics [warning: may contain spoilers].

In her sixty-six detective novels, Agatha Christie killed dozens of victims by stabbings, gunshots, drownings, hangings, and even strangulation with a ukulele string. But her favorite was poison. More than half Dame Agatha’s victims kicked the bucket by poisoning—arsenic, cyanide, digitalis, hemlock, nicotine, opium, strychnine, you name it. “They can’t be poisoned all the time,” she is reported to have told her editor at HarperCollins. “But I am happier when they are.” Agatha didn’t like blood and gore—just a neat little murder, usually off-stage, because her real interest was the who and the why.

At the other end of the murder spectrum is Christie’s contemporary, the New Zealander Ngaio Marsh. While we admire her elegant prose, her wit, and her puzzle plots, it’s the inventiveness of her murders we can’t forget. While her top four methods are pretty standard—stabbing, poison, asphyxiation, and blunt instrument—it’s the grisly circumstances that set her apart. One of her victims was lured into a boiling pool of mud. Another was compressed in a bale of wool. While Marsh insisted she was squeamish, she definitely knew how to deliver drama. In her thirty-two detective novels, she employed a variety of unique murder methods, including a meat skewer through the eye, a gun rigged to the soft pedal of a concert piano, a needle embedded in the handle of an umbrella, and poison added to a perfume bottle.

The prize for inventiveness and originality in murder, however, must go to the long-running TV show Midsomer Murders based on characters created by Caroline Graham. Here are a few examples:

  • Crushed to death by tins of relish after a forklift chase
  • Tied to a bullseye on the lawn and catapulted with bottles of wine
  • Drowned in a bowl of hard-boiled eggs and jellied eels
  • Suffocated after being encased in mummy wrappings
  • Burned alive in a giant wicker effigy
  • Crushed by a giant wheel of cheese
  • Strangled by a malfunctioning automatic door
  • Crushed by a mountain of newspapers

Is it possible to be too inventive? Maybe. While I adore Louise Penny, one of her early murders (involving a heavy marble statue and honey) stretched my willing suspension of disbelief a little too far. But at least I knew it was fiction. After reading The Body Farm, I never picked up another Patricia Cornwell novel again.

This raises another question: The folks at Nielsen tell us readers of murder mysteries are mainly highly civilized, well-educated women of a certain age. What is it about murder that appeals to this demographic?

What are your thoughts? Have you ever read a mystery that struck you as too bizarre?

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  1. In my trilogy, The Well, Fatal Refuge, and A Killing at Lynx Lake, (The Arizona Thriller Trilogy), none of the bad guys (the killers themselves) died in any of the many methods detailed above. I like to kill off the murderer rather than have them arrested, because we all know the delays and injustices they may involve.

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