Introducing the Means of Murder
Sue Raines

How will your victim or victims die?

Remember that a ‘means of murder’ must include ample opportunity to commit the crime. For example; if someone is to be pushed under a train, it would be far better for the platform to be crowded in peak hour with crowds surging forward anticipating an on-coming train, their minds occupied with thoughts of securing their regular seat.

Not all crimes are committed at night.


Ask yourself what do you know of weapons? Apart from the obvious gun or knife, think of other means such as; dart, club, air gun, bomb, bow and arrow, sword, hammer, ice pick, rock, bottle, axe or slingshot.  There are more. Any or all would need to be available in your story, for the ‘opportunity’ to exist.

Should your killer use a gun, consider the size of the weapon.  How easy is it to conceal?  If it is a semi automatic or a revolver you need to know its holding capacity for ammunition; twelve cartridges or thirty? Will the recoil require it to be braced by holding with both hands? All these details form part of your research.  Facts and information is readily available.

Should you decide to poison your victim, here too, research will help you get it right. Apart from everyday household poisons such as detergents, rubbing alcohol, calcium, and laxatives; there are plants, drugs, pesticides, exotic nuts, and roots.  All ultimately fatal.  As a writer you should acquaint yourself with the toxicity of any poison you wish to write about. How long does it take to work? Note the symptoms and possibility of your killer being able to obtain and use it.

As a point of interest: famous crime and mystery author Dame Agatha Christie throughout her many novels used a variety of methods to dispatch her victims. .

In four of her stories the cause of death is drowning
In two the cause of death is electrocution
In two the victim has his throat cut
In one the victim is killed by a ‘hit and run’ driver
In one suffocation is used as the means to kill
In seven the victims are pushed to their deaths
In fourteen a blow to the head dispatches the victim to his/her grave
In thirteen the cause of death was stabbing
In nineteen the victims are shot
In thirty-four the victims are poisoned

The use of poison in a majority of her cases reflects the society of her day. In our modern society fewer poisonings occur as it is more easily detected and, like people gassing themselves, has gone out of fashion - unfortunately in favour of more violent forms of death. Today's society is more drug-oriented.

This shows the great variety available to the writer of crime fiction.

Time Frames

Over what period is your story set? Is it a day, a weekend, a month, several months, a year, or several years with flashbacks?

The shorter the time the fewer characters you can accommodate in your plot. To be able to manage their entrances and exits throughout the story you will need to apply some form of ‘control’.  A wall chart, cards or a whiteboard can help to keep track, not only of your main character but a host of minor characters and maybe a subplot or two humming along behind the main story. It is impossible to keep pace in a complex story without creating a simple system to suit your needs for both characters and plot development.

Within the story structure time will play an important part as well. Did the husband have time to travel by car to the office and return un-noticed to kill his wife? Was the plane that the chief suspect arrived on late? If it was early he had time unaccounted for in his alibi.

Challenges for your protagonist

Your hero, your amateur detective, your private eye, or detective constable will have many decisions to make in your mystery novel.

In looking into the victim's background one may discover thwarted love, a domineering husband, hidden business dealings, revenge, jealousy and/or hatred. Not the fun loving ‘everyone’s friend’-type of person the victim is portrayed to have been. The protagonist may now be privy to information not consistent with the investigation so far. At some point he/she needs to re-think the investigation.  There might be another killing. A decision has to be made, perhaps against the voice of authority, to keep going or change tactics. To give up what seems to be the truth in the light of apparent facts, or persisting with a lone investigation in which the hunter could become the hunted.

Following up a suspect’s movements

Did he attend the seminar?  The police are told "yes he did attend", later,  finding out that due to a traffic hold-up on the main highway he would have been delayed at least an hour. Going to the witness again, the detective asks when was the suspect first noticed in the audience - the reply is ‘he arrived for the session after lunch, I understand he had major traffic problems’.

The time factor here is quite significant and the suspect’s alibi is wide open. One hour's delay recorded by traffic control in the morning due to a breakdown on the main highway leaves the suspect with another 2 or 3 hours to account for before attending the afternoon session at the seminar.

Building your climax

It is one thing to confront your reader with a corpse bearing all the grissley evidence of death. You must also very quickly bring your protagonist into contact with the suspects and the innocent parties. Your reader enjoys the suspense as you develop intensity so they become focused on the problems of your main character. As your climax builds and the tempo becomes faster a sense of fear, unease and lurking evil draws your reader even further into the story.

Think of crisis as a spiral drawing in on itself.  The closer it winds towards the centre (building climax) the tighter the tension becomes, closing the circle.

Will the selected victim die? .
Will another person die instead?
Can the protagonist find the killer in time?
Who benefits from the will?
What will the robbers do when they find a different security system in place?
Can the serial killer’s victim escape, knowing he will return after dark to kill her?

You can create more than one climax in your story, but each must be resolved in a believable manner. Your reader is prepared to suspend disbelief knowing it is only fiction, but he or she will become impatient if the problems are not resolved or coincidence takes over.

Come and travel with us again through the pages of crime and mystery fiction.  Enjoy your writing in this genre. 

This article is the sole property of the author. It is produced here with the author's permission.  The unauthorized use or reprinting of an article is illegal, and will be prosecuted at the discretion of the author.


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About the Writer:

Sue Raines is a freelance writer and playwright. Having turned her talents to crime and mystery writing Sue has found a niche in teaching the genre. Other works include articles, book reviews and short stories published in magazines and anthologies. A member of Partners in Crime Sydney, she is also an avid reader of crime and mystery fiction.