December 16 – 22: “The untraceable murder – is it possible?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5We have a full house this week and we’re talking murder! Coincidence? Probably not! Join ITW Members John Foxjohn, Quentin Bates, Lisa Black, Richard Godwin, Don Helin, Joseph Amiel, Amy Lignor and C.E. Lawrence as they answer the question on everyone’s mind: “The untraceable murder – is it possible?”

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heros companionAs the daughter of a career librarian Amy Lignor grew up loving books; ‘Patience & Fortitude’ at the NYPL were her heroes. Her Tallent & Lowery series has been a huge hit with readers – and is growing with each new puzzle she offers. Working as an editor in the publishing industry for decades, she’s now the Owner/Operator of THE WRITE COMPANION along with a new publishing company that will begin in November of 2013. A reviewer and writer for many, Amy contributes to SUSPENSE MAGAZINE, AUTHORLINK, THE FEATHERED QUILL and many others.

The Price of Innocence by Lisa BlackLisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. As a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s a certified latent print examiner and CSI for her local police department. Her books have been translated into six languages. Evidence of Murder reached the NYT mass market bestseller’s list

silentC.E. Lawrence is the byline of a New York-based suspense writer, performer, composer and prize-winning playwright and poet whose previous books have been praised as “lively. . .” (Publishers Weekly); “constantly absorbing. . .” (starred Kirkus Review); and “superbly crafted prose” (Boston Herald). Silent Screams, Silent Victim, Silent Kills, and recently released Silent Slaughter are the first four books in her Lee Campbell thriller series along with her short novella Silent Stalker available on Kindle.

DevilsDen_CoverDuring Don Helin‘s time in the military, he spent seven years in the Pentagon. These assignments have provided him background for his thrillers. His first novel, THY KINGDOM COME was published in 2009. His second, DEVIL’S DEN has been selected as a finalist in the Indie Book Awards. Don lives in central Pennsylvania where he is working on “Secret Assault,” to be published in Spring 2014.

StalkingSky Front CoverJoseph Amiel is an internationally best-selling novelist, screenwriter, web series creator, and lawyer. He is the author of the novels, Stalking the Sky, Birthright, Deeds, Star Time, and A Question of Proof. His books have been translated into over a dozen languages.  A graduate of Amherst College and Yale Law School, he is married and lives in New York City.

Richard Godwin is the author of critically acclaimed novels Apostle Rising and Mr. Glamour. One Lost Summer is his third novel. It is a Noir story of fractured identity and ruined nostalgia and available at all good retailers. His stories have been published in over 29 anthologies. Richard Godwin was born in London and obtained a BA and MA in English and American Literature from King’s College London, where he lectured.

Killer Nurse coverJohn Foxjohn epitomizes the phrase “been there—done that.” Born and raised in the rural East Texas town of Nacogdoches, he quit high school and joined the Army at seventeen: Viet Nam veteran, Army Airborne Ranger, policeman and homicide detective, retired teacher and coach, now he is a multi-published author.

 

Chilled to the Bone by Quentin BatesQuentin Bates worked as a factory hand, trawlerman and truck driver before turning to writing for a living, first as a journalist and then giving in to the lure of fiction.

 


ITW

International Thriller Writers Inc represents professional authors from around the world. Learn more about them, their work, and the sources from which they draw their inspiration at the Official ITW Organization Website.

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66 Comments
  1. Possible? Probably. Likely? Not in my opinion.
    First of all I am assuming that an untraceable murder means one in which the murderer cannot be determined (as opposed to the Perfect Murder, which some people would define as when it cannot be determined that a murder even occurred). How possible this is depends entirely on the methodology used. If you want to kill your spouse, this will be very difficult because you are sure to be scrutinized as a potential suspect. You can set up a great alibi and pretend to be lost in abject grief, and you will still cross everyone’s mind as a possibility. On the other hand you could approach a total stranger strolling up a dark street, shoot him, pick up your casing and go away, and you would very likely get away with it. However, the act hasn’t really benefitted you in any way either.
    But even if you could settle on the perfect way to kill one particular person, you can never anticipate every eventuality: The unexpected witness who happened to be stomping off an argument with his wife by walking around the block and sees you leaving the victim’s home. The patsy who orders pizza on a whim at the precise moment that you are framing him for someone else’s murder. The victim who misses their evening train or who turns out to have studied karate in secret or whose propensity for drama caused them to vastly overstate their shellfish allergy. Any one of these unexpected complications would instantly derail even the most meticulous planning.
    Sigh.

  2. The untraceable murder—is it possible?

    Without trying to sound wishy-washy, the answer is a definite yes and no, or better yet, it depends.

    There are substances that are virtually impossible to detect in the human body. However, the means of delivering these substances often reveal that some kind of substance exists. Also, whether the substance is traceable often depends on if people are looking for it, who is looking for it, and if they know what they are looking for.

    My true crime, Killer Nurse is a perfect example of that. Kimberly Clark Saenz used a toxin—bleach, that no one has ever used before, or if they had, law enforcement had never caught them using it. When bleach contacts blood, it immediately attaches itself to all the different particles in the blood, rendering it virtually undetectable.

    In fact, she almost chose the perfect murder weapon—almost.

    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00AYJHHUI

    1. John would anyone have every caught the nurse if she had stopped killing or trying to kill the patients after a few?

      1. Pamela, that is doubtful that law enforcement would have caught her if she’d killed the early ones, and then stopped. If you’ve read the book, you know that the medical professionals classified the patient’s deaths as natural causes. They also believed the injured patients were a product of their health.

    2. In the book you spend alot of time on the investigation. was that because of your background as a homicide detective.

      1. Not really because I my background. I think my years in law enforcement definitely helped me, but this was the most unique case in history. It’s the first time anyone has ever been accused, charged, and convicted of murdering people with bleach as the weapon.

        Now: saying that, since it had never happened, no detective in the world had ever investigated it, or even imagined investigating something like that. Sergeant Abbott with the Lufkin police department (this was also his first homicide investigation) was thrown into an investigation where there were virtually no answers. He had no one he could call on for help. He wasn’t sure he had any evidence and even if he did, he didn’t even have a crime lab that could test the evidence.

        Besides that, he was a position where he could not make a single error. If he messed up on anything, no matter how small, a serial killer would have gotten away.

        As much as people wanted to know about this female serial killer, and I wanted to tell her story—I also believed the story of this detective who walked in uncharted waters should be told.

    3. John first let me say that I really loved Killer Nurse. It is without a doubt on of the best books I have ever read. How difficult was it going from writing fiction to true crime and what was the hardest part?

      1. First, thank you Paul. I am glad you enjoyed Killer Nurse. Also let me say that was a really good question.

        I knew that the switch would be difficult, but I didn’t know enough to know why it would be. There are a lot of legal ramifications that doesn’t exist in writing fiction: knowing how to obtain information, what information is available and the legal means needed to get it. For instance, when I signed the contract with Penguin, a part of that contract called for me to supply between 12-20 pictures of the victims and people involved. At first glance this seems like an easy thing. You see these pictures in the papers all the time. However, the rules governing access to pictures are vastly different for authors than it is journalists working for mass media.

        But besides the legal issues, writing fiction is easier than true crime. The reason: most fiction authors, myself included, build characters from the floor up. We’re like mad scientists creating people who go into out books. We know every little thing—good and bad about them—how they think, act, what they want—everything, because we have created them.

        In true crime, the author has to have just about the same level of characterization, but in this case it is about real people and it has to be true. In other words, the true crime author instead of making it up has to go out and find it out. Sometimes that’s not easy because the person may not want the author to find out about them, and this is also true of family and friends of the person.
        I interviewed 237 people for Killer Nurse and a lot of them had to do with Kimberly Clark Saenz. Neither she nor her immediate family wanted to corporate, but I had to have the information.

    4. John thanks for the invitation to visit this site. The other writers have some good answers, too. I also loved Killer Nurse. It was a book that I simply could not put down and at times the writing caused shivers to shoot through me. What was it like to sit through the trial and everything with a serial killer going back and forth and acting like she did.

      1. Thank Beverly. It was strange to be honest. Unlike other serial killers, she was out on bail. Trust me, that is something that doesn’t happen often. But the way she acted–I penned that it was like she was at a party, and many of the spectators at the trial also though that.

        The way she brazenly taunted the family of the victims would really give you shivers. Like I quoted one of the jurors, “They didn’t know what a serial killer was supposed to look like, but they were sure seeing how one would act.

          1. Margaret, thank you very much. I don’t think I have ever met an author who didn’t love it when readers express how much they liked the book. You made my day.

    5. Not sure if this was a straight question or a rhetorical one, but Aye. It is certainly possible. All you have to do is look at the large number of “Unsolved” murder cases.
      I checked a couple different web sites and found that they agreed the number is around 6000+ murders a year go unsolved (‘uncleared’ as the FBI calls them) just in the United States alone.
      You may have heard the interviews with the Mafia hit man they called the “Ice Man”, Richard Kuklinski. He admitted to having done over 200 murders, but less than 300, they had never caught him for.
      His time finally ran out as he got older and started getting “sloppy”. Had he stopped with 150 murders or even 200, those would never have been solved.
      Take other famous murders like Jimmy Hoffa or John F. Kennedy… Yes, there are many murders that go unsolved.

      Dan M.

  3. Hi All: First of all I’d like to thank ITW for inviting me to participate in the Roundtable. It’s a lot of fun to work with a great group of writers and on such an interesting subject.

    Now, on to the untraceable murder. It seems to me that it’s possible in real life to have the untraceable murder. We see it in the newspaper all the time. A girl disappears and is never heard from again. Someone is kidnapped and the family waits and waits but never receives closure. If you watch Cold Case Files on TV, you’ll see murders for which no one is ever captured, even though this special group solves a few of them.

    In fiction, however, I think it’s different. If an author writes a thriller in which someone is killed and the police never solve the mystery, it dampened the value of an interesting story.

    I believe that great thrillers consist of a protagonist and a villain who are worthy adversaries. Throughout the story, the two butt heads, but in the end the protagonist wins out. If the protagonist never catches the villain, I think this depletes the value of the story. Readers are not going to want to be left hanging. That happens all too often in real life.

    I look forward to the discussion this week.

  4. Is the untraceable murder possible? I believe I created a perfect murder for my newly reissued novel STALKING THE SKY. And not just the murder of one person, but of over three hundred. And I did it twice.

    STALKING THE SKY is the story of America’s leading airline in crisis. As a ruthless corporate raider is moving to seize it from its legendary founder, one of its 747s explodes in mid-air, killing everyone on board. Then a second airliner goes down. Sabotage is suspected. Will Nye, the airline’s general counsel who lost his best friend in the second disaster, is working closely with the FBI to track down the killer.

    Obviously a bomb of some sort had to be employed with the killer able to escape after placing it, but how to accomplish that and how does one place it in the absolutely precise place to disable a giant aircraft built to survive a multitude of in-air mishaps? I devised a scheme, but needed to be sure my scheme would work. On a vacation trip with my wife, I entered the jetliner’s lavatory and nervously went through enough of the steps my murderer would be taking to place the bomb until I was sure that I—and he—could get away with the crime. Fearing arrest at any moment, I returned, sweating, to my seat. Yet, like the murderer, I safely got off the plane at my destination.

    A perfect mass murder? I think it would have been. I’ll leave for my book’s readers the details of how one gets a bomb on board and still makes a safe getaway. But I’m sure that if Will hadn’t found and tracked down a tiny clue I planted, STALKING THE SKY would have had a very different ending: The killer dancing all the way to a happy and very wealthy retirement.

    So, I definitely think a smart, thorough thriller/mystery writers could devise a perfect plan to get away with murder. The question is: How many novelists pecking out their daydreamed plots possess a killer’s nerve?

  5. I read and watch a lot of true crime. A LOT. And though I agree with my esteemed colleagues that it would probably not be satisfying to read about a fictional version of a perfect crime, it most certainly is theoretically possible. Not only that, it has happened in a couple of high profile cases.

    What’s interesting is that even when a killer covers up his traces, it’s often the strangest thing that catches him up – even in the “untraceable murder.”

    I’m sure there are plenty of murders we’ll never know about because they are more or less untraceable (death by succinylcholine, for example, is pretty hard to detect.)

    But the murder itself isn’t the problem in some of these cases – it’s the pre and post murder behavior that leads to arrest and (hopefully) conviction.

    I’ll have more details of some real life crimes as the week goes on.
    Cheers, everyone!

  6. There’s not much doubt that the untraceable murder can happen, as in spite of all the theories, nobody really knows for certain who Jack the Ripper was. People disappear all the time. Some of them are missed and some aren’t. Some of them probably have no intention of letting themselves be found, while others certainly didn’t go happily. So the real-life untraced murders are the ones that tend to remain mysteries; scenarios that aren’t necessarily fertile ground a fiction writer. No solution, no story.

  7. Hey everyone:

    I have to say, I’m on the fence as well with this one. With every new piece of technology created to catch a criminal, there seems to be a new piece that the criminal can use in order to remain undiscovered. The Ripper, to this day, is still the only (truly famous/remembered) murderer who was never found (and that was during the days of no technology whatsoever). There are stacks of cold cases that the police have mounted up in a file room. Missing persons cases may be just that, a person who doesn’t want to be found any longer; but at least 75% will be killers who basically got away with murder. And as we head into 2014, the unfortunate part is there will continue to be violence and all we, as a human society can hope for, is that the technology to ‘serve and protect’ gets better. When it comes to the writer who wants to take this on…well, fiction has a way of getting around the apprehension of a criminal at times, so all the literary/thriller world needs is to make sure that there are new, unique and creative ways to fool the reader into believing that THEY have written the ultimate, and most intelligent, bad guy.

    On a side note: I hope everyone has a happy holiday! 🙂

  8. Possible? Probably. Likely? No.
    First of all I am assuming that an untraceable murder means one in which the murderer cannot be determined (as opposed to the perfect murder, which some people would define as when it cannot be determined that a murder even occurred). How possible this is depends entirely on the methodology used. If you want to kill your spouse, this will be very difficult because you are sure to be scrutinized as a potential suspect. You can set up a great alibi and pretend to be lost in abject grief, and you will still cross everyone’s mind as a possibility. On the other hand you could approach a total stranger strolling up a dark street, shoot him, pick up your casing and go away, and you would very likely get away with it. However, the act hasn’t really benefitted you in any way either.
    But even if you could settle on the perfect way to kill one particular person, you can never be completely sure it will work. You can never anticipate every eventuality: The unexpected witness who happened to be stomping off an argument with his wife by walking around the block and sees you leaving the victim’s home. The patsy who orders pizza on a whim at the precise moment that you are framing him for someone else’s murder. The victim who misses their evening train or who turns out to have studied karate in secret or whose propensity for drama caused them to vastly overstate their shellfish allergy. Any one of these unexpected complications would instantly derail even the most meticulous planning.
    Sigh.

  9. Does art mirror life of life mirror art? As crime writers we create situations and try to render them real. We write of killers and their arrest. But is it possible to create an untraceable murder? It would seem that forensics have advanced things so far that this is an impossibility, and the omnipresence of CCTV cameras, at least in cities, helps the police make arrests. But one writer nearly got away with it, and I don’t mean just writing about it, perhaps arrogance is most criminals’ undoing.

    In 2007 a Polish pulp fiction writer was sentenced to 25 years in jail yesterday for his role in a grisly case of abduction, torture and murder, a crime that he then used for the plot of a bestselling thriller. In a remarkable case that gripped Poland for months, Krystian Bala, a writer of blood-curdling fiction, was found guilty of orchestrating the murder seven years previously of a Wroclaw businessman, Dariusz Janiszewski, in a crime of passion brought on by the suspicion that the victim was sleeping with his ex-wife.
    In the novel, the villain gets away with kidnapping, mutilating and murdering a young woman.
    In real life, however, Bala got his comeuppance, even though it was seven years after the disappearance of the advertising executive whose murder confounded detectives until they read the book.
    The killing of Janiszewski was one of the most gruesome cases to come before a Polish court in years, with the “Murder, He Wrote” sub-plot unfolding in the district court in Wroclaw and keeping the country spellbound.
    Janiszewski, said to have been having an affair with Bala’s ex-wife, was scooped out of the river Oder near Wroclaw in south-west Poland by fishermen in December 2000, four weeks after going missing.
    The police tests revealed that he was stripped almost naked and tortured. His wrists had been bound behind his back and tied to a noose around his neck before he was dumped in the river.
    The police had little to go on. Within six months, Commissar Jacek Wroblewski, leading the investigation, dropped the case. It remained closed for five years despite the publication in 2003 of the potboiler Amok, by Bala, a gory tale about a bunch of bored sadists, with the narrator, Chris, recounting the murder of a young woman. The details of the murder matched those of Janiszewski almost exactly.
    Bala, who used the first name Chris on his frequent jaunts abroad, was arrested in 2005 after Commissar Wroblewski received a tip-off about the “perfect crime” and was advised to read the thriller. But Bala was released after three days for insufficient evidence, despite the commissar’s conviction that he had his villain. When further evidence came to light, Bala was re-arrested. The case against him, however, remained circumstantial.
    Police uncovered evidence that Bala had known the dead man, had telephoned him around the time of his disappearance and had then sold the dead man’s mobile phone on the internet within days of the murder.
    When Poland’s television equivalent of Crimewatch aired details of the case in an attempt to generate fresh police leads, the programme’s website received messages from various places in the far east, places that Bala, a keen scuba diver, was discovered to have been visiting at the time of the messages.
    The court heard expert and witness evidence that Bala was a control freak, eager to show off his intelligence, “pathologically jealous” and inclined to sadism. “He was pathologically jealous of his wife,” said Judge Hojenska. “He could not allow his estranged wife to have ties with another man.”
    His lawyer said yesterday that Bala would appeal against the verdict and sentence.
    Then there are the unsolved Zodiac killings. The Zodiac Killer was a serial killer who operated in northern California. in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The killer’s identity remains unknown. The killer originated the name “Zodiac” in a series of taunting letters sent to the local press.
    Perhaps the most likely way to create the untraceable murder is to pick a victim at random living in a remote rural area that has no relation to you, travel in disguise in a stolen car, execute the killing and dispose of the body. But most killers have a motive, that is why they are caught. Police psychologists read a serial killer’s profile and interpret his character and motivation from it. To organise and act out the motiveless killing may arguably lead to a murder that will not be solved.

    1. This mirrors the case of a Dutch writer who wrote a story about the murder of his wife that his publisher rejected for being too gruesome. A few years later Richard Klinkhamer’s wife was found buried in the garden of the house where the couple had lived.
      The bizarre part of it is that it took ten years for the whole thing to come to light, even though Klinkhamer had dropped heavy hints about what had happened to his wife before her skeleton was finally unearthed.
      As far as I know, ‘Wednesday, Ground Meat Day’ was never published. So maybe if he had kept his mouth shut, this would have been an untraced murder?

        1. It seems more likely that Klinkhamer wrote a conscious confessional. A very odd and troubled character, by all accounts, with a difficult background. He was released a few years ago – he was given a 6-year sentence for the murder of his wife, and ‘Woensdag gehaktdag’ was published after his release.
          You get the feeling that he either wanted to be caught, all the dropped hints and the manuscript, or else he felt himself somehow above being tracked down and dragged off to court.

  10. Fascinating recounting of a sociopathic writer’s gruesome crime. This topic brings to mind the many people who have served sentences after being found guilty only to be proved innocent years later. Are these perfect crimes? The ture perpetrators are rarely discovered. A Blue Dahlia anyone?

  11. Many of the above comments makes me think of the old adage, “Truth is Stranger than Fiction.” One of the things that makes writing thrillers fun for me is to find the “Almost” perfect crime, perhaps ripped from todays headlines, then drop little clues along the way that allow your readers to help you solve the crime. Or at the end make them look back over the story and realize they missed the little clues that would have helped them.

    I believe that if you lead readers through the “Almost” perfect crime, then not solve it at the end, you may find yourself with a lot fewer readers. But at the same time to come up with new crimes, not the same old ones and perhaps new type villians, your readers will love you for it. Challenge them and make them think.

    1. There is no such thing as perfection and in itself it may be an ultimately corrupting concept. That is the lure to the killer, the idea of perfection, and it may well be his undoing. There are unsolved crimes. But those rely on human error and the things an organised murderer cannot control, much to his chagrin.

  12. Everyone seems to agree that not solving a crime in a thriller is pretty much a guaranteed way to frustrate readers.

    That puts me in mind of an amazing but frustrating true crime story by Truman Capote, Handcarved Coffins. It remains unsolved to this day – much to my enormous disappointment when I finished the story.

    I would love to know if there are any really successful “perfect murder” stories out there. The thirst for justice runs deep in crime readers, I think…..

    1. I investigated a homicide once. A married woman came home from work and found her husband shot to death in their home. He’d been there most of the day while she was at work.

      The first words out of her mouth was I want to talk to an attorney.

      We never got to talk to her, and we never convicted her. Did she do it–I never doubted it, but without her talking or making a statement that I could eventual use against her, I’d never prove it.

      To me, this was a perfect murder. We could never establish the exact time of death and of course, she’d left all the normal forensics at the scene, but she was supposed to–she lived there.

      To me, this was the perfect murder–but not untraceable. We knew who did it but couldn’t prove it. Nor will we ever if she doesn’t talk.

      1. Roald Dahl wrote a great story called Lamb To The Slaughter. Although somewhat dated it still has impact and relevance to this discussion. A woman batters her husband to death with a leg of frozen lamb. She then cooks and eats the murder weapon and offers a piece of meat to the detectives investigating his murder.

      2. John,
        I’m always fascinated by those kinds of killers. As a cop, it makes you grit your teeth, but I have to admit that kind of stonewalling is amazing to me. I always feel I’d fall apart under the pressure, like Raskolnikov.

        Btw, I’ve always thought Crime & Punishment was a kind of template for another kind of crime story, where the imperfection of the criminal made for an imperfect crime.

        1. It can be frustrating. To be honest, this is probably the best way to commit a homicide and get away with it. I told this story once to a group of writers and the question always comes up, “Won’t lawyering up like that make the police suspect her?”

          We already suspected her. There was nothing she could say to us that would help her cause. She did it, and we knew it. Talking to us was to our advantage–not hers.

          Too many times the one who did it either thinks they can outsmart the detective, and at times that works. Also, they either want to try to explain things away, or find out how much the detective knows.

          1. Yes, John, because I’m such a fan of true crime, I’ve seen all those permutations. I always feel the frustration of law enforcement when they know the perp is guilty but can’t prove it!

            That thing of trying to find out how much the cops know is so telling…and yet the burden of proof always rests with the state (as it should, but still….)

      1. Richard,
        I know that story!! It’s so often cited at conventions. Maybe we can revisit in a discussion titled The Perfect Murder Weapon….

        I have no doubt you’re right about the appeal of revenge stories. After all, some of the greats wrote them – The Count of Monte Cristo comes to mind immediately.

        But revenge tales make me queasy. I had a story in the Lee Child anthology, Vengeance, and it still makes me queasy to think about it. Impartiality is central to the idea of justice, and revenge is anything but. It’s very emotionally based.

        As and a good Wasp, I was taught to be suspicious of emotions. Or maybe I’m a Vulcan. Not sure…..

  13. That’s a great story Richard mentioned about the leg of lamb. Gonna have to remember that one. I wonder if a killer could use a block of ice, then let it melt?

    1. There’s also that old chestnut about stabbing someone with an icicle, which would melt, leaving no murder weapon. I’m not sure if it could work, and I’m tempted to think not, unless it was a very big, perfect icicle, maybe formed in a mould? My feeling is that an ordinary icicle of the kind that drop off the eaves of your house just wouldn’t be robust enough to punch through clothing, skin, etc, let alone do any real damage beyond making the intended victim very angry.

  14. Since the title of this discussion is: “The untraceable murder – is it possible?” over the years I have asked quite a few medical professionals is there something that is totally untraceable. We hear about exotic poisons that are virtually untraceable, but all of the medical professionals told me one thing to use that would be untraceable—potassium.

    It occurs naturally in the body, but excess amounts are deadly. Of course when they do an autopsy, if they do one, they should find the excess amounts in the system. The problem with that: certain medically problems cause excess potassium in the body—one of those being a heart attack. As it happens, too much potassium in a person’s system brings on systems of a heart attack.

    This was one of the reasons it was so difficult to convict Kimberly Clark Saenz. Although she used bleach as her weapon, the bleach caused hemolysis which is a fancy term meaning the rupturing of blood cells. When the cells ruptured, they released everything that cell contained into the person’s blood steam, and yes, those cells contain potassium.

    Many of the murdered dialysis patients had symptoms of a heart attack, and the reason they were initially found to have died of natural causes.

  15. I have a physically untraceable murder in my book “Evidence of Murder”…BUT to accomplish it took some specialized equipment that not everyone would have sitting around in their garage.
    I always thought a situation like John’s case would be the best way to kill someone. Shoot them, drop the gun, and say “I have no idea what happened.” It’s the ancient adage–you can’t prove a negative. You can’t prove there wasn’t someone else in the house. You can’t prove the victim didn’t have enemies. Mary Lee Orsini used the technique to get away with murder. But it’s a heck of a risk to take.

    1. John, you wrote, “Also, whether the substance is traceable often depends on if people are looking for it, who is looking for it, and if they know what they are looking for.” What did you mean by that?

      1. Good question. If a detective goes to a crime scene and a man is dead, shot in the chest, and there is no weapon around him, the detective is going to consider this a homicide—naturally so. However, if they go to a home and there’s an elderly man who has had heart problems and there are no visible signs of murder, the chances are that they may not look at this one as close as they should.
        In other words, sometimes they have to be looking for it before they find it.

        I’m going to go back to my book Killer Nurse. The DaVita dialysis center in Lufkin knew they had a problem, but they didn’t know what it was. They sent in investigators to examine every aspect of operations in that clinic. However, they didn’t find a thing.

        Their problem was, and through no fault of their own, they didn’t have a starting point. All they knew was patients were dying or becoming injured, but they had no idea what caused it.

        It wasn’t until two witnesses saw Kimberly Clark Saenz inject two other patients with bleach that investigators had a starting point. If these witnesses hadn’t seen this, there is no telling how many people she would have murdered. At that point she probably had killed 19—they would later charge and convict her of 5.

        But no one was looking at employees, bleach, or even murder.

        Even after the witnesses saw her inject the two patients, the police investigators were not looking at a murder investigation. As miracles would have it, the two patients she injected the day she was observed, lived.

        It wasn’t until the investigators began looking through those sharps containers in the clinic that the investigation changed to murder. They would not have been looking for those bleach-laden syringes if the witnesses hadn’t seen what they did.

        As I said before, bleach is virtually undetectable in blood, but it was the means she used—injecting the bleach with a syringe, that got her in the end.

        1. Again, as a fan of true crime stories, I have seen what John describes many times. There are a couple of famous cases where a man poisoned his first wife and the only reason they knew to look for a homicide was their suspicions when his second wife died the same way!

          Even in this day and age, poison continues to be a challenge to law enforcement.

  16. Carole, thinking of your reference to Crime and Punishment and also what Quentin says about confessing, I think Dostoyevsky wrote a highly unusual crime novel in that seminal work which is a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit, as we have discussed when I interviewed you at The Slaughterhouse. It seems Rasknolnikov wanted the guilt and his motive was to acquire it, thus disproving his theory of the Ubermensch.

      1. Carole, I agree that the jury wants to know why. In fact, I think everyone always wants to know the why. But wanting to know and needing to know are different. The Saenz case took three years to get to trial, and the defense attorney tried that ploy for three years prior to the trial. He constantly told the newspaper and TV, “My client doesn’t have motive to commit this crime. The police hasn’t shown a motive.

        The DA didn’t prove one during trial, either, but they convicted her. One of the reasons I think they did was the DA did a fantastic job educating the potential jurors about not needing a motive to convict.

        1. John,
          I am so going to read your book. Since I write novels about serial killers, the idea of “motive” here is laughable – of course there’s a motive, it’s just one most normal people don’t understand.

          That’s one thing that makes serial offenders so dangerous – their motives aren’t easily understood (jealousy, revenge, greed), but spring from darker places – the need to control, dominate and manipulate people – anyone will do.

          I will be reading your book over Christmas. Ho ho ho.

          1. Thanks Carole, I think you’ll enjoy it. Actually though, Killer Nurse is my first true crime. All my others have been fiction.

            Of course you are also right about motives and serial killers. They don’t fit the norm because they aren’t close to normal.

            It’s only human nature to want to know why, but most times, especially with serial killers, the normal person isn’t going to understand the reasoning anyway.

    1. Richard, personally I find the why always more interesting that the who or the how of a whounnit. An untraceable crime of any kind these days is becoming more of a challenge now that forensic science seems to be able to identify any kind of contact – so tracking a perpetrator is more down to how dogged an investigator is in devoting time and effort to a case. Of course in fiction the investigator generally has apparently unlimited manpower, time and resources while real law enforcement is subject to budgets, targets, etc.
      So my feeling is that to make a crime untraceable, a step to one side is needed. The untraceable murder is one that nobody realises is a murder (how many did Dr Shipman get away with?) in the same way that the most successful bank heists are carried out by people with briefcases, not the guys with the sawn-off shotguns.

      1. Carole and Quentin yes. There is more to crime fiction than forensics, there are a vast array of methods of portraying crime, the criminal mind, why some people become criminals or become criminalised. If you think of Noir fiction it often shows ordinary people crossing the line. And that is interesting because it opens up the legalities that encompass judicial interpretations of our behaviour.

  17. John, would you say that a psychopath is harder to convict since his motives may be harder to determine? In reality the only men who get away with murder are those with gangland connections, at least in the UK. There was a case of a criminal involved in a gold bullion robbery, he stabbed an investigating police officer to death in his own grounds and bragged about it. He went to court, his mates nobbled the jury and he went free. Eventually he stabbed a motorist to death in a road rage incident for cutting him up, fled to Cyprus and was eventually apprehended years later. I think the gangsters who know how to manipulate the system do not commit an untraceable murder but they may get way with it.

        1. Richard,

          I think not needing to prove motive to convict someone of murder is a good part of the legal system. I get this question quite often when I talk to groups, and I asked them, “Does it really matter why they murdered someone?” Without the why, there is still a victim whose life was taken from them. The family of that victim still had a loved one taken from them.

          Without the why, there is still a heinous crime.

          If law enforcement had to prove a motive in a murder, all someone would have to do is shoot someone and refused to tell anyone why he or she did it.

          Here is something the DA told the potential jurors in the Saenz case. He asked them, “Have you ever seen someone do something and wonder why they did it. You saw it and you know they did it. However, if they don’t tell you why you want know. Does that change the fact that they did it?”

  18. If we extend the discussion to politics, there is the case of Charles Taylor, dictator of Liberia. He hired a biochemist to use Prions to eliminate blacks in the townships. Drops of this highly toxic substance were placed in their cigarettes and foods, distributed to the shops they used, and he exterminated thousands. How would such a substance show up in a police investigation?

  19. The discussion of employing the right poison being perhaps the least detectable method of homicide reminds me that Agatha Christie was fascinated by poisons and became a true expert in the field. I think the evolving field of Chemistry, which continually presented ways to detect poisons, stirred her imagination and her plots.

  20. I’ve said this often and quite a few people don’t understand it until I explain it, but motive should not play a major role in a homicide investigation. At first blush, that seems to be a dumb statement. However, take a homicide where there is a victim and you can find hundreds of people who may have reason to want that person dead.

    The detective is going to spend all their time interviewing people—what I call chasing suspects.

    If a detective chases suspects based on motive the likelihood is, unless they get lucky, they aren’t going to solve that case.

    My wife and I were watching a popular crime show last night—one that I like. The detective was doing just what I described—chasing suspects, and I told my wife this. She asked me what should he do, and I told her he needs to go back to the evidence—that’s what should lead to suspects.

    Right after that, like I could read minds, the detective said and did just that. He went back to the evidence, and it led him right to the person who did it—a person who eventually confessed and pled guilty.

    One of the big problems when chasing suspects without following the evidence is they have a tendency to point someone else out, and that is what happened in the case I just said. The person who actually did it pointed the detective to someone else. Then that someone pointed him at another, then another. That’s classic chasing suspects.

  21. I’m pondering what would be an untraceable weapon besides poison. A generic kitchen knife? An old,unregistered, subsequently mangled firearm? A stolen car? A paving brick from the victim’s own sidewalk? Arson?

    Of course one would have to be careful not to leave any DNA on the item. We collect swabs for ‘contact DNA’ now.

  22. John first let me say that I loved Killer Nurse. I have most of your other books and didn’t think you could ever write one better than a couple of the fiction novels. You proved me wrong. I simply could not put it down. I also learned alot from it. One question I had was I didn’t understand the difference between the evidence. Your explanation seems different from what the reader hears on tv.

  23. Thanks Cecelia, I appreciate you taking the time to tell me how much you enjoyed Killer Nurse. As far different from TV—I sure hope so…. 🙂

    There are two types of evidence: direct and indirect. Direct evidence is eyewitness testimony, and in my opinion, the weakest kind of evidence. You’ll find few if any veteran law enforcement officers who is enthralled with witnesses. You can get three of them in broad daylight and all three may see the scene differently, and not only that, they may all describe the suspect differently. Trust me when this happens and if it goes to trial, this becomes a defense attorney’s dream.

    The other type of evidence is indirect, or what most people call circumstantial. TV has created an image of this word dealing with evidence almost as if it was a cuss word. Also, not a lot of people actually understand what it is.

    In most cases, circumstantial evidence is better that direct or witness evidence. DNA, fingerprints, ballistics, GSR—in fact, any forensic evidence is circumstantial evidence.

    Let’s say you have a man running out of a house that he wasn’t supposed to be in, and claims he has never been in. A witness says he or she saw him run out. It wouldn’t be the first time where a defense attorney made a witness change his story or convinced a jury that the witness was wrong.

    However, if that same guy left a fingerprint in that house than there is no way to discount it. Of course the print doesn’t mean the guy committed a crime, but it does place him inside that house.

    Hope this helps.

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