Thursday, October 28, 2010

Novelists and Dead Body Calls

Homicide ALWAYS Called Out?
By Mark Young
Most crime fiction has a dead body turn up somewhere near the front of the book. Emergency lights flashing, uniformed cops standing around, and a grizzled and ornery homicide detective lumbers onto the scene. The detective might be guzzling lukewarm coffee from a Styrofoam cup while scowling at the supervisor for calling him out in the middle of the night. The detective—suffering from too much booze and too many call outs—glares at the world through blood-shot eyes. A cigarette dangles from cruelly-drawn lips if the detective does not give a hoot about contaminating his crime scene. How often have we read this sort of scenario?

Want to add just a little more tension to the story?

Roll back the tape until you reach a point in the story where the dead body is first discovered—if the author felt this event significant.  Maybe cops stumbled over the body or witnesses called it in to dispatch. Maybe hospital staff or caregivers reported another death of an elderly person or a person succumbing to a terminal illness—the kind of calls that come in every day. By the time we—the reader or viewer—get to the scene in our novel, everyone seems to know a murderer is loose. We see blood on the wall, a knife sticking out of the deceased’s back, or gunshot wounds riddling the dead guy’s chest.

But what if the signs of death are more subtle? What if someone really must pay attention to details? Little hints that may have been left that tell us this death is not natural or expected.

Everyone generally thinks the cop just grabs the radio and calls for investigators to come and take over. Do you think homicide units roll out on every dead body call? You would be wrong if you answered affirmative to that last question. Heads will roll if these hard-working investigators are called out to deaths that turn out to be natural.

So who makes these decisions?

Write this key shotcaller into your story and your next scene offers more opportunities to make characters and readers squirm unmercifully. Here is where the pressure comes in. If your character makes the wrong decision, one of several things might happen. Worst-case scenario—case against the killer goes out the window. Best case—made a wrong choice and tick off everyone up the chain of command, making you the laughingstock of the entire department because everyone else knew how to handle this. Even worse case scenario—killer comes after someone the officer/sergeant loves because evidence was over looked.

All agencies handle these calls a little differently. Any law enforcement agency, however, will have buried somewhere in their policies and procedural manuals exactly how these calls should be handled. The problem lies in the fact that someone must  make the right judgment call. And humans make mistakes, particularly when policies and procedures read like the fine print in an insurance claim. Any smart patrol officer will always make sure these questionable decisions fall on a field supervisor’s broad shoulders.

Once at the scene, officers must proceed with caution. One cardinal rule on dead body calls is that no one—not even the Chief himself— disturbs the body until the corner responds or gives permission to move the body. I remember one death-by-hanging case in which the officer was crucified by the coroner, the field supervisor, and by investigators eventually called out to investigate.  This kind-hearted officer did not want family members to see their loved one—a young teenager— hanging by a rope in the garage. The officer reached up and cut the deceased down to make the scene more presentable. He never made that mistake again.

But what if the coroner isn’t coming out? The officer has given all the facts over the telephone to the coroner's office. The coroner's office—based upon the officer’s statement—authorizes the body to be moved to a funeral home. What if the officer overlooked something? A key element that might change the classification from “natural” to something more sinister.

Some of the most challenging cases are those general called  “unattended deaths.” As far as anyone knows, the person may have appeared to die alone by natural causes or expected terminal illnesses. Or did they?

For example, an elderly person dies while in a care facility. The attending physician or caregiver might make the pronouncement, sign a death certificate, and arrange for the body to be taken to a funeral home. Say a family member, distraught over the death and circumstances leading up to the death, calls the police regarding their suspicions.  Police would most likely investigate.

In these circumstances, the patrol officer walks in with a mindset that this is a natural death. Those with medical training  have signed off on it, people who should know something about how this person died. Just a formality. Right?  As seasoned mystery readers and writers, you might see where such a case could suddenly explode if each death is not closely studied.

Take for example the case of the Donald Harvey, dubbed the “Angel of Death,” currently serving four consecutive life sentences at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility for more that fifteen murders. He claims to have killed eighty-seven victims, but the officials estimate Harvey killed somewhere between thirty-six  to fifty-seven victims while acting as a caregiver in several hospitals during his seventeen-years killing spree. Not once did police suspect that Harvey might be the culprit, even when he was arrested for burglary in 1971 only two years after he began killing patients and began babbling incoherently about his murders. Finally, in 1987 a faint scent of almonds—the tell tale sign of cyanide—emitting from the decease's body finally led investigators to focus on Harvey.

This case is not isolated. There have been a disturbing number of caregivers who turned out to have killed their patients for any number of reasons over the years. Some, like Harvey, got away with many killings.

Everything hangs on the shoulder of the first responders to a death investigation. Detection begins with the first officer on the scene, or the field supervisor called to determine how this case should be handled. This is not an article on how to conduct death investigations. Rather, to focus on the critical role the first officer on the scene plays in these investigations. This officerwho initially stride onto the scene full of confidencebuckles under the stress when people he respects land on him with both feet because of stupid mistakes. Stress that writers can skillfully use as a tool to make everyone squirm.

So, writers, here is a situation that begs for conflict. Use one tidbit of evidence or one statement from a witness from that scene, and have a rookie cop walk in to investigate. Is he going to call in his grumpy sergeant or is he going to take it upon himself to make the right call and demonstrate to his superiors that he can handle these situations without anyone’s help. Did he tread on the only piece  of evidence that might give a clue that this case is murder? Or the sergeant—distracted by his third wife’s divorce attorney waiting back at the station—overlooks something that even the rookie would have caught.

How many ways do you want your characters to suffer? The possibilities are endless.


  1. Fascinating! How many murders are never solved (or never even labeled murders) because the victim appeared to have died from natural causes?

  2. I imagine only God know that number.

  3. And if your killer lives in a small community and knows the first responders, investigators, etc. then it might be easier to plan the "perfect" murder.

  4. You are on the right track, Carolyn. All the ingredients for a very intense crime novel. Happy Halloween.