Saturday, 27 September 2014

Murder Most Ineffective

Ten minutes later I knocked on the door of his stateroom.... He lay dead, sprawled face-downwards on the floor, and a dark patch of blood oozed up through his dinner-jacket, round the knife that was buried up to the hilt in his back. (Dennis Wheatley, 1939, The Quest of Julian Day)
    The evening after I read those words, I watched a TV program in which a person was killed - instantly - with an arrow in the back, apparently in the lower part of his ribcage, in the middle of a crowded park.
    This is typical. Writers of novels and films deal in violence with which, fortunately, they have no practical experience. What makes them think you can kill a man so quickly using such methods?
    Warning! Anatomical descriptions coming up.
    A man who fought in the trenches of World War I and later amputated another man's forearm with a hunting knife in the Amazon once said that, in his experience, the average healthy person dies hard. With this in mind, let me explain: the only way to be sure of killing a person instantaneously is with a direct shot or stab to the heart. A direct shot to the head will also usually do the trick, but it's amazing how many have survived even that. Anything else, and the victim will likely survive for a few minutes, a few hours, a few days, or not even die at all. This is certainly not in the best interests of the murderer - especially not one who commits the crime in a relatively crowded area where discovery of the crime is immanent, as is commonly the case in fiction.
     In the above case, when a man is stabbed in the back, the knife must pass through a layer of muscle and between the ribs before entering the body cavity. Once there, it will most likely cut into a lung, causing internal bleeding. If the knife is removed (in a lot of fiction it is not - see the above quotation) and the wound large, air will enter, reducing the pressure inside and causing a partial collapse of the lungs, with difficulty in breathing - a condition known as pneumothorax. Both processes are serious, but not necessarily fatal. Indeed, I once asked a medical friend: "If you slipped a knife between a person's ribs from the rear, how long would he take to die?" "He probably wouldn't," was the reply.
     Well, then, would stabbing from the front be more successful? Yes, if the knife pierced the heart (which is protected by the sternum as well as the ribs). Otherwise, it's the same thing: internal bleeding and a pneumothorax.
      You note that I said, "slipped a knife between a person's ribs". A trained knife fighter (for instance, in the military) knows that the proper way to hold a knife is the same as for holding a sword: the hilt in front of the thumb and forefinger, and the blade pointing forward, and preferably horizontally. In the novel just cited, the following paragraph referred to "the big knife that stuck out between Sir Walter Shane's shoulder-blades." How many times have you seen something like that in the movies? It implies the victim was stabbed with the blade pointing downwards. That is the way people intuitively expect to handle a knife until taught otherwise. It is a good way to ensure that the weapon is turned away by a bone - a rib, vertebra, or even a shoulder blade.
     Fiction often depicts knives thrown at a victim. Now, perhaps my extensive reading has been defective in this regard, but I don't think I have ever heard of a murder even being attempted, let alone succeeding, in such a manner in real life. This would be an even better way to ensure the blockage of the attack by a bone. Even if it were aimed properly, the knife would strike with much less force than if wielded by hand. Indeed, it would most likely spin in flight, and not strike point-first, because the average knife is not balanced for throwing. Special throwing knives do exist, and knife throwing is a competitive sport, but why would any assassin train for such a method when there are much better ways available?
     Also, don't be fooled by those circus acts in which a showman throws a series of knives at a woman, making sure that they all strike a few inches from her. In most cases, sleight of hand is involved. The showman palms each knife, and identical knives are set to spring out in the correct positions.
     Now that we have debunked the old stab-in-the-back scenario, here are a few other pointers.
  • A bullet will cause much more damage than a knife - especially the typical non-military rounds which burst on impact. All other things being equal, a person will be more likely to die, and die faster, from a gun shot wound than from a stab. Just the same, if you don't want your victim to survive to gasp out your name to the first person on the scene of the crime, then aim for the heart, not just the chest.
  • The old grab-her-from-behind-and-cover-her-mouth-with-a-cloth-soaked-in-chloroform trick doesn't work - at least not with adults. They've done experiments with it. No matter how strong the assailant might be, it is not possible for a single person to immobilise a wriggling victim long enough for the chloroform to work.
  • If you hit a person over the head with a chair, the chair won't break - although his skull might. Likewise, if he is thrown with force against a balustrade, it won't break. What's more, the movie makers know that, because they always use the weakest type of plywood for the shot.
  • Similarly, when a person jumps, falls, or is thrown through a pane of glass, the first part of his body to strike breaks open a small hole with jagged edges, a hole which is immediately enlarged as the rest of the body follows. The result will inevitably be horrible lacerations from the said jagged edges. Again, the movie makers know this, because they never use real glass.
  • I watched a movie in which a body was removed from a river or lake after having been there for a couple of days, and it looked just like what it was: a live actor soaked in water. I have also had the unpleasant experience of identifying a companion who had drowned just a few hours before. Let me tell you: death by drowning changes a man. The skin becomes the colour of wax. The hair seems unnaturally pale, the body cold and immobile. I had to gaze thoroughly at him in order to recognize him.
     The human body is both extremely resilient and extremely fragile, depending on the luck of the draw. We are constantly reading about people who had found to have had nails, or something similar, embedded in their heads without obvious ill effects. There is a case of a man surviving a bullet in the head, because it entered through his forehead and exited the other side, in the meantime, passing neatly between the two halves of his brain. On the other hand, a splinter in the finger can lead to septicaemia and death. In Australia we now have a campaign slogan, "One punch can kill", as a result of people being killed by a single punch or, to be more precise, by their heads hitting the pavement after a single punch. But if you wanted to kill a person that way, the chances are you wouldn't even knock him out.
     So there you have it. I hope I haven't ruined your appreciation of books and movies too much by this post. And I certainly hope I haven't provided any of you with useful tips on how to commit murder. But, in case any reader is considering such a crime, I have better issue this disclaimer:
     Don't do it! It's wrong. It's also dangerous. Not only will you be a Very Bad Person, but you'll also be caught. You'll never be able to gather together all the loose ends involved in the crime. Indeed, the more you try to cover every eventuality, the more detailed your plan must become, and the more things there are to go wrong. Unsolved murders are very much the exception to the rule, and when they occur, they probably owe more to the culprit's good luck than good planning.
     Nevertheless, if you are absolutely, definitely determined to bump somebody off, then -
  • Don't do it in the middle of a crowded mansion, park, or ship, like the murderers of fiction do; and
  • Don't assume your victim is really dead until you see his corpse in front of you - and you drive a stake through his heart.