Those Pesky Dead Bodies

This last weekend I attended the Writers’ Police Academy. It was awesome. It had an impressive list of classes and an equally impressive array of instructors. My first class included walking through the house used to teach cadets how to navigate through billowing smoke. There was no smoke but the smell remained and it was dark. Very dark. My respect for firemen rose about 100%. We learned how to shake down a cell for contraband—it turns out prisoners can be very creative—then how a police dog is trained. After working, she lay at her handlers’ feet, contentedly letting us all pet her while she bit a rubber chew toy instead of an arm.

We watched EMTs roar up and save a gunshot victim’s life. They made the scene was so real that for a moment I thought the victim had actually been shot. We learned about blood spatter patterns and how hard it is to get rid of blood from a murder scene. They even dug a shallow grave in a grove of trees, filled with an obliging dummy and lots of bugs and bad smells. We had a vivid lecture on how hard it is to dispose of a dead body and why cemeteries don’t use shallow graves.

Every mystery/thriller writer knows that the body is always a problem. You can leave it in plain sight, in the dining room where someone is sure to find it quickly, or you can hide it in the woods, where it may take a while before it’s found. That’s where the information we gleaned from this class comes in handy. Most murderers use a shallow grave because they don’t want to put in the hours, or work, it takes to dig a deeper one. After all, the longer you are out there digging, the better the chance someone may notice. However, they also want the evidence to disappear. A totally decayed body is much harder to identify, or so most folks think. But, the decaying process is messy, smelly and takes a while. Ergo, lime.I perked up when he mentioned that, as I’d had some personal experience with it.

Years ago, lime was used a lot in mysteries. So when a neighbor came over one day and complained that a mouse had managed to wedge itself behind her wall board and die, and that the smell was about to drive them into a motel, I suggested pouring lime down the wall. Worked beautifully on corpses in the mysteries I’d read. The only way to do it was to remove the light switch plate and pour a large quantity down the opening so that we’d have a better chance of covering the body. We got rid of the mouse and the smell all right, but we also took out all of the wiring on that wall of the house. I knew what lime did to mice and wires, and was interested in what it might do to bodies. Turns out it’s not nearly as effective, or as quick as it was with the mouse. It is effective at keeping the noxious odors from seeping up to give away the location of the body, but burying it wrapped in heavy plastic is better. It’s bugs and worms that assist in the decaying of a body. If it’s wrapped in plastic, they can’t get to it. However, you’d better bring a piece of plywood to put over the body because all that loose dirt is going to settle. A dead giveaway that something is buried there.

Interesting as all of this has been, I think I’ve given up on shallow graves. After all, I write cozies. It somehow seems more fitting, and a lot tidier, to stick with Miss Scarlet with the pistol in the study.