Sunday, February 14, 2010


As a girl, I steadily read my way through all the “Golden Age” classics—admittedly mostly British— and always paid strict attention to alibis and weapons. Indeed, if Miss Scarlett said she left on the 10:42 train and the murder had been committed at 10:56, then it was clear she could not have been the killer. UNLESS someone pointed out that a there was a sliver of glass under the hands of the victim’s smashed watch, indicating that the hands had been moved after it was smashed, in which case Miss Scarlett, the only one with an unimpeachable to-the-minute alibi, was most certainly the killer.

And if a gunshot was heard from inside a locked room, I soon learned that this was not the shot that actually killed Professor Plum, but that the trigger was rigged with threads that burned through with a candle flame.

Was Miss White typing steadily that whole hour while her titled employer was being strangled? Or had she put on a recording of someone typing while she did the dirty deed herself?

Now that I’m writing mysteries myself, I sometimes yearn for those more credulous days. More impossible than any locked room are trains that run on time to the minute. Not to mention authoritative officials who could state several hours later that the victim died at precisely 10:56, give or take a minute or two. How much experimenting did it take to time how long it took for the candle to burn down and release the thread that released the trigger? Surely someone would have noticed all those preparatory shots?

And where did Miss White get a long-playing record in the Thirties when 78s played no more than 3 or 4 minutes at the most, with no automatic changers?

But it’s taken me all these years to question a method of murder used more than once in the “Golden Age.”

Police Inspector: “We found him lying in front of the blazing hearth, Mr. Clever Detective. He was most certainly stabbed by a large knife, but we’ve searched the house from top to bottom and all the inhabitants and there’s no bloody knife to be found.”

Mr. Clever Detective: “Ah, but did you notice how wet his shirt was? That wasn’t just blood, Inspector. He was stabbed with an icicle.”

Police Inspector: “Well, I’ll be demmed!”

Me, too, at the age of 13. But this week, I found myself looking at an unaccustomed row of icicles hanging from our roofline. I broke off one of the thickest and sharpest. It was so brittle that I doubt if I could have stabbed a loaf of Wonder Bread with it, much less pierce a man’s shirt and skin and reach his heart.

Remember when one of Dorothy Sayers’ killers rendered someone unconscious and then used a hypodermic needle to insert an air bubble into the victim’s vein, thereby supposedly creating an embolism that stopped the heart? I was so disappointed to read years later that this would not have caused death. Almost as disappointing was to realize that if you came at someone with an icicle, you might annoy him, but you certainly wouldn’t kill him. (Sigh.)

Blog Archive