In a prior blog I mentioned that good writers need to read books in their genre to get a feel for the process and see how successful authors handled it. When writing mysteries, reading isn’t just about mystery books. I happen to like many different non-fiction genres, including history, biographies, science, and general interest. I am usually reading three or four books at the same time and take notes of interesting facts I come across. Those facts sometimes lead to interesting situations or clues.
When I was writing the latest Spencer book, Death’s Door, I was reading A Fly For the Prosecution by M. Lee Goff, which is concerned with how insect evidence helps solve crimes, and I was thinking about how Spencer would catch the killer. Spoiler alert: the following will discuss the ending of Death’s Door.
The science of forensic entomology was just beginning in the mid 1980s, which is also the time period of Death’s Door. Lee Goff was a professor of entomology at the University of Hawaii and a consultant to the medical examiner for the city of Honolulu. Through many experiments, mostly involving pig carcasses, he discovered that different insects arrive at dead bodies at different times. He also studied the time it takes for insects to develop from larvae.
Flies can arrive at a body within ten minutes. They lay eggs and maggots emerge within a day and feed on the carcass. They attract predators such as ants and wasps and beetles. It’s a lot more complicated than that (other environmental factors such as ambient temperature and moisture figure in), but simply looking at the insect activity can point to the time of death. The maturity of the maggots also provides clues.
In Death’s Door, Rosie accuses Spencer of being fixated on Detective Dunsley’s pant cuffs. Spencer is not a fan of cuffs. That was sparked by a true story from Goff’s book. I try to include period events and facts from the ‘80s, so many things that take place in my books are historically accurate as far as the time period. Death’s Door takes place in 1985, and I discovered that pant cuffs had made a fashion comeback in… 1985. Serendipity! Dunsley’s cuffs play a part in the story.
Goff tells the story of a true case from Texas. A woman was found with the mangled remains of a grasshopper caught in her clothing. No one paid attention to the grasshopper, but the parts were collected as evidence. One part of the grasshopper was missing… the left hind leg. The police brought in several suspects for questioning. One of the suspects was wearing pants with cuffs, and someone suggested that his cuffs be inspected. A grasshopper leg was found in the cuff, and the fracture marks matched the grasshopper. Despite the defense attorney’s assertion that “grasshoppers always break their legs like that,” the man was convicted of murder.
The moral of the story: be careful what fashion choices you make!