Ever wonder how mystery and thriller writers come up with all those arcane bits of information they include so casually in their stories? I know I always did.
One of the sometimes fun, sometimes frustrating challenges of writing mysteries, thrillers and suspense novels is getting the details right.
Take, for example, an autopsy of the victim in my second Detective Mike McCabe thriller, The Chill of Night.
The book takes place in the middle of one of the coldest winters Portland, Maine has experienced in many a year. Night after night temperatures go down to single digits, sometimes even colder.
Since the killer stuffed the body of beautiful Portland attorney Lainie Goff into the trunk of her own BMW convertible and left it out in the bitter cold for more than a few days, Lainie is, naturally enough, frozen solid. Like a rock. “Think Butterball turkey,” says Terri Mirabito, my fictional medical examiner whose job it will be to defrost and autopsy the corpse.
I was pretty sure that doing an autopsy on a frozen corpse was going to present difficulties that would impact the flow of the story. But what difficulties? I needed expert help.
My first step was to Google “Autopsying a frozen corpse.” I discovered a professor of forensic pathology at a University Medical Center in South Carolina had written an article on exactly that subject. The article wasn’t available online but I was able to track down her email address and contact her. She sent me the article and agreed to become one of my “regular experts” on anything to do with the physiology of death.
It turns out you can’t just warm up a frozen body and proceed with the autopsy. It has to be defrosted slowly in a refrigeration unit at a steady thirty-eight degrees which can take up to week. Go any faster and the outside of the body will start to decompose while the inner organs are still frozen. Important evidence can be lost.
The effect on the story was that McCabe had to proceed with his investigation without the benefit of autopsy results. No way to estimate time of death. No way to check for DNA evidence of sexual assault. No way to check for the presence of drugs or poison in the body. All that made McCabe’s job more difficult. But it also made the story more accurate. And that, I think, is important.