· Immediately Engage the Reader ·
Discovery of a person’s body is a great way to begin a mystery or crime novel. This single event requires readers to use their imagination and ask so many questions.
Also, the resulting death investigation is naturally structured to periodically reveal answers to those questions. Who is the dead person? What was he or she doing at that location? How and why did the person die? Was the death natural, an accident, suicide, or a homicide?
Here’s a recent Kansas City Star newspaper article reported by The Associated Press. It could have been titled, “It’s a Mystery: Body Found in Railcar.” And, without a single alteration, the prose would make a first-rate introduction in a crime novel. What do you think?
· Police, FBI Investigating after Body Found in Railcar (Sept. 30, 2018) ·
Authorities in northeast Kansas are investigating the discovery of a body on a railcar in Bonner Springs.
The Kansas City Star reports the body was found early Friday morning. Officials say they don’t yet know the name, age or even the gender of the person.
Police say the railcar had been parked at the Bonner Springs location since Sept. 19. Before then, police say, the railcar had been in Illinois and southeastern Missouri.
A police spokeswoman says the body was discovered by workers uploading a car containing a dry cement mix. The FBI is helping in the investigation, and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation says its crime scene response team was dispatched to help police.
-The Associated Press (AP)
After reading the above article, I recognize the potential complexities in the investigation. Anytime you have a possible crime that could have been committed in any number of multiple jurisdictions, it’s not even close to being neat or tidy. After all, that’s why state and federal law enforcement agencies exist.
In the AP article the reader doesn’t know why officials haven’t identified the age or gender of the person. Has the person’s body been mutilated or is it badly decomposed? If so, then of course, it means the investigation will be more complex.
This doesn’t sound like a simple case where a body’s found and the person’s quickly identified from a photo ID in a nearby wallet, or the person explains their death with a detailed, signed suicide note left at the scene.
In this AP case, investigators would almost immediately contact the company involved with loading the railcar. Are all their employees who were present at the time it was loaded accounted for? If the company hires part-time workers or subcontracts the work, it’s easier to imagine a break-down in communication, but you’d think a missing person report, especially of an employee, would include searching the scene of last known contact—even if the site had moved hundreds of miles down the rails.
Sure, time and distance complicates an investigation.
There’s so much to like about the limited facts in the above article. My brain is bombarded with ideas to further this investigation.
The found body holds the clues to a positive identification. A forensic investigation is crucial to determining the cause of death. Unless a body is found in a tank of sulfuric acid, determining the estimated height and age of a person is pretty common. Count on it; there will be a lot more learned through scientific analysis.
Wouldn’t the gender of most adults be relatively easy to determine after a recent death? Can fingerprints be taken off this corpse? Are there tattoos? Usually dental records are extremely helpful in identifying a John or Jane Doe.
If I was investigating the death, I’d learn from the railroad company if the body was found in a locked or unlocked car. If it had been locked, there are often excellent records as to the time and date the door or hatch was secured. This could go a long way in helping eliminate various jurisdictions from being directly involved in any criminal offense.
I’d expect that representatives of the cement mix company would be helpful in determining which employees were present at the time the cement was loaded. Their assistance could lead to personal interviews with employees about the day in question.
The railroad line could also have an electronic record of the car’s movement on the rails.
Eventually, if no employee was missing and if there wasn’t immediate forensic identification, then we’d have to consider the unlikely possibility of a person accidentally entering the railway car.
Hoppers are railway cars that load from the top and often unload from the bottom, so why would someone voluntarily enter a car full of dry cement mix? It’s extremely unlikely.
However, if a person was traveling by rail illegally, then a hopper car might be appealing to someone escaping a storm or severe weather since dry bulk goods, like cement, require a compartment that protects the commodity from moisture.
It’s possible that this John Doe sought shelter on a hopper car and then died a natural or accidental death prior to the car being filled with dry cement. It’s also possible that the person was alive when the car was filled.
I searched online for deaths on railway cars. It revealed a fairly recent case where a thief was attempting to steal automobile parts from a railway car while it was attached to the train. The criminal was crushed to death by a parked vehicle that shifted while the train was moving.
After considering an accidental or natural death of the person in the death investigation, there are two possibilities remaining: suicide and homicide. If it was a murder then another person, probably the perpetrator, disposed of the body. Was this person familiar with the workings of the railroad? I’m guessing so.
If a murderer was going to dispose of a body on a railway car, I’m inclined to think it was a crime committed in the vicinity and by someone familiar with the railroad turf. This could also point towards a murder that was not premeditated.
If I was writing a novel, on the first page I’d use the newspaper clipping word-for-word. Then it would be fun to decide why the deceased person was on the railway car. I’d share with the reader the details of the investigation prior to the autopsy, and eventually I’d reveal the cause of death.
The death of this person who was discovered on the railway car would be crucial to the plot of the book. Why did this person die? His or her death would only be the beginning of a fictional world with many threads that would be woven together to make a fascinating crime novel!
How would you continue the suspense?
Until next time, happy writing and reading!
You hooked me, Jim! How long before I get to read how this mystery is solved?
Jim Potter says
Thanks! Unfortunately, you’ll need to read the Kansas City Star to find out what happens next. I’m not writing the crime novel but it’s fun to play with the plot.
Why do I imagine that your version would be a more satisfying read? Looking forward to whatever you write next.
When I was in the police academy we were presented with a mystery murder and asked to solve it. None of us rookies could. When we asked our instructors for the answer, they said they hadn’t figured it out either. Lol.
Jim Potter says
Thanks for the feedback. Sometimes process is the purpose.
Absolutely. And in this case, hope they’d get that cold case solved by new eyes and mind set.
I think cold cases are fascinating, but I do love the idea of taking the end, a person lying dead, and writing a story about it. Great prompt!
It sounds to me like you already have another novel floating around in your head trying to gain traction. That was fun – thanks.
Jim Potter says
Thanks! It won’t be my novel, just playing with a plot. A fun brain exercise. Yeah, more proof I’m weird.
Weird is fun.
Fascinating! A great setup for a murder mystery. There are so many possibilities. I’d make it look like an accident, but slip one small clue in there of foul play. Then let the fun begin!
Jim Potter says
Bill, I think us talking about your Sci-Fi novel-in-progress must have improved my imagination. I like your idea of a murder made to look like an accident. Thanks, Jim
I agree, that a writer must draw the reader’s attention as soon as possible. This also applies to poems. Either with the title, look or first line. In some ways getting the reader’s attention is somewhat harder as a poet. But, I am a little biased. People may give a novelist a little more time, before giving up on a book.
Jim Potter says
Don’t know how you keep coming up with new ideas for blogs. Kudos.
Jim Potter says
Thanks, Sean. One reason is that I don’t limit my blogs to one narrow topic. I thought about having the blogs be limited to tips on writing, but I’m interested in doing other things like historical research, book reviews, and interviews. So, I decided that I’d include tips on writing and examples of writing, especially memoir/personal essays. Next week’s blog will be on historical research and sharing another one of my favorite “Reward” postcards. Jim