Detectives on TV have great jobs. They swoop into a crime scene after it’s been secured, and the Crime Scene Techs take care of all the evidence collection and any photography needed. The Patrol Officers take the statements and canvas the neighborhoods. All the stars of the shows need to do is solve the crime using their brains and years of experience in assessing homicides just like the one in front of them. You’re pretty bright and always solve the imaginary mystery ahead of the TV cops, so you could do that, right?
Be careful what you wish for, because not every town has special people assigned to be detectives and you may have to move to the big city in order to realize your dream.
In smaller towns, the police departments are too small (think “Jessie Stone” on TV) to have fancy labs, and the crime scene tech may be the same guy that answers the phones at headquarters. Any detecting is most likely done by the police officers themselves.
The sometime ‘detectives’ in smaller jurisdictions don’t have as many murder cases to work as in the big cities, so their time may be spent catching speeding motorists, or figuring out who broke into the liquor store after hours or how the Fitzer barn happened to burn down. There may be robberies, burglaries, domestic abuse, runaways, assault, and potential arson cases to resolve, and if there is more than one case at a time that comes into the local office, the investigations may be handed off to the county or state law enforcement agencies. In big cities, however, the need for detectives may be serious enough to create divisions that specialize in robbery or homicide or arson or cybercrime or gang activity.
The reality is that being a detective of any kind may be fascinating work, but Homicide Detectives have long hours (rarely 9 to 5) and are awakened in the middle of the night when a body is discovered. The investigation must be conducted while the leads are hot. If the killer isn’t caught within the first few days, the trail gets cold and the case gets tougher to solve. Sometimes, because there is not enough local manpower available or even a lab to process evidence, cases that require forensic analysis are handed over to county or state agencies.
What does it take to be a detective?
Training/Education – larger cities and/or state and federal agencies, or private corporations, require criminal justice degrees for investigator/detective spots. If you’d like to investigate insurance fraud, art forgery/theft, or mail fraud, additional specific training will be expected.
A candidate for the position of Homicide Detective would most likely start out as a patrol officer, having gone through the Police Academy first. Some cities require criminal justice degrees, or four-year college degrees in order to advance, so patrol officers interested in shifting the focus of their careers, may have to attend college in off hours. In smaller departments, detectives are sometimes chosen because of a special aptitude for spotting crime scene details. Some departments require candidates to pass special written/oral tests. At this point, there is no national standard for either minimum educational requirements, or training, to be a Homicide Detective.
Skills – Homicide Detectives must be able to organize information, work for long hours, be physically fit, be emotionally able to deal with the terrible things they will see, and have a strong stomach. He/she can’t be bothered by blood, or body parts scattered around. In order to be effective, they must be able to interrogate witnesses without having them clam up. They should be able to ask questions that require other than yes and no answers. Immediately after a crime has occurred, the detectives must be able to discover the facts, sort out the details, determine the oddities of a case, and deal with grieving widows and relatives and neighbors.
Not really interested in murders, but want to solve those sexy art fraud and insurance fraud cases? Cybercrime sounds cool to you?
In that case, you need:
Pretty much what a Homicide Detective needs, but without dealing with the blood.
Like digging through seemingly unrelated facts in order to come up with the ‘who, what, where and how’ of a crime? Then a ‘why’ so that motive can be established?
Maybe you could be detective. 🙂
Sheila is a big mystery buff and last weekend had a chance to attend an event in honor of Agatha Christie. Dame Christie’s crime fiction has been more widely read than any literary work in history, except for the Bible and Shakespeare. Pretty good resume.
One of the facts that Sheila came home bubbling about was that lots of Christie’s books featured poison as the weapon of choice. So, she asked me to find out how common those poisons were during the time that Christie was writing in the mid 1900s.
The answer? Agatha Christie used both common and unusual poisons in her books, some readily available in the garden shed, some found under the kitchen sink and others found only in pharmacies. She had been a real-life nurse during WW1 and had lots of chances to learn about, as well as use, many drugs – some of which could have been poisonous if mixed incorrectly or administered in too high a dose. In Christie’s 66 novels, she killed off over thirty unsuspecting characters with poison, some of which are described below. Her choices were based on what she needed to happen in the plot; did the killer have time to get away or did the storyline require a slow, unsuspicious death?
Arsenic – arsenic is a tasteless, odorless powder that dissolves nicely in hot liquids like tea or coffee. The victim doesn’t die right away, so the ‘nice neighbor’ can serve tea with cookies or muffins, then get away with murder when the victim dies hours later at home with a high enough dose. I’ve been told that it’s not a pleasant way to go, involving painful tingling in the hands and feet, kidney failure, abdominal cramping, arrhythmia, etc. Arsenic was used in “4.50 from Paddington.”
Belladonna – belladonna is a nightshade plant, with both the berries and leaves being really toxic. It was used in “The Caribbean Mystery.” Victims might have rapid heartbeat, blurry vision, and hallucinations, but can be saved by using an antidote.
Cyanide – created most famously from the seeds of almonds or cherries, cyanide poisoning is a rapid way to get rid of a victim – dead in just minutes with the right concentrated dose. The person’s breath is reputed to smell like almonds and the skin is tinged with pink after death. Cyanide was the poison of choice in “And Then There Were None,” and several other Christie books.
Morphine – used as a painkiller in normal circumstances, morphine can be deadly if administered incorrectly – and Christie used that fact effectively in a pot of tea in “Sad Cypress.” A great twist in the storyline diverts attention away from the murderer while he ‘does the deed.’
Strychnine – it only takes two to three hours to die from strychnine poisoning and it’s not a nice way to croak. Muscle contractions start and spread, increasing in intensity, until the victim has respiratory failure. Christie chose this method for her first novel, “Affair at Styles.”
While poisons may be a fascinating way to kill somebody on the page, in fact, it’s not used that often in real life. And unlike blunt force trauma as a cause of death, the use of poison is not always obvious at the crime scene. Autopsies have to be performed to discover what happened, with special tox screens needed to pinpoint any poison used.
According to the FBI stats on murder victims in the USA as of 2011, over 8,000 people died because of firearms, and only 5 (five) because of a deadly dose of poison. If you include narcotics in that number, the victims increase to 34.
But, it certainly makes the poisoner that gets caught, unlikely to get a reduced sentence. I doubt that a lawyer could explain away arsenic in the tea.
*Photo by Patti Phillips
FBI data from:
I’ve said it before and it’s still true: Kerrian’s Notebook followers are a great bunch. A few of the readers mentioned that some of the posts in 2014 were ‘ripped from the headlines.’ Truth is often stranger than fiction, so while Kerrian is a fictional character, the posts are based in solid fact. As I say in my upcoming novel, “Murder is messy,” and it’s sometimes just plain weird. But, even a Homicide Detective cooks, goes on an occasional trip, and works with other law enforcement officers, so the fan faves were an interesting mix.
Below is the list of the most frequently read new posts on Kerrian’s Notebook in 2014.
Click on each title to take you to that page. 🙂
10. “How many bodies at the yard sale?” (p.122) – Based on a visit to the 2014 Writers’ Police Academy.
9. “Death by Elevator” (p.105) – Based on my real-life experience in April, 2014.
8. “50 More Ways to Die an Unnatural Death” (p.111) – The #1 vote getter was so popular that I wrote another list and it made the top 10 as well. 🙂
7. “Cemetery at the Golf Course” (p.116) – Yup, this one is true.
6. “Officer needs assistance!” (p.117) Photos taken at the re-enactment of a high-risk stop.
5. “75 Second Mookies” (p.126) – Created, taste tested and eaten by us. 🙂
4. “Chocolaty Chocolate Banana Muffins” (p.96) – Created, taste tested and eaten by us 🙂
3. “What does a firefighter wear?” (p.119) Info about uniforms and videos of heat resistance testing. Photos taken during the 2014 Writers’ Police Academy.
2. “What does a sheriff do?” (p.115) tells the difference between a Sheriff and a Police Chief, as explained to me by an active duty Chief.
…and the most frequently read new post on www.kerriansnotebook.com in 2014 was:
1. “100 Ways to Die an Unnatural Death” (p.100) Written in honor of the 100th Kerrian’s Notebook post. There were LOTS of writers that checked out the two unnatural death lists, used some of the ideas in their own writing and even contributed suggestions. Readers sent me some wickedly funny emails and some of those ideas are in #8!
Thanks to all of you, readership almost doubled in 2014. It was a phenomenal year!
Here’s to a great 2015, with fewer real-life homicides, more crimes solved and always, more amazing mysteries/suspense/thrillers to read.
*Photos by Patti Phillips