How To Kill Someone With Small Change

by Zoë Sharp

I suppose, first of all, I need to start with an apology. I’ve been singularly absent from the comments section to posts on this blog since … well, since my last post, to be honest.

Summer is the silly season as far as the day-job goes. Not that it seems to rain less, exactly, in the British summer for location photoshoots, but the rain’s certainly warmer. And the last month or so, what with the run-up to the CWA Dagger Awards and trying to plunge into the new Charlie Fox book, well. Let’s just say things have been a little hectic. Spending six days out of seven on the road does not make for a good ‘Rati member, I freely admit. So, apologies again, and I’ll try harder. In fact, when JT originally asked me for a title for my blog, I so very nearly used Must Try Harder instead of Changing Feet. Sometimes it would have been very appropriate. Whenever I do get the chance to catch up, I find you’ve all been having superb posts that I really would have liked to take part in.

Anyway, my last bout of rushing around the country took in the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate . Not quite the glamorous location of NYC for the recent ThrillerFest, but Harrogate still has a fine traditional connection with crime writing. When Agatha Christie did her famous eleven-day disappearing act in 1926, it was in the Harrogate Hydro Hotel she was eventually found.

The crime writing part of the Festival has been going since 2003, rapidly establishing itself as one of the biggest and best. I don’t say that lightly, or to belittle any other events. Everything that promotes crime and thriller fiction is welcome, I feel, but Harrogate is pretty unique for several reasons. The line-up is the first thing. Robert Crais, Jeffery Deaver, Andy McNab, Peter Robinson, Laura Wilson, Simon Kernick and, of course, our own Tess Gerritsen, to name but a few. You have to be invited to take part, are paid a small fee for the privilege, and only one panel track runs throughout the four-day event. Hence the fact that there can often be more than 400 people in the audience for each panel. Which would be quite a scary prospect were it not like being on a theatre stage, where the lighting means you can’t see past the first few rows.

My own bit was part of Creative Thursday, which is aimed at budding crime writers rather than those already established. I seem to be acquiring quite a reputation of sorts, because I was asked to deliver a workshop on How To Kill Someone With Small Change. For this I went trawling through my lists of ordinary objects that could be used to great damage and effect, and came up with things like hairspray, a flashlight and a table fork, which we bent into a knuckle-duster of sorts. So many people subsequently asked to see this that I ended up carrying it around in my handbag for most of the weekend, hoping I wouldn’t undergo a stop and search by the police while walking back to my hotel in the early hours. Indeed, Meg Gardiner saw a police chase and arrest from her hotel bedroom window.

Mind you, one particular writer got picked up by the police himself trying to return to his hotel in a somewhat ‘tired and emotional’ state. He thought they were being friendly and helpful when he blundered into the wrong building, but apparently they thought he was a burglar.

As is always the way, when you get a bunch of writers together the drink flows. Last year, the hotel turned over one of the bars to a wedding party, but I’m told their entire evening’s spend did not equal an hour of author drinking, so both bars were firmly available to the crime writers this year.

Sadly, there was no repeat of the chimpanzee impersonations by literary agent, Phil Patterson, regardless of encouragement by the rest of us. People kept greeting him as Agent Phil, which made him sound like some shady fed. I expected him to flash a government ID at any moment – "Agent Phil: Hominoid Division."

The hotel management could have run a book on how late the authors stayed in the bar. This Kevin Wignall would undoubtedly have won. On Saturday night he didn’t leave until 5:50 AM, only resurfacing just before lunchtime on Sunday, wearing dark glasses and a slightly delicate smile.

Of course, there was some serious business done, too, and the additional number of European publishers present was noticeable this time around, all a sign of how the festival is growing in stature.

Many happy returns to Lizzie Hayes of Mystery Women, whom we helped celebrate her birthday, along with her friend Sue, and Adrian and Ann Magson, in the Drum and Monkey. And no, Agent Phil wasn’t there …

I think one of the highlights must have been Stuart MacBride channelling the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe in the Balloon Game on Friday night, where a bunch of modern crime writers defended their predecessors in a hypothetical sinking hot-air balloon. The audience got to choose who stayed and who was thrown over the side in defence of the others. Despite a downright creepy performance by Stuart as Poe – complete with a raven glove puppet made from a sock – clean, we hope – in the end it came down to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle versus Dame Agatha Christie, as represented by Mark Billingham and Val McDermid with, somewhat bizarrely, a bag perched on her head.

The usual mass quiz on Saturday night was fun, although treated with deadly seriousness by some of those taking part. This year I was stunned to discover that one of the questions was about my books – trying to put the early ones in the right order. I knew writing FIRST DROP as book four would come in confusingly useful one day! Congratulations to my fellow team members, Martin Edwards, Meg Gardiner, Rhian Davies from It’s A Mystery and Karen Meek and Maxine Clarke from Eurocrime, all of whom knew far more than I did.

I was even asked to join a discussion on the BBC Radio 4 arts programme, Front Row, along with Chelsea Cain, Simon Kernick, and Mr MacBride. The programme, all about the highlights of Harrogate, was broadcast in the UK on Wednesday evening, but you can Listen Again Again on the ‘Tinterweb for the next week, if you feel so inclined. I also recorded an interview with the delightful Sarah Walters of the Yorkshire Post for their OutLoud online series.

One of the most interesting surprises was the new book-related board came – Bookchase – designed by Tony Davis. I’d love to tell you how it all works, but I haven’t got hold of a copy yet. Still, it was launched at the Hay Festival last year and it looks fascinating. Tony promises that a crime and thriller edition might well be on its way!

I’m sure there’s lots I’ve forgotten, but it will come back to me. Meanwhile, I offered a small prize to the best suggestion from my workshop class of use of an improvised weapon, or (very) short scene containing one. The deadline for that has already passed, but if anyone wants to suggest something, I happen to have another prize. A copy of the ingenious TELL AN OUTRAGEOUS LIE – 188 Legal Stimulants Designed to Get Your Creative Juices Flowing – by Mandy Wheeler and James de Ville.

Oh, and if anyone’s interested, I will be delivering an evening lecture at Lancaster University as part of their summer programme of events – 8:30 PM on Tuesday, August 5th.

This week’s Word of the Week has to be hominoid, an animal of the family Hominoidea, comprising man and the modern apes and their extinct ancestors.

42 thoughts on “How To Kill Someone With Small Change

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Great report, Z! Really hope I’ll be able to go next year.

    This made me laugh out loud and a lot:

    “Sadly, there was no repeat of the chimpanzee impersonations by literary agent, Phil Patterson, regardless of encouragement by the rest of us. People kept greeting him as Agent Phil, which made him sound like some shady fed. I expected him to flash a government ID at any moment – “Agent Phil: Hominoid Division.” “

  2. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Harrogate really is a great event, although I wonder if Phil will still be talking to me next year.

    Mind you, last year he nearly crashed through a plate-glass coffee table, having just cleared Nick Stone in a single bound …

    Just a quick question, though. What time did you post your comment? I thought you were on the West Coast – is it not horribly early out there? Or have you just been working very very late?

  3. K. Prescott

    Hmm, improvised weapons. The mind immediately jumps toward dental floss used as a garotte. Which I suppose says quite a lot about the state of my mind. Of course, it would help to know if we’re talking weapons to kill, or just injure, premeditated murder or a desperation grab at a means of defense.

    A pressurized can (hairspray, bug killer, etc) rigged in a chimney to drop into a fireplace. Ooooh, boom!

    There are quite a lot of poisonous house and garden plants, but I don’t think that’s what you had in mind.

    Good old bleach and ammonia make a nice cloud of chlorine gas….

    Heh, this is fun.

    I know from experience a testy cat is a not inconsiderable weapon, but probably not a deadly one.

    Knitting needles! Plenty long enough to reach vital organs if a little blunt. You can special order ones with sharper points, though, because some people prefer them. Also circular needles might work as a garotte, depending on how well they’re made.

    A seam ripper or scissors could do damage. X-Acto knife.

    The acid used to etch glass is quite strong. I don’t know if it could kill, but I’m certain you could blind someone. Kits are available in most craft stores.

    You know, I’m now starting to look at Hobby Lobby and Michaels in a whole new way…

    Antifreeze secreted in a sweet drink was used recently in reality, I believe.

    The problem with household items is that as weapons, they’re not quite as reliable as the old standard firearm or knife.

  4. K. Prescott

    Forgot to add… there’s been a spate recently of “detergent suicides” in Japan which has been causing problems because of the danger of fumes to bystanders and first responders. Apparantly some types of household chemicals can be mixed to produce Hydrogen Sulfide gas. Googling the terms detergent, suicide, and japan can bring up a number of informative news items.

    This has a potential as a weapon of premeditation.

  5. R.J. Mangahas

    Sounds like it was a good time Zoe. Your panel sounded like it was rather interesting.

    I wouldn’t have tossed Poe. After all, many consider him the father of the modern detective novel.

    Speaking of killing someone with a small object, a cord of a mouse would work all right I suppose, or maybe a pair of scissors. Not creative I know, but effective enough.

  6. Phil Patterson

    Hello, Zoe and good to see you again.

    Mr Wignall alerted me to this post (whilst using the search terms `Harrogate’ `late night’ `me’ `booze’, `bleary-eyed’)

    I had been in Harrogate 10 minutes and already half a dozen people had asked to see me `Do the Greystoke’ and make a berk of myself.

    Did Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall have this following them around for the rest of their careers? McDowall was a fine Shakespearean actor, but no, he’ll forever be Cornelius in `Planet of the Apes’.

    The final straw was being name-checked by Val McDermid in her panel and the dread thought of having to monkey around on stage in front of hundreds of people, with not even an organ grinder in sight.

    Next year, I will be keeping a low profile, and only peeling bananas with my feet.



  7. Louise Ure

    Hoo-whee! Harrogate sounds like fun. (And Phil, you’ve barely redeemed yourself here. Peeling bananas with your feet?)

    We missed you Zoë. Welcome back.

  8. JT Ellison

    I have always heard such amazing stories about Harrogate — That’s one in particular that I would drop most anything to attend. Glad you had fun, and Z, don’t worry about the comments. We all go in spurts where we disappear. You have been missed though. It’s good to see you back.

  9. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Zoe,What a wonderful report. Thank you for sharing the Festival with us.

    Around the house?I must be in a stabby sort of mood: letter openers, ice pics, screwdrivers, long flat-topped nails (the metal variety), chopsticks. Bludgeoning with several small statues, lamps, various Caphalon pans.

    Not very original at the moment, but all would work quite nicely.

    With children, you find that most things — no matter how innocent — can become harmful in an instant.

    Same’s true for adults:

    My husband nearly landed himself in the hospital earlier this week by banging the top of his head against a high open cabinet that happened to have a screw sticking part way out; he opened quite a tear in his scalp and we thought he was concussed as well.

  10. JDRhoades

    A guitar string and two pairs of pliers makes a dandy garrote. Get one of the lower ones (D, A, or E) made of silver wrapped silk and you can use them on vampires.

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi K

    “I know from experience a testy cat is a not inconsiderable weapon, but probably not a deadly one.”

    What a wonderful picture you paint with that! And:

    “Antifreeze secreted in a sweet drink was used recently in reality, I believe.”

    Yes, ethylene glycol – which is a major ingredient in antifreeze – was a favoured method of getting rid of troublesome elderly relatives at one point, and it’s still a common factor in the deaths of homeless alcoholics. Unfortunately, however, ethylene glycol produces oxalate crystals to be deposited in the kidneys, which any pathologist worth his salt should discover during the post mortem exam.

    So, sorry, I think they might catch you – er, I mean, your fictional villain, of course ;-]

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi RJ

    Stuart MacBride made the point wonderfully in Poe’s favour, and there was a certain faction of us at the back shouting “Poe No Go For Launch!”, much good that it did him …

    But, when it comes to being the father of the modern detective story, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (as channelled so ably by Mark Billingham) made the somewhat forceful point, “It was a MONKEY!”

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Phil

    “Peeling bananas with my feet”

    You see, you just can’t help yourself, can you? I fear this one will run and run. But you know it’s a sign of the affection in which you’re held, don’t you?

    Apparently it annoyed the heck out of the late Sir Alec Guinness that people ignored his entire body of work in favour of constantly sidling up to him with the words, “These are not the droids you’re looking for …”

    You’re only realistic course of action is to get it out of the way on the first night, I feel. But can you make sure I’m there next time?

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Oh, K, forgot to respond to your second comment about household chemicals. I do have reams of info on that, but I try and shy away from getting too specific. Mind you, these days anyone with access to Google can mix themselves up something nasty in no time!

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    And these are just the incidents I feel able to repeat in public!

    Seriously, Harrogate is wonderful, and it was a pleasure and a privilege to be asked to take part.

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    I read your list with interest, then thought, wait a minute! “Around the house?”

    You said, “I must be in a stabby sort of mood: letter openers, ice pics, screwdrivers, long flat-topped nails (the metal variety), chopsticks. Bludgeoning with several small statues, lamps, various Caphalon pans.”

    What kind of person keeps an ICE PIC around the house?!? That’s an American thing, isn’t it?

    And I had to laugh at the:

    “With children, you find that most things — no matter how innocent — can become harmful in an instant.”

    I’ve always found children to be a particularly deadly weapon. They certainly scare the wits out of me … ;-]

    Ah, have I just got the wrong end of that particular stick?

    Hope the husband made a full recovery, with only a small manly scar to show for his ordeal. Something he could claim he got fighting a duel, perhaps?

  17. R.J. Mangahas

    In all fairness to Mark Billingham (and in defense of Edgar), it was an orangutan, NOT a monkey 🙂

    BTW, sorry I didn’t say it in my earlier post, but Welcome back, Zoe!

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Dusty –

    “A guitar string and two pairs of pliers makes a dandy garrote. Get one of the lower ones (D, A, or E) made of silver wrapped silk and you can use them on vampires.”

    What can I say to that? Other than, brilliant, and I love it …

    Many congrats on the publication of the new book, by the way! I hope it does great things for you ;-]

  19. Jake Nantz

    Okay, I was paying attention this time, so I know it’s a contest. “Use of an improvised weapon” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re trying to mask what did the damage. Especially if it’s self-defense, or if you’re insane enough to enjoy watching.

    Mr. Battles showed in THE CLEANER what someone could do with a flat-head screwdriver.

    Edward Norton showed the damage a simple concrete curb can do in the hands (or mouth, as it were) of someone.

    Something as simple as a cell phone could be used to force someone’s tongue to the back of their throat until they choke on it.

    If you’re trying to defend yourself, grasping the cord of a surge protector and swinging could be a nice makeshift morningstar-type weapon.

    And if you were really twisted and had some Dog Button seeds handy (only in tropical locales for the most part), they could be masked with sesame seeds until the strychnine in them takes hold. I say really twisted because anyone who saw the grotesque, horrifying corpse would know the agony of the victim was caused by strychnine poisoning, but if you hated the person enough it might be fun to watch them jackknife until they snap their own spinal column.

    But truthfully almost anything in too strong a dose can be fatal. You can kill someone with Botox (made from a strain of Botulism) if you give ’em enough. Hell, can some fish and let it sit in the heat until a few of the cans explode, and you’re guarenteed the ones that didn’t have odorless, tasteless Botulism in the fish. Wrap it up like sushi and feed it to your victim.

    Still, I think if I were trying to mask it completely though, I might use the spine of a narrow hardcover book. Sneak up behind someone while grasping the closed book in one hand, swing it directly into their trachea as hard as possible, crushing it. They’d fall, see your face, and know you did it, but that wouldn’t matter. They couldn’t scream for help and attract attention, and you could simply put the book back on the shelf and leave after you were sure they were dead (and thus unable to rat you out), no one would be any the wiser.

  20. Jake Nantz

    Oh by the way, Hi Zoe! Welcome back, you have been missed by all as you can see. Thank you for the rundown on Harrogate. Would love to have the cash just to travel overseas someday, let alone attend an event like the one you described!

  21. Zoë Sharp


    I stand corrected. I feel a Terry Pratchett moment coming on, with the Librarian in the Unseen University.

    “Don’t call him a monk-!”


    And thanks for the welcome ;-]

  22. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jake

    O-K, you have given this some serious thought, haven’t you? And the glee with which you describe the effects of strychnine make me look round carefully for the nearest emergency exit… ;-]

    The botulism idea I like a LOT. But wouldn’t it taste off? Fish fresh enough to be used in sushi has very little smell. Heck, we ate sashimi in Japan that was so fresh it was still wriggling on the plate. (And that’s a good story to recount over dinner with squeamish friends, I can tell you.)

    The spine of the book is similar to the spine of a rolled-up magazine. Particularly a nice thick one that’s perfect-bound. I used it in ROAD KILL and made the point that, after Charlie had disabled her attacker that way, at least she also had something to read.

  23. Zoë Sharp

    Oh, and thanks for the welcome back, Jake!

    But, ooh, don’t get me started on how expensive life is over here at the moment. Even when you’re being paid in sterling, rather than dollars. Looking at the US-UK conversion rate, where everything is twice the price, makes travel to the UK even more astronomical than ever.

    Gas has just peaked at around $11 a gallon, although it fell back a little yesterday. We had one of those perfect bargain moments where we pulled into a fuel station to fill up, just as they were dropping the prices by 8 cents a litre!

    Welcome to England. Or, to put it another way: This is England, and you’re welcome to it …

  24. Jake Nantz

    “I used it in ROAD KILL and made the point that, after Charlie had disabled her attacker that way, at least she also had something to read.”

    Now that’s just funny. Flat out fookin funny.

    As for the fish, I was trying to come up with a way to keep from cooking the Botulism out of it. I guess maybe you could fry it, as long as you don’t boil it it may still work. Perhaps enough spices to cover the fragrance and/or taste if you do use it as sushi? Paprika, anyone?

    And I didn’t mean that I would gleefully watch it. I just meant, er, that someone, um, ELSE might enjoy that sort of thing.

    As far as travel to England, my wife and I have both always wanted to. I’ve never left North America, and she’s never even left the lower 48, so we desperately want to get over there (all touristy and such). Still, the cost of just getting there and hotels is daunting. We’ll keep saving up, and let you work on getting the price down on your end, yeah?

    Oh, and I thought of one other thing used for good measure. I recently finished all of the stories in KILLER YEAR (everyone’s stuff was great, btw), and I noticed Ms. Causey’s heroine, Bobbie Faye, used a fishhook. I have to say though, the place she used it on her assailant made me lose sleep. Not because I stayed up reading it, but because I couldn’t get out of my head that I live in the south and that’s a little close to Bobbie Faye for my liking.

  25. Zoë Sharp

    Well, if you used enough wasabi – very hot Japanese horseradish – that might help cover the taste of the off fish? Just a suggestion.

    I’m saving getting hold of Toni’s book(s) until we’re over for B’con, so don’t tell me any more! But, I agree, the possibilities are enough to make your eyes water. I always knew Bobbie Faye was my kind of woman ;-]

    I seem to remember an old Leslie Charteris The Saint short story where he reels a bad guy in on the end of a fishing line, but it was a long time since I read that one …

  26. Zoë Sharp

    I, too, am a huge Pratchett fan. And the books about the City Watch – MEN AT ARMS, etc – are pretty much police procedurals.

    If you accept that every police force should have a vampire, and a 6ft dwarf, and a werewolf, and someone who was disqualified from the human race for shoving. What’s not to like?

  27. R.J. Mangahas

    Doesn’t EVERY police procedural have a vampire, and a 6ft dwarf, and a werewolf, and someone who was disqualified from the human race for shoving? Oh, maybe not. I don’t believe any appeared in the Spenser series. Although, it would have been interesting, wouldn’t it?

  28. I.J.Parker

    Hi, Zoe. I see you’re still getting around very actively and having a great time. As for Kevin Wignall outstaying everyone in the bar: Behind those dark glasses, he’s probably fast asleep.

  29. Zoë Sharp

    Hi IJ – I think Lord Kevin of Wignall, as I saw him described recently, is very much awake and on the ball. There’s not many people can carry off the dark-glasses-indoors look … ;-]

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