Columns > Published on August 16th, 2016

Writing the Crime Scene: Dead Bodies

Every murder needs a victim. If you’re writing a crime story, there will undoubtedly be a character dropping dead in your manuscript. But when your dashing detective walks into that seedy hotel for the first time to examine the corpse, you need to make sure you have the technical details right to maintain your authority.

In order to properly set up the crime scene for the reader, you’re going to have to ask some questions about the recently deceased before you start writing. How will the room smell? What colour will the dead person's skin be? Will there be flies buzzing around the corpse? These questions require you to make some decisions about your fictional victim and your plot, and then start doing some research. When writers rely on television shows and Hollywood films for this type of information, they greatly increase their chances of getting things wrong. I've read writers who've described blood flowing from a body where the heart has been stopped for ten minutes, rigor mortis that sets in immediately and lasts forever, and a pale, beautiful victim who's face should have been swollen and black. They must be using Weekend at Bernie's for research material.

Finding the correct answers sometimes requires extensive research, but this article will give you a head start on the basic info and identify some places to turn to for questions about the biological processes of death and the forensics involved.

The Five Faces of Death

The main changes that occur in a dead body are stiffening (rigor mortis), lividity (livor mortis), cooling (algo mortis), skin color (palor mortis), and decomposition.

Everyone has heard of rigor mortis, but a lot of authors get the timing wrong. It's often used by experts in determining time of death. When a person dies, their circulatory system stops pumping blood around the body. Carbon dioxide builds up in muscle tissue and lactic acid is created which coagulates. But it isn't instantaneous. Rigor doesn't start for at least two hours after death and comes on slowly, visible in the smaller muscles first, until the whole body is stiff. Contrary to popular belief, the lactic acid eventually dissolves and the body goes limp again. It typically lasts for 24-72 hours depending on the surrounding temperature. This can vary greatly, especially given extreme circumstances. As a general rule, a lower temperature will delay the onset and prolong the duration. In a very hot environment, rigor mortis may not even have a chance to set in before decomposition begins. Figure out how long your fictional cadaver has been dead and you'll know how stiff they need to be.

Within a half-hour of death, gravity takes effect on the stagnant blood. This process is called livor mortis or lividity. After six to twelve hours, the victim's blood will pool and settle in whatever position they died in. Areas with less blood will appear white while pooling areas look crimson and purple, creating a blotchy pattern. Even a corpse with most of its blood drained will still show some traces of lividity. Forensics experts often use these markings to tell if a body has been moved after death. The whole process can last up to 12 hours, but if the body is moved in the first six hours it may be possible to avoid leaving tell-tales signs of tampering. It is also one of the key factors in determining time of death.

Once the heart stops beating, the human body begins to cool almost immediately in a process known as algo mortis. But it doesn't happen fast. As a general rule, the human body will drop a few degrees in the first hour and cool at roughly one degree Celcius per hour after death. This can be complicated if the victim had a high internal temperature at the time of death, but using this rule of thumb and some common sense can help a writer figure out if his fictional victim is still warm when the detective touches it. 

The body doesn’t begin its major breakdown, known as decomposition until a few days after death. Most recently deceased people don’t actually smell any different from the rest of us. Except that they may have voided their bladder and bowels. It is a long and complicated process with many stages that I can't do justice in a short article. For a more accurate view of the process, this online book has a detailed breakdown and this basic overview on body decomposition is also very useful.

Location, Location, Location

While the breakdown of a corpse has a general time frame that you can abide by when describing the body in your story, the environment in which a dead body is found will drastically affect the rate of decay and appearance of the corpse. My recent manuscript featured a young girl who died of strangulation and was then left to freeze in a harsh Arctic climate. The timing and extent of the changes to her body after death would have been much different if she was dumped in the scorching desert, buried in a shallow grave, or chained to a cinderblock and tossed in a lake. A sumo wrestler and an anorexic person will also decay at much different rates based on body mass alone. Even the clothing worn can be a factor, so make sure you figure out your victim’s circumstances before you start researching.

Where to do research?

The basic three things a writer should determine before researching are the location of the body, the time elapsed since the heart stopped and the cause of death. Once you have these facts nailed down, you can really focus your research for your manuscript. The internet is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to forensics, but be careful where you get your information. You’ll find conflicting and downright wrong answers at every turn. Government and university websites are generally the most reliable, as well as blogs maintained by forensic experts. Image searches online can provide dozens of examples of lividity marks, decomposition stages and various poses of rigor mortis for you to describe in your work. Just don't eat while you surf through them.

I call friends in law enforcement or medicine for really difficult or odd questions, but I keep a forensics book on my shelf for quick reference on more general issues. Howdunit Forensics is a good basic one for writers, and there are a number of other similar and more in-depth books on the market. A great textbook on forensic pathology or crime scene investigation like Underwater Forensic Investigations, 2nd Edition might prove useful for your novel about a cop who recovers bodies at sea, but it will set you back $100. And while that might be a good investment if you plan to make your character's adventures into a series, I’d try checking your local library. I found a copy of that particular book at mine for free. I also suggest bookmarking the Explore Forensics website for some great articles on related topics.

A Final Note

The internet can be a wealth of information on this topic, but it can also be a great excuse to procrastinate. If you find yourself reading dozens of articles on rigor mortis and looking at thousands of corpse images, you’re not doing research. You’re just goofing off. Know when to stop surfing and get back to your writing. Also, too much technical information in a crime scene can overwhelm the reader and detract from the scene. Leave some things to the imagination and find a balance that feels right. And remember, even the best crime writers get it wrong sometimes, so don't be too hard on yourself. Happy murdering!

About the author

Repo Kempt has worked as a criminal lawyer in the Canadian Arctic for over ten years. He is the author of a book about seal hunting, a member of the Horror Writers Association, and a guest columnist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He lives on a cricket farm with his wife, Joy and his little dog, Galactus. In his spare time, he looks for an agent for his latest manuscript.

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