Sunday, August 1, 2010

In gory praise of Dr. Lyle

Recently I decided to take another run through a TV crime drama spec I’d written a year or so ago. At the time I wrote it, I had done my research, but as I’m rewriting it dawns on me that although I’m pretty sure my method of killing the vic in my A plot will work, I’m suddenly not completely confident about it.  For some unknown reason I’m struck by a feeling of doubt about its feasibility. So I do some more research, but I can’t find much of anything in my books and the information I find online is so medically technical that I can’t make heads or tails of it. 

I love crime dramas. I enjoy watching smart people using their brains to solve puzzles, with the added bonus of making bad people pay for their crimes.  But one of the tough things about writing in this genre, at least for me, is that I don’t really know anyone in the law enforcement or medical fields that I could call on for assistance. Unlike writers on staff, I don’t have access to a technical advisor. And I needed one to make sure my spec wasn’t going to be sunk by a supposedly fatal injury that in real life couldn’t actually be inflicted.

One of the books in my writing collection is Dr. D. P. Lyle’s Murder and Mayhem:  A Doctor Answers Medical and Forensic Questions From Mystery Writers. Dr. Lyle has served as a technical advisor for a number of television shows, including House, Law & Order, CSI: Miami and Cold Case. He is also the author of a number of other books, both fiction and award-winning non-fiction titles, including Forensics for Dummies (yes, I own that one too).

Here’s where Dr. Lyle gets really cool. Via his website he takes questions from writers - any writers, even those of us just trying to get our writing careers started - and provides not only medical facts and advice, but astonishingly detailed explanations of whether your brilliant idea to commit fictional murder and mayhem is plausible, and if not, how you might get around the problem. 

The aforementioned Murder and Mayhem is a collection of questions he’s answered for writers stuck on how to torment and kill their fictional victims. It was followed a few years later by Forensics and Fiction: Clever, Intriguing, and Downright Odd Questions from Crime Writers. Dr. Lyle helpfully answers in loving, gory detail questions about potentially fatal wounds, diseases, drugs, poisons, weapons (the stun gun - apparently not generally lethal), medical procedures and forensics. The questions themselves are often entertaining - one writer asked how one would go about tampering with a fire-eater’s fuel in order to cause a “sudden and dramatic death” (the magic word is “cyanide”). Seriously, ask him anything. The man will not only have an answer for you, but will include all sorts of helpful advice on how to make your nightmare scenario work.

His rules are simple: Present him with a specific, story-related question and he’ll give you an answer.

I can follow directions. This is what I sent him:
Hi Dr. Lyle:

I want my murder victim to be killed with the smallest blade possible, damaging or severing the femoral artery so that she bleeds out. How deeply set is the femoral artery and can it even be reached and damaged with a small weapon (say, a keychain-sized Swiss Army knife)? If not, what is the smallest/shortest blade that would inflict this kind of fatal injury?
A simple yes or no question was all I required to either make or break my spec. And as it turns out, in a word, yes, you can reach and sever or damage the femoral artery with a blade that small. 

Dr. Lyle provided me with more than just a few words about that: 

The femoral artery lies very close to the surface of the groin. You can easily feel it on yourself. Just place your fingers in the crease between abdomen and the leg and feel along that crease. You will be able to feel the artery pulsing beneath your fingers.

It is only an inch or less below the surface of the skin. It is actually the artery we use to perform cardiac catheterization procedures through.

So a blade of almost any length could easily reach the artery and cut it. Your small Swiss Army knife would work just fine.
And here’s where it gets totally, completely awesome:
Since this artery is so large bleeding from it would be dramatic. It will spurt in large pulses that could travel several feet. As the victim bled out and his blood volume began to contract from blood loss, these pulsations would weaken over time, becoming progressively shorter in length and smaller in volume. Finally the blood will cease spurting and merely flow from the wound. It will cease altogether once the heart stops.

Hope this helps.
Well, that certainly answered my question. And then some. Yes, it helped!

The most amazing part of this is that Dr. Lyle doesn’t charge anything for his assistance. Not a cent. I would have been willing to pay a fee if it had been within my budget. Plus there was the fact that I had my answer within twenty minutes. I would have been more than happy to wait until it was convenient for him to get around to my question. It made me feel like I was on staff. Ask a technical question, get a technical answer, right then and there.

I finished up the spec with Dr. Lyle's assistance and it went into a couple more competitions before being retired from circulation.

I'm now working on another TV spec. Given the premise, I probably won't need to utilize Dr. Lyle's expertise with this one, unless it turns out I need to complicate a white collar crime with an elaborate murder.

Also, I’d be lying like a common criminal if I didn’t admit that I think it would be really cool if my question turned up in one of his books someday.

Now, off to commit more fictional mayhem!

Dr. Lyle's Writer's Forensics BlogBooks by Dr. Lyle - Dr. Lyle on Facebook

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