19 May 2012

Shooting the Severed Hand

by Elizabeth Zelvin

One of the things I enjoy most about being a mystery writer is the license it gives me to be cheerfully gruesome on occasion. It’s a lot of fun to talk over with fellow literary ghouls (preferably over dinner in a crowded restaurant) what kind of gun will fit into an evening purse or which toxic plants you can grow in your garden and brew up when needed. (Part of the fun is not even hinting you’re talking about fiction.) Researching a mystery isn’t always lively, but it’s invariably informative. After hearing the Poison Lady, Lucy Zahray, wax enthusiastic about arsenic, which she said you could obtain by buying Grant’s ant poison at Walmart for $2.69, I went online (New York may be the only city in America that doesn’t have a Walmart) and found that, at least a couple of years ago, Walmart didn’t sell household chemicals online. I just googled the product again. You can get Grant’s Kills Ants on Amazon, and the product description doesn’t say a word about arsenic. So you’re good to go. Just don’t use your credit card!

My all-time favorite bit of online shopping was the purchase of my severed hand. Before the e-book market exploded, creating a widespread need for authors to design their own covers, I was already creating covers for short stories that had been published without illustration in anthologies and magazines, but which I wanted to give out as chapbooks for promotional purposes.
I needed the hand to execute the bright idea of showing a victim buried under a tangle of Christmas lights for “Death Will Trim Your Tree.” I wasn’t thinking “severed” at the time. I googled “bloody hand,” and after scrolling through book titles and historical arcana, found what I needed among Halloween and theatrical props. Arms were more expensive than hands, and I economize on promotional expenses when I can. So the image came out a little more gruesome than I had originally intended. I love it. Don’t you?

Now I needed to amortize the $6.95 I’d spent on the hand by using it again. In fact, it inspired further bursts of creativity, like the illustration of “Death Will Tank Your Fish.”
I took these photos in my own apartment. But I took the severed hand show on the road when I needed an image for Death Will Extend Your Vacation that I could put on bookmarks months before the book’s publisher was ready to design a cover. So I packed up my hand and my digital camera and took a trip to the beach.

In Chapter One of Death Will Extend Your Vacation, recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends find a body on the beach. My first shots were taken at the waterline, where the victim is found in the book. That presented several problems.

First, I had to frame my shot so I got the ocean in the picture without risking a wave washing the hand away.

Second, I didn’t want the footprints of passersby providing unintended clues. Soft sand leaves no footprints, but the damp, hard-packed sand above the low tide mark, while perfect for strolling, is both visible and pristine only for a moment.
I had to tramp along the shore to find a quiet spot, and fascinated rubberneckers kept coming by. I could ask them to stop for a minute while I shot my photo, but I couldn’t spend the whole afternoon shooing people away.

Third, while surf crashing into foam and running up the beach and down again is one of the most beautiful sights in nature, it’s hard to turn into an interesting composition.
So in the end, I took my hand to higher ground, where dunes and spiky grass provided a more dramatic setting. It’s not a literal illustration of the text, but the image works. Even better, it turned out my publisher was willing to use it for the cover of the book.


  1. Liz, you've gotten a lot of mileage from that hand. Good shots. My favorite is Death Will Tank Your Fish.

    Lucy Zahray's great. I've heard her at a couple of conferences and never stopped taking notes.

  2. Liz, what is the severed hand made of? What a trademark! How did the CD release go? I especially like the Death will Tank Your Fish cover.

  3. Fran, I guess it's plastic--some things you don't want to look at too closely. Speaking of severed hands, does anyone remember Ngaio Marsh's wonderful mystery, A SURFEIT OF LAMPREYS? (The American title was dumbed down, but I don't remember what it was.)

    My launch for the OUTRAGEOUS OLDER WOMAN CD is tonight at the People's Voice Café. I leave in about an hour, and I'm very excited about it. Never a dull moment!

  4. Liz, I like the hand. It's a good symbol for mystery and mayhem. As they taught us in the police academy--always look at people's hands; that's where the danger is.

    Best of luck with the launch!

  5. Well, obviously, Liz, when you ask for a hand with something, you're being literal.

    Okay, just kidding. Loved the post. Gotta say, I think Shooting the severed hand would make a GREAT mystery title.

    And: BREAK A LEG, TONIGHT! (Surely a CD release is show-biz related ...)

  6. Liz,somehow I had thought the release event was Friday night. Hope it went well and that you had a wonderful celebration. When I asked what the hand is made of, I wondered if it is flexible. Could you wrap the fingers around an object?


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