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.
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.”
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.
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.