April 30, 2013

Nero Wolfe

I would say that at least three quarters of the books I've bought for my Kindle are Nero Wolfe mysteries. Don't ask me why; that's just what I've felt like reading recently.

I'm bothered by something that appeared in two of the stories. In both cases, a key event was that someone stabbed and killed someone else, and it was a critical factor in the story that the victim didn't know they were going to be stabbed, the victim died instantly, and the victim didn't make any noise when stabbed.

I don't buy that. Most deep stab wounds in the trunk area will be fatal if untreated, but death can take days, and in the short run the stabbee is likely to scream and writhe about. The only way you can get an instant kill is to nail the heart, which is a small target. Doing that without the victim knowing you're trying to isn't easy.

I guess the answer is, I'm reading these books because I enjoy spending time with Wolfe and Goodwin, not because I'm looking for truth or plausibility.

Another thing that bothers me is the way the police tend to use "Material witness" as a charge that pretty much allow them to lock up anyone, any time, just because the cops say so. I hope that they don't actually do that; it seems like it has dreadful potential for abuse.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste in General Entertainment at 05:57 PM | Comments (15) | Add Comment
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1 The bad news is, people are still held as "material witnesses" for as long as a judge is willing to tolerate.

There are a few places you can get a quiet kill with a knife, and most of them require an attack from behind. (Slit the throat, or hand over the mouth and stab the kidneys.) In fact, strike the "most", I can't think of any from the front. Even that "stab to the heart" is going to be pretty challenging to make it instant- you have to aim just right between the ribs. And it won't be perfectly silent- see the Return of the King movie for a good example of the kind of grunt that you'll hear. Although it might be quiet enough to be inaudible through a heavy door, I suppose.

Posted by: Boviate at April 30, 2013 06:51 PM (XfqiU)

2 One I've heard of is downward next to the neck.  It requires a longer knife, but if you get behind the collarbone, it's a straight shot to the heart, especially the Aorta, and there's pretty much no first aid or anything that can stop the inevitable.  It's pretty gruesome, but supposedly quick.

Then again, we've all heard about "Punching the nose so the bones go into the brain and result in instant death" and clearly that one isn't as easy to pull off as the advocates say either.

Posted by: Mauser at May 01, 2013 12:51 AM (cZPoz)

3 *cough*  To say the least!  The correct term is "entirely impossible and conceptually absurd if you look at the actual skeleton."

( there's a martial artist in a forum I frequent, and just saying the word "nose bone" will make him twitch )

Posted by: metaphysician at May 01, 2013 05:02 AM (3GCAl)

4 Closet thing to an actual "kill shot" in martial arts is a sun-punch to the lower sternum, but the person needs a weak heart for that to work.

On the issue of "stabbing" someone with an instant kill, how strong is the blade supposed to be?  If you can sever at the juncture between C1 and C2, that'd drop someone instantly.  The accuracy and blade strength would be insane, but it's technically doable.

Posted by: sqa at May 01, 2013 10:32 AM (dvTNf)


In both cases in the books, it was an ordinary kitchen knife.

You can kill someone with one punch by hitting them in the throat, if you crush the larynx, but it's a (relatively) slow death as the person chokes. Suffocation takes several minutes.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at May 01, 2013 11:48 AM (+rSRq)

6 Years ago I read a book that was supposed to help fiction writers understand how weapons work and what really happens when they're used. It seemed reasonable and plausible, right up to the point where the author referred to the AR-15 as a "high-powered" rifle that made far more serious injuries than an ordinary deer rifle. Sigh.


Posted by: J Greely at May 01, 2013 11:50 AM (fpXGN)

7 I'm just going to comment that I'm glad I'm not the only one that enjoys reading Nero Wolfe.  I may pick some of the books up this weekend on Kindle.

Posted by: Tom Tjarks at May 01, 2013 02:10 PM (T5fuR)

8 Is "interesting poison on the blade" an acceptable option?  If you could somehow dip the blade in a super-nasty neurotoxin, and not die yourself from the work, that might also work.

Posted by: sqa at May 01, 2013 09:51 PM (dvTNf)

9 Some thing that I've wanted to ask about Nero Wolfe: Does Arnold Zeck qualify as a good villain by your heuristic?

Posted by: muon at May 02, 2013 12:23 AM (jFJid)

10 No, not really. Zeck only appeared in three of the stories, for one thing. And he's too derivative. It's just Moriarty with a paint job.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at May 02, 2013 04:26 AM (+rSRq)

11 Toxins aren't my bag, but I'd be astonished if there are any that work so fast that a person stabbed can't scream.

Posted by: Boviate at May 02, 2013 10:19 AM (f1PGZ)

12 None I've ever heard of. Even injected nerve gas wouldn't be that fast.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at May 02, 2013 10:46 AM (+rSRq)

13 My understanding is that if you can drop blood pressure fast enough, the victim goes into shock more or less immediately, which would serve the purpose. But a knife strike that would do that would have to be extraordinarily accurate and strong. Something like the strike into the heart and aorta, with a strong twist of the knife to open the wound. From the front, I can't think of a way. And while I can't say if it's accurate or not, I've heard that slicing a throat is anything but quiet, unless you get it so deap that you get the arteries.

Posted by: David at May 02, 2013 09:42 PM (vyRm+)

14 Severing the arteries is the point of cutting the throat. It's not about the trachea, it's about severing the carotid arteries to deprive the brain of oxygenated blood.

It's the same thing with a chokehold. An "air choke" restricts breathing, but the victim has plenty of time to continue thrashing around and fighting. (How long can you hold your breath?) A proper choke is a "blood choke" to constrict the blood vessels, and the victim becomes unconscious within seconds.

Posted by: Boviate at May 03, 2013 08:00 AM (Nmatd)


I looked into this last year when I was curious about Halal butchering of cattle. (Also Kosher; it's essentially the same thing.)

In a normal slaughterhouse, cattle are herded onto a metal platform, then someone reaches out and touches them in the forehead with a cattle prod, which runs a big electric current through their brain, knocking them cold. Then the platform tilts away and the unconscious animal slides down below, where it is hung by its hind legs and its throat is cut. This is necessary to get the blood out of the carcass, and the animal dies by bleeding to death.

In Halal butchery, there's no cattle prod. The animal is conscious right up to the point where the butcher cuts its throat. Again, it bleeds to death but it feels the knife. Kosher is the same way.

The SPCA categorizes halal/kosher butchery as "humane" because when properly done the animal loses consciousness very rapidly (just a second or two) as a result of loss of blood supply to the brain.

So even if I cared about such things, I would not feel any guilt about buying my meat from the Halal butcher shop out on Canyon. (It's really good meat; that's why I buy there.)

They give me good service, too. It's apparent, I think, that I'm not Muslim but they've never, never, acted in a way that suggested they wished I wasn't there. My money is as good as anyone else's and evidently that's how they feel about it.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at May 03, 2013 09:31 AM (+rSRq)

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