My husband drove me to the station yesterday morning. I was on my way to yet another (day-job) conference. On the way, we noticed that the slip road that takes us on to the motorway was once again half-closed for repairs. This led to a re-run of one of our favourite conversations – which, incidentally, I capitalised on at the beginning of In the Family. Murdering your victim is fine (so to speak), but how you dispose of the body is a much trickier problem.
Unless they live deep in the Russian steppes, this is a perennial problem for murderers. Some have resorted to ingenious solutions, yet still been found out. I’m thinking of Haigh, the acid bath murderer, or the ‘lady in the lake’ killer (the woman’s husband, Gordon Park, was eventually found guilty: he got away with it for half an adult lifetime, but was still caught in the end, when divers found the body). In certain rare circumstances, justice has not required the discovery of the body in order to convict the killer. Muriel McKay’s body was never found (there was a gruesome theory that she was fed to pigs on the farm where she was held captive), but the two brothers responsible for her death were imprisoned nevertheless.
There are many ways of disposing of a body, especially if the killer isn’t squeamish, but on a crowded island like ours there is always the danger of being spotted, even in the middle of the night. This brings me to my husband’s preferred method of victim disposal. He says that if he were to commit his hypothetical murder, he would bury the body in the middle of a large roundabout. There are two not so very far from where we live that might do nicely. The larger of these is overgrown with a wild thicket of shrubs and trees that is never penetrated by the Council’s gardeners. A body buried there would not be discovered for many years, unless a decision were to be taken to change the route of the motorway. Potentially there would be two problems to overcome, however: the ground might be very hard and unyielding (like our garden, which had virtually no topsoil until we imported some) and therefore it might take a long time to dig a large, deep hole; furthermore, situated as the roundabout is, near a hotel and the beginnings of a large conurbation, the danger of being discovered in the act of digging there would be great. This hazard would be compounded by the fact that there is nowhere inconspicuous to park adjacent to this roundabout. My husband would therefore have to risk parking on the hard shoulder and pretend to have broken down, which might prompt an interesting conversation with the inevitable helpful passing police patrolman:
‘Why did you leave your car unattended, sir?’
‘I was just digging a hole on this roundabout.’
‘Why was that, sir?’
Alternatively he would need to park in one of the nearby streets and lug the body several hundred yards, crossing a busy road and the motorway slip-road in order to reach the roundabout. He’d also have to be strong enough to carry a dead weight of, probably, nine stone or so (assuming that his victim was a woman) or half that much again if a man. You begin to see why some murderers resort to the ghoulish job of cutting up their victims.
No, my husband decided, the smaller of the two roundabouts, which is still large and overgrown in the middle, would be a better bet. A hole could easily be dug in advance there, for the undergrowth is thick and, in the leafy season, impenetrable to the eye. It has the advantage of being accessible from a long, poorly-lit slip-road that is often deserted at night, with a lay-by very close to it. Unfortunately, the lay-by itself is the popular haunt of men in vans during the day (I’ve never been able to fathom why, but judging from what I’ve seen, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few dodgy transactions took place there) and sometimes used as an overnight stop by truck drivers. My husband would therefore have to make sure that there were no truckers there on the night he buried the body. Much more convenient, he said, is the hard standing underneath the motorway bridge, right on the roundabout, where many a time we’ve seen lorries and cars parked, sometimes overnight. Twenty yards maximum for the heavy lifting. Then, he said, he’d dump the body quickly and drive the car away, so that the vehicle would be there for no more than five minutes, if that. He’d already have had the body in the freezer, wrapped in plastic, so it would be a neat and clinical affair. A pair of heavy duty gloves and an ex-military trenching tool (this latter he has had for some time – it folds neatly into a small case that can be attached to a belt) would complete his kit for an inconspicuous return on foot to complete the job. He’d be able to take his time to put the body in the hole, replace the soil and cover the grave well with the dead leaves that lie there so that no-one would notice that the earth had been disturbed before it grew over properly again. Simple.
I was not convinced. For one thing, there’d still be a chance of the ubiquitous police patrolman spotting the car and stopping to investigate. Or a lorry driver might turn up late. Then there’s Sierra Yankee Nine-Nine, South Yorkshire’s proudly-owned police helicopter. What if the pilot were out for a late night recce, and spotted him from above? There is also the forensics to consider: even wrapped in plastic, the body might leave some traces in his car and, if the remains were found sooner than he expected, he’d have to explain why soil matching that on the roundabout had clung to the soles of his boots. But for me the insurmountable obstacle would be the corpse’s necessary, if temporary, residence in my freezer. I have not spent the latter part of the summer freezing vegetables to have them jostle with a grisly cadaver; nor could I ever feel the same about Ben and Jerry’s Dough-ble Whammy ice-cream if I’d seen a lifeless hand nestling against the carton.
No, it’s back to the drawing-board for my husband. He’ll have to find a less domesticated way of getting rid of his victim. He says we could have a trial run with me as a dummy corpse, but I’m not to be taken in by that one. The journey to the station, however, passed very quickly.
John Taylor, an undertaker, has been imprisoned for seventeen years for murdering his wife, even though the police have found no body; I suppose that an undertaker is in a uniquely convenient situation for disposing of a corpse without trace. When I read the story, it reminded me of the murder of Muriel McKay, whose body was also never found, though two men were convicted of killing her (police believed that her assassins mistook her for Rupert Murdoch’s then wife, Anna Murdoch, who is also a writer). Such murders stick in the mind because it is so rare for the body not to be discovered. Even where there isn’t sufficient evidence to convict without one and the murderer appears to have got away with it, bodies have an odd habit of turning up unexpectedly, sometimes many years later. I’m thinking now of the ‘lady in the lake’ murder of Carol Park, who disappeared in 1976, but whose body was not found until 1997, by which time her husband, Gordon, who was then convicted of her murder, had married twice again.
The new Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum shows us how durable human remains are – though these particular skeletons were preserved by unusual natural phenomena. Yet well-preserved ancient skeletons from the past are often found in ordinary graves – the recent discovery of Richard III’s almost intact bones offers a good example. Even unceremoniously-buried bones, such as those found in an old charnel pit discovered during this year’s Crossrail excavations and thought to date from the time of the Great Plague of 1665 show remarkable resistance to the passage of time. The supreme example, of course, of a body which has stood the test of time and miraculously appeared millennia after his demise is that of ‘Ötzi the Iceman’ in the Ötztal Alps; ice is a great preserver.
You’d think it would be easy to conceal a body for ever, but clearly it isn’t. No doubt some murderers have managed to do it; some will even have committed the ‘perfect crime’ – i.e., one that has not been discovered. This is a macabre kind of virtuoso performance that can never be boasted about or celebrated, though no doubt some will have been unable to resist and fallen into the trap of talking about the deed, thus giving themselves away.
Bodies: the stuff of crime writing; tough and surprisingly persistent in making their appearance.