When it comes to murder mysteries, good writing is all in the details. How do authors unfamiliar with real-life gore get the particulars just right? By asking an expert, of course. Dr. Robb Bettiker, an infectious disease specialist and advisor to would-be mystery writers, joins Brooke to discuss the bridge between biological truth and fictional blood 'n guts
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now we move seamlessly from war movies to murder mysteries. Both strive for convincing portrayals of blood and guts, but to know if you're doing it right, you need a blood and guts expert - in other words, a doctor. Dr. Robb Bettiker is an infectious disease specialist by training and an advisor to would-be mystery writers by avocation. He enjoys a clever murder, as long as it's based in biological truth. To make sure it is, he delivers a lecture he calls "Gunshots, Arsenic and Bleeding Out Your Eyes: A Physician's View on Writing about Murder, Poisons and Bioterrorism." Dr. Bettiker doesn't waste time on niceties. In the classroom, he gets straight to the point.
DR. ROBB BETTIKER: What I do at the beginning of the class is I go around the room. I say, "Could you just give your first name and tell me who you want to kill and why?"
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
DR. ROBB BETTIKER: And last year, a lot of them wanted to have people commit suicide, so I altered my talk and I went more heavily into the poisonings. This year, they all were writing murder mystery stories and they all wanted to know, you know, how deep the knife had to go.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what question do you get asked the most?
DR. ROBB BETTIKER: What I find the students are most interested in is when I have a picture of the neck. And they start saying, "Well, what if I stab instead of slash?"
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So tick off what you say in your lecture. What are, say, the top few points for getting the gore right?
DR. ROBB BETTIKER: Here's a title. "Doc, How Much Time Do I Got?" And I have bullet to the heart, brain - pretty much instant death. Punctured lung, seconds to minutes. Punctured artery, minutes to hours. Special attention to bleeding into a body cavity. Ruptured liver or spleen, minutes, hours or days, depending on how much you want the person to bleed. Spinal cord injury could be instantaneous paralysis or paralysis that develops over hours. Shattered bone, probably not going to kill you, but that limb is useless. You're not going to hobble like they do in the action/adventure movies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the ABC series "Lost," somebody pulled a bullet out of his own arm. How likely is that?
DR. ROBB BETTIKER: It sounds rather painful, you know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You don't need a medical degree [LAUGHS] to guess that.
DR. ROBB BETTIKER: [LAUGHS] If a bullet is so close to the surface that you can pluck it out, you could just leave it alone and it'll fall out on its own in a few days.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You are a doctor, and there are an awful lot of doctor dramas on television. Have you ever watched, say, an episode of "ER" and gotten just royally teed off?
DR. ROBB BETTIKER: I've watched one episode. I was in medical school and was home visiting. And they had somebody coming in. They were coding the patient, doing chest compressions, rolling in the machines and they had the person's EKG up on the screen, the monitor, where you could see it. And somebody yelled out, "He's in V-fib! Shock him!" And I was running around the room, "He's not in V-fib! He's in V-tag! Don't shock him!"
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
DR. ROBB BETTIKER: And my mother told me to be quiet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
DR. ROBB BETTIKER: And I never watched "ER" again after that. [CHUCKLES]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I know that you advise writers. So is it okay if I read to you from a novel, the murder scene?
DR. ROBB BETTIKER: Sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: "He took out the hatchet and raised it with both his hands, hardly feeling what he was doing, and almost with no effort, almost mechanically, struck her on the head with the back of it. He struck her again and again with all his strength and then again, every time with the back of the hatchet and across the crown of the head. Blood gushed out as from an overturned tumbler and she fell straight on her back. He drew her away to let her fall and then at once bent over her face. She was dead." So what do you think?
DR. ROBB BETTIKER: Beautiful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But what I'm asking here is that if he bashes her on the crown of her head, will the blood gush out like water?
DR. ROBB BETTIKER: It could. If you smash the skull and one of those bone shards severs an artery that feeds the brain, you can get quite a bit of blood squirting out, not very far, but enough to let you know that you did some damage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, I'm sure Dostoyevsky would be very glad that Raskolnikov - [BOTH AT ONCE]
DR. ROBB BETTIKER: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - in Crime and Punishment knew how to kill that pawnbroker. Dr. Bettiker, thank you very much.
DR. ROBB BETTIKER: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dr. Robb Bettiker is an infectious disease specialist at Temple University, and he spoke to us from Philadelphia.
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