Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com
Guns. Knives. Poisons. A pillow, a poker, a candlestick. For the murderer who doesn’t plan ahead, it’s a matter of what comes handiest. But the murder weapon that’s built-in, seemingly innocuous, and available on a moment’s impulse is the staircase. How many hapless victims, both real and fictional, have been found dead at the foot of a staircase? If only they’d grabbed the newel post.
A newel is a central column around which winding stairs are attached. There are newel posts at each landing. The post at the end of a stair anchors the railing and the finial is the decorative cap that sits on top. During the Victorian era, newels became popular and some posts were designed so that when the cap was removed, it revealed a secret compartment in which one might hide the deed to the house or torrid love letters from a secret paramour.
Scarlett O’Hara had a close call with a newel post. There she stood at the top of the stairs, happy for a change to see Rhett return home. He started up to greet her, but they had their usual misunderstanding and he said something sardonic and cruel. In a fury, she reached out to slap him, but he stepped aside and she lost her balance. She grabbed for the newel post, but missed and landed unconscious at the bottom. It was a turning point. If she’d caught it, she and Rhett might have made up and lived happily ever after. If she’d died, the book would’ve been a lot shorter. Or what if she’d caught the newel with one hand and shoved Rhett to his death with the other? She’d committed one murder already.
In the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life,” George Bailey’s life is falling apart and every time he descends the stairs and grabs the newel post, the cap falls off in his hands. After this has happened for the hundredth time, he’s so frustrated he wishes he’d never been born. Only the intervention of an angel named Clarence convinces him not to jump off a bridge. A simple dab of glue would have gone a long way toward calming George’s nerves, but moviemakers like mystery writers must heap as many troubles and annoyances on their protagonists as possible.
Crooked staircases, circular staircases, hidden staircases, spiral staircases. A number of crime novels and films have made stairs a prominent feature whether or not they were the means of murder. Barbara Vine’s House of Stairs has 106 stairs and they become ever more menacing as they go up. The creak on the 104th stair gave me goosebumps. And who can forget the escalating sense of terror in “Vertigo” as the acrophobic detective slowly climbs those precipitous stairs of the bell tower and sees the woman he’s been following plunge to her death?
“The Staircase” is a documentary miniseries based on the real-life murder of Kathleen Peterson in 2001. Her body was found in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs in the home she shared with her husband, Michael. “My wife had an accident,” he told the 911 operator. Somewhat suspiciously, a few years prior to Kathleen’s “accident,” a family friend took a fatal header down a flight of stairs and Michael had been the last person to see her alive. Coincidence or modus operandi? In any case, the jury convicted him of first-degree murder. Eventually, his attorneys learned that the blood-spatter analyst had given false testimony and the judge granted a new trial. Michael pled guilty to manslaughter and was released in 2017.
My favorite part of the Peterson saga is the owl theory. According to one would-be Perry Mason, a Barred Owl swooped onto Kathleen’s head, became entangled in her hair, sank its talons into her scalp, and so terrified her that she dived down the stairs to her death. The raptor escaped, but the coroner discovered three feathers clutched in the victim’s hand. Who dunnit, the bird or the husband? I don’t discount the bird. In my Hawaiian mystery, Bet Your Bones, a pair of angry Pueo Owls attack a man who disturbs their nest, with deadly results.
But I digress. Staircases are a more common cause of death than owls. A wife comes home to find her husband lying lifeless at the base of the steps (The Passenger, Lisa Lutz). A journalist is found dead of a broken neck at the bottom of her staircase with one high-heel knocked off in an unlikely place (Once Too Often, Dorothy Simpson). Death Bredon, a/k/a Lord Peter Wimsey, takes a job in an ad agency to investigate the death of a copywriter who tumbled to his death down the office’s spiral iron staircase. (Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy Sayers).
It’s a slippery world out there – and not just in the writer’s imagination. Stay alert, people. Grab the newel post!