Dead or Wounded - Which is it to Be?

by Tracey Hawkins


Just the other evening a late news item captured my attention. The reporter read it somewhat like this….

"A man was found dead in the streets of Amsterdam this morning. A Mr. Van Gogh was found lying on the footpath with two notes pinned to his chest with knives. The notes contained verses from the Koran."

What! My mind boggled. How does one have notes 'pinned' to their chest with knives? There isn't a doubt in my mind that the knives in question were not little small edged paring items that Grandma peeled your apples with. I'll wager the knives were most likely of good size, sharp edged, long bladed and deeply thrust into the recesses of this man's chest muscle and possibly his heart, seeing as he died as a result of the note 'pinning'.

The next day's newspaper revealed more on this matter. It seems Mr. Van Gogh was in fact a great -great nephew of the famous one himself. Only this modern day version didn't present himself in an artistic format deigned to impress the public.

It seems Mr. Van Gogh's often-criticized writings have often led him down the controversial garden path. His latest writing had presented an unacceptable view of the suffering of women in Iraq. His impressions of their unfortunate birth sex in a male dominated country weren't received well by those men who upheld these beliefs 'back home'. The notes pinned to his chest were believed to be the work of Muslim activists in the city, who didn't believe he had presented a fair point of view.

As a writer I can only hope that those of you out 'there' who don't appreciate the sometimes (ok…mostly) grisly content of my articles, simply skim the 'nasty' bits absorb the rest and move on.

Dead or Wounded- which is it to be?

Those who enjoy crime, enjoy the tension packed pages filled with descriptive happenings. Words like 'the glint of a blade' or 'it cut through to the bone', ah yes, nothing like a nice stabbing. A stabbing lends itself to open ended options with the plot, characters and endings. You can maim, kill or disfigure the victim and choose to either save them, let them bleed out or make it a fatality, depending upon the type of weapon, the thrust and manner by which it was delivered. I always laugh at the Police description of "the deceased died after being 'fatally wounded'".

Odd isn't it? I've always figured you are either dead or wounded. Somehow fatally wounded implies the victim staggered about, bleeding out…but was not quite dead.

What is a wound?

The definition of a wound is simple. A wound is the disruption of the continuity of tissues produced by external mechanical force. There isn't a statutory definition of a wound but some English case law has developed in relation to the offence of wounding.

The case of R. v. Wood, 1830 outlined a simple guide to wounding. "To constitute a wound there must be a breach of the full thickness of the skin involving the epidermis and the dermis." Basically this means the outer layer of the skin must be cut through to the inside layers below. This means injuries such as an abrasion, bruising, internal fractures and contusions to the brain does not constitute a 'wound'. The medical authorities prefer the term 'injury' to encompass these areas.

The importance of Latin:

All crime writers really must familiarize themselves with the correct terminology used by the Police, Medical and Forensic investigators involved in a crime investigation. Such usage of the correct language is both realistic and important in presenting the right type of wounding or fatal injury.

Let's look at the types of terminology used for a stab wound.

A stabbing isn't simply a 'quick in and out' thrust, (that's a hooker's investigation) The differences become apparent when speaking of a laceration, an incised wound or a puncture wound.

  • A laceration is - a tear in the tissues. The botanical term means having irregular edges.
  • An incised wound is - a cut or gash. It's founded on the Latin term 'incidere' : in, into. It basically means to cut.
  • A puncture is a small hole made with a sharp point.
  • Similarly a stab wound is a piercing made by driving in a pointed object.
  • A perforating stab wound is - one that passes through the whole thickness of a tissue or organ. The Latin term, 'perforare: through and 'forare: to bore.

Okay, confusing? yep. Essential? most definitely. Why? I knew you'd ask.

"A nice stabbing"

Let's pretend you are employed as an editor in a major publishing house. (Well we can dream.) You are the editor for crime fiction. Each week you receive copious amounts of crime/mystery manuscripts to peruse. You are also an avid reader of crime literature and very 'au fait' with what is published and the full expectations of what the reader expects in this genre.

A manuscript lands upon your overloaded desk. It seems to have the impact, plot and storyline to make it interesting. Then much to your delight the victim in chapter four is subjected to attack by a knife. Now it's getting better. But...the victim dies a slow and painful death, as a result of a laceration they received when stabbed by a fruit knife.

NOoooooooo. It just won the bin award. By now you've fallen off your chair laughing yourself silly over such a ridiculous happening.

If however, the victim has died or is critically injured through a puncture or a perforating stab wound made by a good hunting knife- single or double edged blade, then we are on track with our 'credibility' to creating a believable 'stabbing'.

"Digging deeper on terminology"

Let's look at the more defined forensic angle on the types of stab wounds available to you the writer.

Lacerations: Lacerations involve the splitting of skin. This can be the result of a blunt trauma, such as a whack over the eyebrow or cheekbone with an instrument or a physical assault. The forensic investigator would look for:

  • relatively little blood loss in this injury,
  • small traces of evidence from the weapon used are most likely to be found,
  • marking in the form of circles/crescents from a weapon such as a hammer may be seen.
  • the patterning from an instrument used for example, a y-shaped incision from a metal rod can be noted.

These types of injuries would be far more consistent with an attack with a blunt edged weapon in a domestic situation, robbery or defence attack.

The victim isn't necessarily intended to die from this injury, although they might be brutal in force and can give rise to a further scenario later on, the victim is least likely to die from this. Although the frail, elderly and young might. Nice one to use to keep your victim alive for a chapter hook, to set up for a more brutal attack later on.

Incised wounds: Incised wounds have a breach (gap) of the full thickness of the skin due to contact with a sharp edge. The forensic investigator would look for:

  • Profuse bleeding, possible air embolism and haemorrhage.
  • There is little or no trace evidence.
  • The direction of the cut is almost always deeper at the start point.
  • Now to be sure this is the result of an attack not an attempted suicide, consider the wound site.
  • Is it the neck, wrist or face?
  • Tentative wounds on the wrist or neck are suggestive of an attempted suicide. The victim 'tests' the site for the pain factor.
  • Deeper cuts on angles of the arms, wrists or torso that are not easily self -inflicted are most likely to be defence wounds.

Some wounds are made to look as though the victim's tried to kill himself or herself. This is a nice wound to inflict in a murder, or a deeply almost fatal stabbing. Most likely the victim will die as a result of the injury. Lots of blood makes for a messy crime scene too.

Penetrating Wounds (Puncture wounds): Penetrating wounds have a breach (gap) in full skin thickness (taking in both the epidermis and dermis) and the depth is greater than the length of the wound. This type of wound is caused by a long, thin, sharp or blunt instrument. The forensic investigator will look for:

Severe haemorrhaging internally rather than externally.

The weapon size and shape will indicate the double or single edged blade.

The blade width and wound length will be recorded; this can vary if the attacker has 'rocked' the blade within the victim.

The blade length, the deepest wound will indicate the length of the weapon. Beware sometimes a partial thrust and tissue compression will distort this length.

The force of the thrust can be measured by depth, the sharpness of the blade, the impact to bone or cartilage. The police investigator will usually find a victim who presents with:

  • a fatal injury
  • multiple wounds
  • defence wounds
  • scattered wounds
  • wounds in different directions
  • wounds caused by the same amount of force
  • several wounds that have been potentially fatal.

Single Wounds: * Important little point to remember: If a victim is found with a single wound make particular note of the scene. This may be indicative of a suicide or a set up to 'fake' a suicide. The Police would be searching for any forensic evidence to indicate a suicide/accident or homicide. Particular detail would be paid to the position of the wound and the direction it entered the body.

The Effects of stabbing:

(This heading made me want to be smart and quip - "How about dead!")

Statistics have shown most deaths from stab wounds are homicidal. Only 2% of deaths are from suicide, even in Japan where death by the knife or sword is considered Honourable. Therefore, we shall dip deeper. (I can't help myself at times.)

Homicidal wounds are usually multiple wounds. The initial wound often leaves the victim capable of some resistance; therefore more wounds are inflicted. Theses are mostly directed at the heart. The assailant generally uses the same degree of force with each thrust. In a stabbing where the assailant held the point downwards, the wounds in the victim would also point downwards.

What does a stab wound actually achieve? At first the victim may not be aware of a fatal wound and may not show any signs or symptoms that they have been stabbed. This is great for a scene of dialogue with the victim unaware of the wound staggering about bleeding, meanwhile attempting to prevent any further attack.

Sometimes minutes may pass with little or no bleeding on to the skin surface. The principal factor in a fatal stab wound is internal hemorrhage. This may also involve an air embolism- maybe not for days, if the victim lives that long. The type of internal injury from the blade will determine the time of death. Major wounds that penetrate organs, lungs and vascular organs (such as a spleen or liver) will result in fatal hemorrhage. Wounds to or near the heart will also cause significant bleeding.

Much depends on the location to the heart at penetration for it to be fatal. Therefore, it seems the actual 'stab' wound itself may not necessarily have your victim crashing to the ground dead. It is more dependent on the damage caused internally to the victim that is the killer. Haemorrhaging is a significantly important element in that stabbing scene.

So bring it on…drip the blood, buckets of it, pooling around the victim's body. Makes for a dramatic scene if nothing else. Worked for Shakespeare and we all remember how Caesar died. As for our Mr. Van Gogh? Well chances are he never stood a chance with two knives lethally jammed in his chest cavity.

Maybe he should have followed the family 'business' and stuck to painting.

© Tracey Hawkins


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