Myth, Murder, and the Moon ( a version of this appeared in the spring edition of Mystery Readers International)
It’s an evening in late May. My guests are in the dining room, and I am in the kitchen, multi-tasking.
While my hands are arranging slices of beef braised in red wine on a large white platter, and adding a sauté of wild mushrooms to the orzo, my brain is frantically trying to think of a hot subject for a public presentation I must give for my job at the university natural science museum. The program needs to include both forensic and environmental sciences and be gripping enough to attract a paying audience.
And I must have the subject by tomorrow’s meeting.
I’ve already presented “Murder on the Rocks”, about the use of geology in crime solving; “Dangerous Waters”, about piracy and sea creatures, “Something Wicked”, a romp through plant and animal poisons, and my favorite ,“Autopsy of a Vampire”, about historic exhumations and the effect of tannin rich soil on buried corpses.
Now I need something new.
My ears are perked in the direction of the dining room, where my guests are eating salad and waiting for the beef to arrive.
John, my serologist pal from the county crime lab, is asking his wife, Eva, a nurse at the university hospital emergency room, how her day has gone.
“Perfectly crazy, of course” she says. “a guy came in covered with green paint that, he says, he was ordered to wear by the CIA. An old lady came in raving that one of her cats was actually a werewolf. Well, what do you expect? It’s a full moon”.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” John responds. “You nurses are always saying that. You ignore the fact that a zillion studies-serious, well done, meta- studies, have established that this full moon stuff is nonsense. It’s coincidence. You remember weird stuff when it happens at the full moon, and don’t count all the other times strange things happen.”
“ We’re not just saying it ! We know it because we see it all the time ! And it’s not only nurses !” Eva retorts, her voice rising, “the cops know it too! Paramedics know it ! Everyone who deals with the public- and who isn’t a nerd scientist in an ivory tower knows it !”
My friend Laura, who works in Child Protective Services and is sitting across from John, piles on- “Eva’s absolutely right. I don’t care what the studies show. I know what I see. There’s a reason folklore says the full moon creates werewolves. ..”
By the time I make an entrance with the beef and the orzo, battle lines are fully drawn.
George, a former NYPD detective, sides with Eva and Laura, but Laura’s husband Ken, and my husband Bill, both computer scientists, agree with John.
And I’ve found my topic. Happy, I open another bottle of wine.
The meeting next morning goes well. My new program will examine the folklore of the full moon and the moon’s effects on the natural world. It will delve into tales of werewolves, crime reports, and madness. All the usual suspects.
It will be called “Myth ,Murder, and the Moon”.
The next week I’m deep in research.
First stop is a dusty part of the medical library where I exhume a huge tome on lycanthropy. In folklore, this it is the belief that some humans can shift shape into animals, usually at the time of the full moon. When in their human form, they are believed to have eyebrows that meet in the middle, and to sport hairy palms.
But in psychiatry, lycanthropy is considered a serious illness, a syndrome involving “the delusion of being an animal ”.
Fascinated, I read a medical account of a patient who believed he had been transformed into a dog . ( Breed not specified) He also believed he was dead. In addition, the poor chap suffered “a serious sense of guilt about his previous sexual contact with a sheep”. Prognosis wasn’t good.
Continuing my research, I peruse a lengthy paper which states that the homicide rate doubled during a full moon in a certain county in Florida. I follow this up with a call to the Chief Medical Examiner down there.
“Sure, it doubled during the last full moon. The previous weeks, we had, on average, about one homicide a day. On the night of the full moon, we had two. So what does that prove? It proves any damn fool can play with statistics” he said testily.
In a popular article on marine science, I read that horseshoe crabs emerge at the shoreline during the night of the June full moon for a once a year evening of spicy erotic encounters.
Horseshoes are an ancient species. In spite of their name, they are related to spiders rather than crabs, and have remained unchanged for eons. They are useful as well. Their blood is an intriguing powder blue color rather than red, as it contains no hemoglobin. It forms a distinctive gel around bacteria, which helps locate dangerous contaminants otherwise hidden in liquids.
This helpful quality means that horseshoe habits are important to predict. If they really do react to the full moon as claimed, we know when and where to find them in large numbers, so that we can harvest some of their blood.
And in terms of my program, a gathering of the creatures may provide both informative and dramatic visual effects.
On the night of the June full moon, Bill and I, along with Laura and her husband, arrive at Stony Brook beach, armed with hope and video equipment .
Our feet crunch shells and pebbles. We hear the lap of the water. We are unhappily aware of hordes of black flies feeding eagerly on our bare feet.
We don’t see amorous horseshoes..
One or two of them lumber lugubriously up on the beach, check each other out, and crawl in opposite directions. A few more show up, but hover in a line near a rock, ignoring each other, like shy boys at a middle school dance.
We do not shoot x rated film. The full moon crab romance is obviously exaggerated.
In the next month I check out hundreds of murders reported to have occurred at the full moon. Many of these happened near the full moon night – but very few exactly on it.
It occurs to me that the moon may just provide light-if you are out to kill, carrying a weapon, it’s easier if you don’t have to carry a lantern or flashlight as well.
On the night of the program, I explain all this to a full house. I also tell werewolf tales from around the world, play audio of wolves howling, and tell in detail a few full moon murder stories, like the 20th century Monster of Florence and the Salem Murder of 1830.
At the reception after the performance, I shake hands with audience members. One tells me she is the “adoptive mother” of a “darling little wolf cub” who sings to the moon. (I’m relieved to know she’s not the biological Mom. Also that she’s left the little one at home)
The last man to leave shakes my hand, leans in a little too close and whispers huskily
“ I only change occasionally. Not every month”
I notice his eyebrows meet in the middle.
I can’t tell about his palms-he is wearing gloves.
Note: I’ve changed my guests names in the hope of continuing to have some sort social life.
E. J. Wagner is the author of Edgar®-winning The Science of Sherlock Holmes. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Lancet, Ellery Queens Mystery Magazine, and Smithsonian magazine. Her web site is at http://www.ejwagner-crimehistorian.com/ and her blog is at http://ejdissectingroom.wordpress.com/. She is working on a novel about the Salem murder and also on the traveling Museum Exhibit “Sherlock Holmes; the Science of Deduction” which will open in October, 2013, at the Oregon Museum of Science and industry.
I am, as always,as always