July 21, 2020

Facials Can Be Fatal – The Story Behind the Story

Nancy Cohen

When we plot a mystery, we have to figure out the Howdunit for the crime. In a cozy, this means an off-scene murder or at least not a gory one. These are “clean” books in more ways than one with no graphic sex or violence or bad language. Sometimes it can be difficult to determine how the victim was killed. I ran into this problem when planning Facials Can Be Fatal.

The Setup

Facials Can Be Fatal is book #13 in The Bad Hair Day Mysteries. Prior to this story, hairstylist Marla Shore had married Detective Dalton Vail and moved with him and his daughter into a new neighborhood. They went on a honeymoon to an Arizona dude ranch, and now it’s time for them to settle down. Marla goes back to work at her salon. She has just opened an adjacent day spa when the unthinkable happens. A client is found dead while getting a facial.

I’ll admit that I had the title before the story. Now I had to fit one to the other. Let’s look at all the possibilities I’d considered in determining Howdunit. Obviously, we’re dealing with a fatal facial. So how can this happen?

The Murder

When you get a facial, the beautician turns on a machine that sends steam your way, ostensibly to open your pores. It’s set for ten minutes or so, giving the aesthetician time to leave the room. This could be when the death occurs. Or maybe it’s afterward when she puts the cream mask on our victim and leaves again.

What if a substance in the steam kills the client, wealthy socialite Valerie Weston? It would have to be a fast-acting substance that dissipates by the time the beautician returns.

Normally the aesthetician fills the machine with water, which then turns into steam when heated. If another person added a lethal substance to the water, it would have to be a liquid that turns into a mist. Or it could be a powder that dissolves in the water.

So we’re looking for a fast-acting poison that kills almost instantly when the droplets are inhaled or absorbed through the skin. It cannot cause messy symptoms like vomiting or bleeding from orifices, because you know, this is a cozy.

At this point, I contacted a science expert. He suggested a couple of substances that might work if the killer was able to obtain them. But when would the lethal substance be added to the water? If the night before, the victim would have to be the first morning customer. Otherwise, other customers could be affected. And how would he know the appointment time unless he had access to the salon schedule? Or maybe he ensured it himself (I’m using the male pronoun for simplicity) by changing the lady’s appointment. Who would have the authority to do so?

As an alternative, what if someone came into the room and smothered the victim while she was alone? Or gave her a lethal injection? This would only work if her movements were restricted, such as an herbal body wrap. But the killer would have to be watching the room for his chance. That means he’s either a staff member or another client, unless there’s an unlocked back door where a stranger can enter.

How about if he puts something in the facial cream or lip balm? The victim could lick her lips, thereby ingesting it. Or she might breathe it in through her nose, if it’s not absorbed through the skin. But again, it would have to be fast-acting and not cause any unpleasant bodily reactions.

In all these scenarios, we don’t want to point the finger at the beautician. That’s too obvious.

You can see how one question raises a host of other ones. The author must solve all these points to have a viable plot. I’m not going to reveal what I decided for the means of death. I ended up choosing a simple method that made sense in this environment, but it took me a couple of weeks to figure it out.

The History

The victim was a benefactor for Friends of Old Florida, a historic building preservation group. I wanted to delve into the history of Florida and was inspired by my father’s travel journal. In 1935, he traveled to Florida with two friends in search of an idyllic beach. Instead they found snakes, swamps, sticks of dynamite, mosquitos, and skunks. His adventures led me to research shipwrecks and pirates and buried treasure. Excited by my findings, I made my father’s journal part of the story and included actual excerpts. You can find Florida Escape, the real journal, here if you want a copy:

These are just some of the elements that went into this story. I also learned about the multi-million-dollar black gold industry that obtains cut hairs to make extensions. And I used my own personal observations to write a scene. I’d gone backstage at a fashion show with permission from an elite dress designer to watch the hairstylists and makeup artists work on the models. It was a fascinating experience and I used my notes for setting the scene in this story.

Research, personal experiences, history and on-site observations all play a role in planning a novel. I hope you’ll check out Facials Can Be Fatal and will become so absorbed in the story that these factors will fade from your mind.

Nancy J. Cohen writes the Bad Hair Day Mysteries featuring South Florida hairstylist Marla Vail. Titles in this series have been named Best Cozy Mystery by Suspense Magazine, won a Readers’ Favorite gold medal and a RONE Award, placed first in the Chanticleer International Book Awards and third in the Arizona Literary Awards. Nancy’s instructional guide, Writing the Cozy Mystery, was nominated for an Agatha Award, earned first place in the Royal Palm Literary Awards and the TopShelf Magazine Book Awards, and won a gold medal in the President’s Book Awards. Active in the writing community, Nancy is a past president of Florida Romance Writers and Mystery Writers of America Florida Chapter. When not busy writing, she enjoys cooking, fine dining, cruising, and visiting Disney World. 

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  1. Nancy, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and all your possibilities. I've got to get the book to find out which you chose!

  2. Thank you. I hope you enjoy the story and the logic behind the crime.

  3. On my TBR list. Loved the other books I have read.

  4. Thanks, Carolina. This one was a fun book to write and especially meaningful with the historical excerpts.

  5. Nancy, this was great. I so enjoyed this post, can't wait to read the book.

  6. Nancy, this book sounds like fun. I look forward to reading it. And congratulations on all your awards and accolades! Best wishes for your continued success.

  7. Susan, I am glad you liked my post. Thank you for stopping by!

  8. Kay, thanks so much. I enjoy writing about Marla and her family.

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