Things That Delight Me: 4 – Small Murders and Disasters

Back in the early 20th century, a remarkable woman got interested in crime. Though she was never a member of the police* she significantly improved police responses to crime-scenes.

Frances Glessner Lee

Frances Glessner Lee

Frances Glessner Lee, also known as “the mother of forensic science” was a wealthy heiress who got interested in police methods. In order to help them think about crime-scene analysis, she built an amazing series of dioramas of crime-scenes.

Anyone who’s ever built doll-houses knows it’s painstaking work. What Lee made were dollhouses with murders in them.

There’s a lovely coffee-table book by Corinne May Botz called “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” with beautiful photographs of the rooms. Currently they reside in my old home-town, Baltimore, MD – I am not sure if they are accessible to visitors or not. There’s a walkthrough of them on the web, here and a more in-depth article about them here.

The Red Bedroom

The Red Bedroom

Lee’s dioramas served a practical purpose.

Bedroom Crime scene

Bedroom Crime scene

There are impractical dioramas of death, too! Via Atlas Obscura** I learn about Abigail Goldman’s murder scene dioramas. She uses model railroad components to build her crime scenes; they’re a bit less practical than Lee’s and have a bit of grisly humor to them.

Desert Crime Scene

Desert Crime Scene

This one’s definitely more grisly.

Disposing of the body

Disposing of the body

You can tell that one’s intended to be humorous: no self-respecting murderer drives a Pinto.

I can’t go into all of the many sites I’ve stumbled across that have small dioramas of accidents and murders, but here’s a lovely one. It represents a great deal of effort.

Cutlass Crash

Cutlass Crash

I’m good at technical stuff but I couldn’t paint if you stuck a threatening thing to my forehead and threatened to activate it. But it seems that some of us are just a bit macabre – ever since I first saw Thomas Kinkade’s paintings, I wanted to do Kinkade-style pictures of farmhouses, but have something slightly off: the outline of a murder going on in the window, or a pair of feet emerging from a pond, etc. Macabre humor makes me giggle inappropriately.

Car crash bonsai tree

Car crash bonsai tree


If you’ve read this far, here’s a small contest: I happen to have a spare copy of the book “The Nutshell Studies” that I bought to give to a friend who had the misfortune of dying, first. So, if anyone posts in the comment section why they think they should have it, I’ll send it to whoever’s reason I think is the best, after the comments close in 2 weeks. It’s a shame to have such a lovely book sitting on my shelf still in the plastic. Drivers: Start your engines!


(* I consider that a plus)

(** They do a daily mailing, and it’s awesome! Sign up!)

PS – I do note a distressing lack of googly eyes in these dioramas.



  1. says

    As the investigator, you must bear in mind that there is a two-fold responsibility—to clear the innocent as well as expose the guilty. Seek only the facts—Find the truth in a Nutshell.

    :Sputters: Oh, how amazing was Ms. Lee? How is it I never heard of her? I have been reading crime fiction since I was very young, and one trend which absolutely refuses to die is authors deciding to base one or more characters on either real or fictional detectives of the past. There’s about a gazillion versions of Holmes, of course, but also Conan-Doyle, Joseph Bell, and so on. No one has ever done anything with Ms. Lee. Oh, man. I have lots of reading to do, and photos to gaze at, in awe of all the work they represent.

    Thank you so much, for this wonderful post!

  2. Raucous Indignation says

    I’ll stop suggesting that certain persons should slam their own scrotums in their own car doors? That’s gotta be worth something, amirite?

  3. says

    Someone who could actually write fiction (that rules me out!) could do an amazing job by putting Lee in the role of the detective. Of course she’s just a consultant, but when the chief of police comes to her and asks her to make a diorama of a certain actual crime scene, she begins collecting pieces and cutting fabric and making walls, and then – leaning forward slightly to get a better look as she’s laying out the geometry of the walls – she notices something: … the bullet hole is in the wrong place! The blood-splash is going the wrong direction! Just then, her pet rat, Tansy, started investigating her biscuit. What to do?

    She’d make a wonderful character because she was a wonderful character. A writer could fill in all kinds of wonderful forensic science stuff.

  4. kestrel says

    This is AWESOME. I would get such great ideas from that book… I already do this (ask Caine, I hope to submit something or other to the blog soon) but my scenes are far more mundane. However I’ve been working on a creche for Christmas featuring Murder in the Stable. Also I think my cowboy is about to get bloodstains on his shirt, plus I can see that my work needs way more explosions. LOL. What a great blog post to wake up to, thanks!

  5. Johnny Vector says

    And the icing on the casket is that Lee looks just like Jonathan Winters!

    Macabre humor makes me giggle inappropriately.

    Well then, if you happen to be back in Baltimore the last week of October or the first two weeks of November, you should make every attempt to see Cabaret Macabre at Baltimore Theater Project. It has the same sort of dark, though somewhat more Victorian, humor as these dioramae.

    It seems an appreciation for this style is not so unusual.

  6. says

    Um, yeah, I vote for Kestrel, whose work is amazing, and yes, that book would be full of inspiration for that work!

  7. says

    Kestrel, no, no, I’m not in the competition. I was flabberghasted that I didn’t know anything about Ms. Lee. While I am so very impressed with her work, I don’t do that kind of thing, so the book would be much better off with you. :D

  8. Siobhan says

    I happen to write fiction on my own time, and it’s mystery fiction too boot. Plus my protagonist isn’t a cishet white dude.

    How’s that for convincing?

  9. says

    Over dinner, I had this idea… Turn Frances Lee into a TV miniseries. The episodes are told from her perspective, through visualizations (as she is building her models) and flashbacks. She solves the cases by inventing new forensic techniques as she goes, or just puzzling things out as she’s trying to reconstruct what happened for instructional models. Of course she’s surrounded by the usual cast of characters: the gruff DA with the heart of gold, who initially doesn’t trust her, the young cop who’s willing to try, the sleazy defense attorney who keeps trying to belittle her, etc. It’d be a great script for a TV series since most of the action would be in small sets and you’d get lots of re-shoots of hypothetical actions at the crime-scene as her picture of what happened changes and gets clearer. It’d be like Miss Marple meets Dexter and The Mentalist…