Author Archives: Garry Rodgers

About Garry Rodgers

After three decades as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police homicide detective and forensic coroner, AMAZON Best Selling author and blogger Garry Rodgers has an expertise in death and the craft of writing on it. Now retired, he wants to provoke your thoughts about death and help authors give life to their words.

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED IN NATALIE WOOD’S DEATH?

As Hollywood mysteries go, Natalie Wood’s suspicious death tops the list. On November 29, 1981, the 43-year-old movie superstar was found floating off Santa Catalina Island, 25 miles southwest of Long Beach, California. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Coroner’s Office quickly concluded Wood died from an accidental drowning. But that’s no longer the case. Today, Natalie Wood’s manner of death is officially ruled a “drowning from undetermined factors”. Now her then-husband, actor Robert Wagner, is officially a police “person of interest” for causing Wood’s death.

The question of what really happened in Natalie Wood’s death has never been answered. It’s never disappeared from public interest and that’s for good reason. At the time, Wood was one of Hollywood’s hottest stars. So was Robert Wagner. Together, the pair was a celebrity sensation­—a mix of love, hate, beauty, sex, scandal, jealousy and violence. No wonder there’s still a fascination in this unsolved case after nearly four decades.

That Natalie Wood died by drowning is indisputable. That’s crystal clear. But, how she ended up in the water is murky as hell. The circumstances stink like an old, rotten fish and the balance of probabilities says Wagner threw Natalie in after a night’s drunken fight. This is what the LA sheriff detectives also think. They recently did an hour-long episode on CBS 48 Hours called Natalie Wood—Death in Dark Water to rock the boat and surface new evidence. Likely, here is what really happened in Natalie Wood’s death.

The Wood—Wagner Relationship

Natalie Wood was a true child acting prodigy. She was born Natalia Zakharenko in San Francisco to Russian and Ukrainian immigrant parents. Wood’s first role was at age 4. By 8, she co-starred in the 1947 Christmas Classic Miracle on 34th Street, and at sixteen she was nominated for an Oscar alongside James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. 2 more Academy Award nominations followed for Splendor in the Grass and Love With the Proper Stranger. Other successes included West Side Story and Gypsy. By 25, Wood’s natural beauty and acting talent were in high demand.

Robert Wagner claimed most of his success and fame in television roles. Wagner was the handsome leading man in the 70s and 80s shows It Takes a Thief, Switch and Hart to Hart. However, he had many A and B-list movie roles pre and post-TV. Wagner is now 88 and lives in Aspen, Colorado with actor wife, Jill St. John.

Wood admitted to having a childhood crush on Robert Wagner who was eight years senior. They married in 1957 when she was 19 and he was 27. That ended in a 1962 divorce with Wood suing Wagner for “mental cruelties”. They remarried in 1973 and were still legally attached when Wood died. That union was again shaky. Wood was rumored to be having an affair with actor Christopher Walken during their relationship filming the movie Brainstorm.

Thanksgiving Weekend, 1981

Wood and Wagner planned to spend the 1981 Thanksgiving weekend on their 60-foot motor yacht Splendour moored at Two Harbors on Santa Catalina Island. Catalina lies 25 miles off the California coast between Los Angeles and San Diego. The harbor sits at the Isthmus of Catalina where this popular southern California boating spot narrows. Being on the east side of Catalina, the Two Harbors moorage is protected from the open Pacific Ocean.

It’s not clear why and when, but Wood invited her Brainstorm co-star, Christopher Walken, to join them on the yacht for the weekend. That didn’t go over well with Wagner. He’d already suspected intimacy between his wife and Walken. A few weeks earlier, Wagner flew to the South Carolina Brainstorm film site to check on them. Also accompanying this triangle to Catalina Island was Wagner’s boat captain, Dennis Davern, who also served as Wagner’s caretaker.

The foursome arrived at Two Harbors on Friday afternoon, November 27. The weather was cool, rainy and windy. Davern tied the Splendour to moorage buoy N1 at the center of Isthmus Cove, then detached the yacht’s 13-foot Zodiac inflatable dinghy named Valliant. At about 4 pm, Wood, Wagner, Walken and Davern rode the dinghy from the moored yacht and tied up at the Two Harbors main wharf. They hiked a short distance to a bar/restaurant called Doug’s Harbor Reef, sat down, and began drinking.

Witnesses, including the bar manager Don Whiting, later reported the group seemed in good spirits, and there was no sign of tension. Wood and Walken appeared to be flirting, but Wagner didn’t appear upset. About 10 pm, the four left the bar and took the Valliant dinghy back to the Splendour. There, things got tense. Wood and Wagner began to argue—apparently over how she was reacting to Walken’s attention and Walken’s views about Wood’s acting career—but there was no sign of violence.

Wood stated she had enough from Wagner and asked boat skipper Davern to take her ashore in the dinghy. It was around midnight when Wood checked into a motel room and paid for a separate one for Davern. The next morning, Saturday, November 28, Davern drove Wood back to the yacht where she and Wagner acted as if nothing had happened. Wood made breakfast for the group and everyone appeared pleasant.

At approximately 3 pm on Saturday afternoon, Davern drove Wood and Walken ashore in the dinghy. Wagner stayed on the Splendour attending to personal matters. Davern returned to the yacht, then skippered Wagner ashore about 4:30 where they joined Wood and Walken in the Harbor Reef. Wood and Walken were already into the champagne and carried on, seeming to ignore Wagner and Davern. The four ordered dinner around 8:00 pm and stayed until between 10 and 10:30. Again, all appeared on good terms while inside the bar.

They left as an intoxicated group. Their drunken condition was significant enough for manager Whiting to call Harbor Patrol guard Kurt Craig asking to keep a watch for his departing guests, making sure they got safely back on their yacht, which they did. What happened next is unknown. Somehow, Wood ended up dead—her seriously bruised body face-down in the water. Over the years, the three male survivors have made elusive, inconsistent and changing statements.

Finding Natalie Wood’s Body

Robert Wagner made a marine radio call reporting a missing person at 1:30 am on Sunday, November 29. Don Whiting, who lived on a nearby boat, heard the call. He noted the time. Soon, a search began including Whiting, the Harbor Patrol, the Coast Guard and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Weather conditions were rainy, cool and windy. Search efforts were hampered by darkness with no moon or star light.

At first light, a Sheriff’s helicopter joined the search. Airborne observers quickly spotted a bright red object floating approximately 1mile north-east of where the Splendour was moored. It was approximately 200 yards off a land tip called Blue Cavern Point. At 7:44 am, a surface vessel reached the object and confirmed it was Natalie Wood, deceased.

Wood was in a suspended position with her face in the water, arms outstretched and long hair floating on the surface. Her torso, legs and feet were downward. The only thing keeping her from sinking was her red down jacket which acted as a buoyancy compensator or flotation device. Aside from the jacket, Wood was only dressed in a blue and red flannel nightgown and calf-length, blue argyle socks. She had no shoes or underclothes.

Searchers pulled Wood from the water and placed her on a “Stokes-Litter” search & rescue basket. Her body was transported to a Harbor Patrol shelter and placed in a hyperbolic chamber used for decompressing divers. She was held for safe-keeping while an investigator from the LA County Coroner Office arrived to transport the body back to the mainland for an autopsy.

The missing dinghy Valliant was also found near to where Wood’s body was located. It was resting against the shore at Blue Cavern Point. An examination found the Zodiac’s outboard motor lowered in the water, the control in neutral, the key in the “off” position and the oars fastened down. It appeared never used.

The Preliminary Investigation

Pam Eaker from the LA Coroner’s Office and Detective Duane Razier from the LA County Sheriff’s Department were the preliminary investigators in Natalie Wood’s death. Eaker was an experienced death investigator as was Razier. They only made a brief examination of Wood’s body by examining rigor mortis and photographing it for identification. They noted some bruising to Wood’s left knee but couldn’t see much of her skin due to being covered by the high socks and knee-length nightgown. Wood was lying face up and they didn’t examine her posterior. They also noted foam coming from Wood’s mouth which is typical in drownings.

Eaker’s report indicates when searchers pulled Wood from the water, rigor mortis was minimal. However, when Eaker did a cursory exam at 1:00 pm, Wood was in nearly full rigor. These investigators recorded equilibrium air and water surface temperatures of 62 degrees Fahrenheit and Wood’s internal temperature at 65° F. Eaker’s field investigation report is publicly available but not the police report. It’s unclear if any formal statements were taken at this time.

Eaker reports she spoke to Robert Wagner who stated he last remembered seeing his wife at 11:45 pm. When Wagner realized Wood was missing, he made a radio call for help. Eaker’s report does not record what time Wagner claims he found Wood missing. The report defers to Don Whiting who she interviewed. He was clear the radio call occurred at 1:30 am as he noted the time.

Whiting also provided information about the Wagner/Wood party being intoxicated when they left the bar between 10 and 10:30 pm. He expressed concern for their welfare on the water due to obvious drunkenness, but he made no claim there was tension among the group. It appears Whiting was the only independent witness interviewed. It makes no reference to other occupants onboard the Splendour and appears Davern and Walken were not formally interviewed.

The only reference to Dennis Davern is that he identified Natalie Wood’s body. Robert Wagner did not view his wife’s body at Catalina Island. Rather, he flew back to Los Angeles with Walken on board a sheriff’s helicopter, leaving Davern to deal with the Splendour.

Natalie Wood’s Autopsy

Natalie Wood’s autopsy started at 1:30 pm on Monday, November 30th in the LA County morgue. Dr. Joseph Choi, Deputy Medical Examiner, did the postmortem exam which was overseen by Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Thomas Noguchi. Noguchi was a high-profile medical examiner well-known as the “coroner to the stars” for work on celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Bobby Kennedy, John Belushi, Sharon Tate and Janis Joplin to name a few. Noguchi has also been well-criticized for seeking fame over fact in his pathology career.

The autopsy report and follow-up toxicology report are well-detailed and publically published. Autopsies follow a regular procedure starting with external observations and full-body X-rays. Wood had no broken bones, fractures or head trauma. However, her arms and legs were a mass of bruises as well as notable abrasions on her left cheek and above her left brow. These were superficial contusions rather than lacerations and entirely consistent with mechanical or manual pressure application. They were also antemortem injuries and occurred before death.

Natalie Wood’s internal examination showed a healthy, early-middle-aged woman. There were no natural disease processes evident—nothing natural to cause a medical event which led to her accidentally falling in the water while unconscious. Her lungs were heavy with seawater, and her airway was obstructed with foamy froth. Clearly, Wood’s medical cause of death was due to drowning. However, that did not explain how she got in the water. Nor did it account for her considerable bruising. These are the surface trauma injuries noted Wood’s autopsy report:

  • Superficial abrasion and contusion on left cheek and forehead in upward motion.
  • Diffused bruise over lateral aspect of right forearm measuring 4” x 1” above the wrist.
  • Prominent deformity of left wrist on lateral condyle of the ulna bone.
  • Superficial bruise in deformity approximately ½” diameter.
  • Numerous bruises over right and left lower legs ranging from ½” to 1” in diameter.
  • Significant bruise to anterior of left knee measuring 2” in diameter.
  • Bruising to right ankle area measuring 2” in diameter.
  • Many smaller superficial bruises to anterior and posterior lower legs and thighs measuring approximately ½” to 2” in diameter with no particular pattern.

Photos of Wood’s bruising don’t appear available on the internet like some celebrity death images are. However, Wood’s autopsy anterior and posterior sketches, or face sheets as they’re called, are attached to the autopsy report. They indicate over 50 separate bruise markings.

There’s a significant note in the autopsy report that skin sections of the significant bruises were removed from Wood’s body. These were microscopically examined from histopathological slides and confirmed to be subcutaneous hemorrhages that can only occur while the subject was alive. They were also “very fresh”, indicating they occurred immediately before Wood’s heart stopped by drowning. These injuries were not the result of earlier trauma that was healing.

Additional in Wood’s autopsy report is mention of her estimated time of death. Dr. Choi’s conclusion reads:

“The autopsy findings are consistent with drowning in the ocean. The time of death is difficult to pinpoint, but it appears to be about midnight on November 28/29, 1981. Most of the bruises on the body are superficial and probably sustained at the time of drowning.”

Choi based his estimated time of death based on three factors. One is that approximately 500 ccs of undigested food remained in Wood’s stomach. Based on the witness evidence that she’d eaten around 9:00 pm, that digestive sequence is consistent with a 3-hour period before her digestive system stopped. Second, the water temperature and Wood’s physical size (120 pounds) would have quickly brought on hypothermia. Third, the rigor state was consistent with death occurring about 8 hours before her body was found.

Rigor mortis is mostly dependent on ambient temperature and body size. Generally, the warmer and heavier a body is—the faster rigor sets. Wood was small and died in a cold environment. It’s expected her rigor process would be delayed while suspended in chilled water. It’s also expected rigor would rapidly fix once removed from cold water and placed in a warmer hyperbolic chamber.

Despite questionable bruising, the Los Angeles County Coroner concluded that Wood accidentally drown while intoxicated and falling into the ocean as she tried moving the dinghy. Wood’s blood-alcohol content was 0.14% which is significant for a slight person. There was no sign of illicit intoxicants like cocaine or opiates. She was simply high on alcohol which may have contributed to an early expiration in the water.

In mid-December, 1981, the LA County Coroner Office released its findings. Natalie Wood officially drowned after some mishap with the dinghy. They attributed her extensive bruising to the struggle with a rubber boat. No foul play occurred, they said, and the Sheriff’s Department agreed. Natalie Wood’s death was declared accidental, and the case was closed.

Dennis Davern’s Confession

That conclusion never sat well with the media and the public. For years, speculation and rumors swirled that there was more to Wood’s death than officially concluded. The conclusion never sat well with two other people. One was Natalie Wood’s sister, Lana Wood. The other was Dennis Davern. Together, they petitioned the coroner and police in 2012 to reopen the case. The triggering factor was Daven confessing to police that he’d lied during the 1981investigation. He claimed his conscience finally got to him.

Davern stated he’d been coerced by Wagner to keep quiet. At the time, Wagner was Davern’s boss and sole meal ticket. According to Davern’s new statement, there’d been tension for two days between Wagner and Wood, and it was jealousy over Chris Walken. Davern stated when they got back to the Splendour on the Saturday night, Wood and Walken were very cozy. Finally, Wagner snapped. He grabbed a wine bottle and smashed it, yelling at Walken, “Jesus Christ! What are you trying to do? Fuck my wife?”

Wood was drunk and flipped out. It became a screaming match but there was no physical violence yet. Wood stormed off, saying she was going to bed. She went below to her stateroom, changing into her bedclothes. Walken slipped to his room in a forward cabin while Davern quietly went up to the bridge. Davern places the time as just before midnight.

Within a few minutes, Davern claims he heard Wagner and Wood fighting again. This time, there was physical violence as he could hear banging, crashing and thumping. Then the pair went out on the open stern deck where the dinghy was tied up, floating astern. Davern claimed more physical fighting took place, and he heard Wagner scream at Wood, “Get off my fucking boat!” More fighting took place and, suddenly, everything went quiet.

Davern is clear he did not hear a “sploosh” or Wood splashing or crying for help in the water. He claims he waited a few more minutes, then went down and found Wagner alone in the salon. Davern states Wagner appeared distraught, nervous, sweaty and shaking. He told Davern that Wood “was gone”. Wagner’s story was she took the dinghy and went to shore like she did the previous night.

Davern didn’t buy it for a minute. For one thing, he never heard the dinghy’s noisy outboard engine start. For another, Davern knew Wood didn’t know how to operate it. As well, he knew she wouldn’t go out alone in dark, stormy conditions. If she truly wanted to leave, she’d have asked Davern to drive her as before. And, Davern knew Wood was terrified of dark sea water.

Davern claims he wanted to start an immediate search. Wagner refused, saying they’d wait for a bit and see if she’ll return. Wagner broke open a bottle of scotch and shared it with Davern over the next hour and a half. Despite Davern’s pleadings to start a search, Wagner refused. Finally, at 1:30 am, Wagner placed the first radio call. During this time, there was no contact with Chris Walken. Apparently, he stayed in his room till morning.

Davern makes another astounding claim. He states after Wood’s body was found, but before investigators arrived, Wagner had a closed-door meeting with Davern and Walken. Davern alleges Wagner laid out a common story they were all to stick with. Daven doesn’t allege Wagner admitting throwing Wood in the water. Rather, the story he wanted them to relay is no one saw her leave and there was no fight. Daven states Wagner ended the session with, “That’s the story. Okay? Everyone got it?”

Natalie Wood’s Death Case is Reopened

Based on Dennis Davern’s information, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department reopened Natalie Wood’s death investigation in May 2012. They held a joint meeting with the current Chief Medical Examiner who reviewed the medical evidence. Dr. Choi was now dead and Dr. Nagouchi was long retired. This review concluded Wood’s cause of death was still from drowning. However, they gave the opinion that Wood’s bruises were far more consistent with a multi-person fight onboard the yacht rather than a sole struggle in the water.

The LA County Coroner amended Wood’s death certificate from an accidental drowning to “Drowning and Other Undermined Factors”. They stopped short of ruling it a homicide which requires proof the death was caused by another human being. However, they could no longer support an accidental conclusion.

The new investigators with the LA Sheriff’s Department also stop short of claiming foul play. They describe their investigation as being a suspicious death where the full truth has not been revealed. They are also tactful about calling Robert Wagner as a murder suspect. They classify him as a person of interest who they’d like to interview.

Lieutenant John Corina and Detective Sergeant Ralph Hernandez state they’ve made ten attempts to interview Wagner. Each time, he’s refused. Now, they’re appealing to the public for any information pertinent to the Natalie Wood case. Corina and Hernandez gave a candid look at their investigation during the CBS 48 Hours documentary aired February 5th, 2018. They claim to have new witnesses come forward corroborating Davern’s claim of a fight on the Splendour’s back deck. Conclusively, they say, it was Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood.

No one, however, states they actually saw Wood go into the water. As Lt. Corina puts it, “She got in the water somehow, and I don’t think she got in the water by herself”. Corina adds, “This doesn’t meet the smell test. Wagner’s version makes absolutely no sense. We’d love to hear his side, his truthful version of the events. What he’s told original investigators and what he’s portrayed since then really don’t add up to what we’ve found.”

Det. Sgt. Hernandez states, “She (Wood) looked like the victim of an assault.” Corina goes further, saying, “She’s seriously bruised on the arms, legs and face. Then she goes to get in the dinghy and into town—in her pajamas, socks, in the middle of the night. It’s raining out and midnight when she can’t see, but she’s going to take the dinghy, which she never drives, probably doesn’t know how to drive, and take it to town. That makes no sense at all.”

Corina and Hernandez discuss their witness evidence credibility. They rate their two independent witnesses as “very credible” and call Davern “credible” based that he originally misled investigators but now his new version is corroborated or backed up by the independent people. As for what Christopher Walken has said, Corina states, “He’s cooperating, but we’ve agreed to keep his information confidential. For now.”

When asked if they’ll ever solve the Natalie Wood case, Corina answered, “We’re closer to understanding what happened, but critical questions remain. Time is our biggest enemy here with over 36 years passing since it happened. We’re reaching out one last time to see if anyone will come forward with information they may know.”

How Natalie Wood Likely Went in the Water

To think Natalie Wood went in the water voluntarily is preposterous. She was not suicidal by any stretch of the imagination. And it’s highly unlikely she was trying to stealthily flee by untying the dinghy and slipping into a guideless tender. It’s even crazier to think a movie star headed for some free fun on a small town at midnight, soaking wet in pitch black with no shoes and no underwear.

No. There’s only one explanation. Someone dragged Natalie Wood off that boat into the water—kicking and screaming. That was her husband, Robert Wagner. Nothing else makes sense.

The key to understanding what physically took place is examining Wood’s bruise pattern recorded at her autopsy. These are in no way consistent with thrashing about in the water while trying to climb into a flexible dingy. Natalie Wood’s bruises are entirely consistent with being gripped by her wrists and around her legs and arms. Her face abrasion is consistent with being dragged face-down, backward, along the yacht’s rear deck. Nothing else fits.

What’s really telling is the damage to the outside of Natalie Wood’s left wrist. By stating there’s a very prominent deformity to the lateral condyle of the ulna with no fresh fracture means her wrist was dislocated but not broken. That requires a lot of force—a painful force—an external force.

All evidence—physical, medical and witness observations—indicates Wood and Wagner were in an intense fight. That alleged statement, “Get off my fucking boat!” is something a witness just doesn’t make up. That statement has to be truthful. The “my boat” phrase sums their relationship, and Wagner was making sure “his” property was going off “his boat” one way or another.

At the end, Wood was prone on the deck, holding on to something for dear life. Wagner was gripping her legs and thighs, trying to free her. He ripped her wrists, dislocating one. Then, Robert Wagner wrestled Natalie Wood by the legs, thighs and whatever lower extremities he could to shove his wife to her death in dark sea water.

The Problem with Homicide Charges

On the surface, it definitely seems Robert Wagner is hiding what really happened in Natalie Wood’s death. That’s understandable, given that he’d spend years in jail even if convicted of manslaughter rather than first or second degree murder. However, reasonable suspicion based on a balance of probabilities is a lesser test than the state proving an accused’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Here’s the wording from the California Penal Code on the directions a judge must read to the jury regarding reasonable doubt.

Given the evident factors of intoxication and relative spontaneity, it’s hard to argue Wagner planned and intended to kill Wood. It’d be a tough row to hoe proving he clearly meant for her to drown as required for a second degree conviction. Manslaughter is the best homicide ruling the prosecution could hope for in this situation.

But there’s no smoking gun in the Wood/Wagner case. That’d be a credible witness seeing the event or an admissible confession from Wagner. As long as he keeps his mouth shut, he’s unlikely to hang himself. That only leaves fresh evidence or a good portrayal of circumstantial evidence.

But what about Robert Wagner’s obvious neglect in searching for Wood as soon as he realized she was missing? It sounds like gross negligence leaving a half-clad, drunken woman out in the dark, cold and rain. However, he can’t be prosecuted for anything other than homicide charges due to California’s Statue of Limitations. That passed three years after Natalie Wood died.

The LA County District Attorney may be able to convince a grand jury to indict Robert Wagner on homicide charges. A coroner’s inquest may also be coming. That may be part of the strategy behind doing the recent CBS 48 Hours show, and they may have some strong new evidence as the detectives hinted at. But, a homicide conviction requires convincing a jury that Wagner is guilty beyond reasonable doubt of deliberately causing Natalie Wood’s death. That’s a tough challenge for even excellent detectives like Lt. Corina and Det. Sgt. Hernandez.

*   *   *

DyingWords Followers — I’d really appreciate your comments about how you see the likelihood that Robert Wagner deliberately threw Natalie Wood in the water and caused her death. Please rate them on a scale of 1 (none) to 10 (definitely). It’ll be an interesting poll of public opinion.

Here are some links if you’d like more information on the Natalie Wood death investigation:

CBS 48 Hours Documentary Released February 2018.

Natalie Wood Autopsy Report and Supplementary Opinions from LA County Coroner Office

Natalie Wood Forensic Examination from Los Angeles Times

FUGU—DEATH BY THE SASHIMI PUFFERFISH

Most folks think great white, tiger and mako sharks are the world’s most deadly fish. They’re dangerous, all right, but the deep’s deadliest distinction goes to the cute little pufferfish you remember from Disney’s Little Mermaid. Also called blowfish and sunfish, these sashimi delicacies known as fugu kill 10 times more people per year than sharks. And they do it a lot slower and far more viciously.

Shark attack deaths are super rare. Sharks kill an average of 5 people each year worldwide, although statistics show at least 80 violent human to shark encounters happen annually. Most shark victims are seriously injured like having an arm or leg torn apart, yet somehow survive. Not so with pufferfish poisoning.

Pufferfish death statistics are hard to nail down, but the World Health Organization and an article in National Geographic confirm at least 50 people expire every year after ingesting neurotoxins found in pufferfish livers, ovaries, testicles, intestines and skin. Hundreds more become seriously ill and only bounce back through immediate medical intervention.

What makes pufferfish so toxic is tetrodotoxin. It’s 1,200 times more powerful than potassium cyanide which the Nazis used in their poison pills. Tetrodotoxin is the world’s deadliest substance by volume next to anthrax and a chemical inside the tropical cone snail. In fact, tetrodotoxin is far more lethal than venom found in the common death adder and the notorious taipan snake. Injecting 1 microdot of pure tetrodotoxin will kill the average-sized human. That’s equivalent to 10 nanograms, which is an amount impossible to see with the naked eye.

So why are powerfully poisonous pufferfish such a preferred palatable pleasure?

It’s because specialized fugu chefs know how to safely filet this culinary delight. In Japan, where fugu is so popular, chefs undergo a state-required licensing program. Apprentice fugu chefs train for 3 years before taking a written, oral and practical exam on the 30 prescribed steps for properly preparing pufferfish. Only a third pass.

Fugu chefs are extremely cautious about processing their pufferfish. They meticulously remove the toxic parts and treat the offal like nuclear waste. Pufferfish flesh is delicate and exceptionally tasty. The Japanese have a high demand for this sashimi dish, but it’s popular all through the warm water world where pufferfish naturally occur.

There are over 120 different pufferfish or tetrodontiforme sub-species. An adult dwarf blowfish is only an inch long and too small for a meal. But the largest fugu fish reach two feet in length and weigh up to five pounds. Pufferfish get their common name from a defensive ability to swallow water and expand their stomachs up to four times. Blowing into a ball shape makes pufferfish hard to grip by predators’ teeth. Many sub-species have sharp, poisonous spikes on the skin surface which lay flat when uninflated. However, when alarmed and expanded, pufferfish turn into deadly mines.

Pufferfish don’t manufacture tetrodotoxin within a body system.

Rather, tetrodotoxin is a byproduct made by invasive bacteria that pufferfish ingest in their food. Snails are the main part of pufferfish diet. These subtle sea creatures contain a combination of alteromona, shewanella and vibrio bacteria which react with pufferfish innards to isolate tetrodotoxin. Evolution created a pufferfish immunity to the toxin where sodium channels are mutated. This is why the bacterial doesn’t kill its host.

But tetrodotoxin certainly tries to kill anything trying to eat a pufferfish, particularly human beings. It does this by molecularly bonding to cells and blocking the sodium channels which allow neurological information instructing cells to be elastic. When sodium channels are blocked, cells remain neutral or paralyzed. If enough tetrodotoxin is taken, the victim suffers total paralysis including the diaphragm’s ability to move. There’s no lung inhaling or exhaling and the stricken person smothers while remaining totally conscious.

It’s a nasty way to die—lying there with eyes open and knowing the end is near. But not all pufferfish poisoning patients die. It greatly depends on the amount or dose of tetrodotoxin consumed. It also depends on having medical assistance present. Standard treatment for tetrodotoxin cases is keeping the ailing victim on mechanical ventilation while the person metabolizes the toxin and excretes it. This can be several days or even weeks if a person becomes comatose. There’s no known antedote.

Even the slightest amount of tetrodotoxin will cause discomfort and distress.

First, the lips and face feel tingly. Similarly, the finger and toes tips are affected. Headache, nausea and vomiting follow. Then total muscular paralysis occurs along with the inability to breathe. Respiratory failure causes a loss of oxygenated blood to the heart and the patient suffers cardiac arrest.

Tetrodotoxin is non-soluble in water and heat resistant. A chef can’t flush tetrodotoxin from pufferfish sashimi flesh. Nor can they cook it out. But tetrodotoxin never occurs naturally in pufferfish flesh. It’s only introduced when an organ is punctured. Once the flesh is contaminated by a leaky liver, gut, bladder, or reproductive organ, it’s impossible to rid. It’s also impossible for the untrained eye to spot a leak as the toxin is colorless.

Despite pufferfish being so dangerous, there’s no hesitation to eat the stuff.

Japan is the largest fugu-consuming country. It’s an important part of their culinary culture. Fugu is a seasonal commodity as the fish’s toxicity is directly related to water temperature. Even though pufferfish require warm, sub-tropical water, tetrodotoxin intensity stays relatively low during the fall and winter when waters are cooler. Once the spring and summer heat hits, the bacteria blooms and pufferfish become far too toxic to risk handling. Even pufferfish urine absorbed through the skin can be lethal.

The finest fugu pufferfish come from the Shimonoseki region in southern Japan. It’s a city of 250,000 and boasts 500 licensed fugu chefs. Shimonoseki’s fish market is a Mecca for fugu aficionados. It’s world renown in fugu circles, having a giant brass pufferfish statue outside. Live and processed pufferfish are shipped worldwide every day from Shimonoseki and command the industry’s highest price.

The fugu fishing industry is tightly regulated with a restriction on licenses. Fishing openings are on a lottery base and apply daily. Shimonoseki’s fugu market processes over 300 tons of pufferfish yearly. Every day, the market hosts a pufferfish auction where buyers secretly bid with the auctioneer by hand signals concealed in a black cloth bag. This way, no one knows the current price except the successful bidder and auctioneer. This allows fluctuating market prices which is considered healthy for the fugu industry.

Fugu dining isn’t just a palatial experience.

The Japanese have fugu down to an art form. Not only are fugu chefs trained not to poison customers, they’re skilled at delighting guests who will pay $200-300 USD for a fugu dinner. Most fugu is sliced as ultra-thin shimini wafers and accompanied with sushi rice rolls and sauces. This is expected, but the presentation can be breathtaking.

Top fugu chefs take enormous pride and enjoy tremendous recognition for preparing and presenting their pufferfish. Commonly, fugu platters are laid out in traditional Japanese patterns representing swans and chrysanthemums. They’re a thing of beauty and so is how a fugu dinner unfolds.

Most fugu dinners run from five to seven courses eaten over several hours. The best fugu restaurants have live tanks where guests pick their personal pufferfish. It’s then prepared in front of the table with the fugu-master fileting the fish and plucking the poison. Guests are progressively served raw or shimini-style fugu followed by cooked fugu in soups, stews and hot saki.

But for every honorable and noble fugu establishment, there are always those pushing the rules.

Believe it or not, there’s a flourishing fugu black market where patrons seek seedy sushi saloons. Some fugu daredevils thrive on devouring fugu tainted with tetrodotoxin. They claim it gives them an incredible high found nowhere else. And where there’s a buck to be made, someone will take it.

Finally, there’s a fugu subculture with its own rules and regulations. For instance, it’s considered bad manners to ask someone else to first try a fugu serving in fine restaurants. It’s also considered crude to take a fugu bite, then mockingly grasp the throat and recoil in agony. And no patron should ever appear shocked when presented their fugu bill.

RACHEL AMPHLETT—A CRIME THRILLER/INDIE AUTHOR GOLDEN GEM

Every so often, golden writing skills shine through to the surface. Raw storytelling rocks become polished gems. They combine memorable words into unforgettable stories of espionage tales and detective adventures that captivate our imagination. Page by page, we follow twists as they totally tanglethen shock us with stunning solutions. And today, no crime thriller writer shines brighter at this than internationally acclaimed author, Rachel Amphlett.

Rachel Amphlett isn’t one to watch for. She’s already here. Rachel is the creative mind behind her Dan Taylor espionage and Kay Hunter detective series. Both are wildly successful as indie publications. Rachel Amphlett is also an amazing example of entrepreneurship. She’s both writer and promoter—a true hybrid business person who knows what truly works in today’s hyper-competitive indie writing and publishing worlds.

Rachel also has a great sense of humor. Otherwise, we’d never be friends and she wouldn’t be silly enough exposing her busy self in a DyingWords chat.

*   *   *

Hi Rachel! Why do you write crime thrillers… what do you see in the genre?

That’s an easy one—it’s what I grew up reading! I started reading before I began school, so I was devouring the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton by the time I was five or six years old.  By the time I was about 12, I’d outgrown what was available for that age group, and so my parents and my grandparents let me loose with their bookshelves. Before long, I was discovering books by Jack Higgins, Dick Francis, Ed McBain, PD James, Elizabeth George and the like. I haven’t stopped reading crime thrillers since!

Why do crime thrillers affect so many people? Is it like why ordinary people can’t resist gawking at gory accident scenes? I just read something that people only pay attention to 3 things—food, attractive people, and danger.

Personally, I think crime fiction is a good way of exploring social issues, and for me as a reader, I like to see the bad guy caught in the end – of course, that doesn’t always happen in real life!

I always liked catching bad guys, too. Back then it was job security and some got away… Setting that asidewhat are the basic crime thriller craft elements?

I studied screenwriting a couple of years ago, and that’s definitely helped me hone my craft. Essentially, I divide up any story into a five Act structure rather than three – that helps me keep the pace moving rather than worrying about that huge middle part otherwise.

I read an interview with author Peter James a year or so ago, and he recommends having what he calls a “gosh, wow!” moment at the end of each of those points in the story – something happens that keeps the reader turning the pages. It might not necessarily be another murder, but the detective might discover something that turns the story on its head and hooks the reader.

Research is important, but story must come first – if I don’t know something, I’ll put a marker on the page (simply, “XXX” or “[find out more about decapitated heads and post mortems]”), and get on with hitting my word count. Then, I’ll find out as much as possible about the subject, and return to fill in that detail.  Not too much, though. You don’t want your readers getting bored. I reckon about 90% of what I know doesn’t go into a book, but it does inform my writing better.

So why are some crime thriller writers are so successful?

They don’t give up 😉

Ah-haa… *suddenly gets it, nods & winks* Okay. What are your writing skills? I mean your writing process and quirks. Also your writing tools. Like, why are you so…freaking… good?

My skills are improving all the time – I’m constantly reading interviews with my writing heroes to learn more about the craft and how they sustain their writing careers. It’s like going back to school. My own writing process in a nutshell is that I’ll have an idea going round and round in my head for a few days, then I’ll start to flesh out the initial scenes. I guess I’m lucky, in that when I get an idea it appears to me as if I’m remembering a scene from a movie, so all I have to do is write it down.

I’ll spend a few days developing a basic framework around that five Act structure, and this includes a few bullet points for about 30% of the book before I dive in and start writing. That basic outline keeps me on track against any deadline, while allowing organic growth from my characters and a few surprises along the way.

I’m an advocate of Scrivener for writing rather than MS Word – for the first draft, at least because it’s so easy to organise scenes. If I can’t get into one particular scene of a morning, then I can simply start working on another one to get my word count target smashed. I’ll export the first draft into MS Word though, and work in that until the manuscript is finalized, and sent off to my editor.

Why’d you choose to go indie? How does your indie process go and how does your writing/editing/publishing team operate?

I got rejected by a number of agents and publishers who, although they provided some fantastic feedback about the original m/s for WHITE GOLD told me that “there wasn’t a market” for that sort of book. Reading between the lines, what they meant was that vampires were big that year, and they weren’t interested in anything that wasn’t in that particular genre!  However, the great feedback about the story gave me the confidence to try another route, and when an Australian mystery author emailed me suggesting I try indie publishing, I jumped at the chance.

It was a very steep learning curve though, and that’s why I like to do these sorts of seminars, because there’s so much bad advice out there, and I want to help people avoid the sort of mistakes I made when I started out.

Currently, my indie publishing process operates as a proper business— once the writing is done, I become the project manager. I hand over the editing, cover design, and blog tour organising to others while I take on the marketing effort required to successfully launch a book. That’s why I detest the term “self-publishing”. None of us does this on our own.

My PR person contacts book reviewers/bloggers to sort out a blog tour a week either side of the book’s publication date and she also arranges for them to do a cover reveal about 6 weeks out from publication to drum up interest. She also organises a Facebook online party on publication day and between us we write to other authors seeking prizes to give away to readers during the hour the party runs.

I manage all the advertising, including paid ads and social media for my business, as well as doing the book-keeping (although I use a chartered accountant to manage all the tax stuff).

On top of that, I work with distributors and aggregators to ensure my books are reaching as many people as possible worldwide, and also work with them to promote my novels through their platforms, such as Kobo and iBooks.

Wow! No wonder you’re killing it! Your marketing plan—what works in indie book marketing & what’s a waste of time?

I recommend that people find a template business and marketing plan online and tailor it to their book business needs – there are plenty available if you Google them, and it’s what I did when I took the decision to make this work for me two years ago. I also recommend that writers don’t simply make that plan for the next 12 months and then forget about it – you need to be constantly reviewing and updating what you’re doing to make this work.

My own business and marketing plan runs for each calendar quarter, as well as providing me with an overview of where I want my business to be in 1, 3, 5, and 10 years.

As for what works in marketing and what doesn’t, that’s an ever-changing beast. I’d recommend signing up for free updates from online publishing news sites such as Publishing Perspectives, and listen to podcasts such as Author Biz and The Creative Penn to find out the latest trends.

At the moment, it’s all about advertising through Amazon Ads, Facebook Ads, and BookBub Ads, but that could all change in six months. The important thing as an indie author is to be agile and open to change.

Hmmm… Your views on social media platforms…

A must for writers – it’s the only way to get visibility for your work. My own strategy is to have a website and Facebook page (not a personal profile) as my mainstays and then use Twitter and Instagram as “outposts”. However, a writer of YA fiction might find that something like Snapchat and Instagram works better for them. You have to be prepared to spend time experimenting.

Best publishing outlets? AZ, Kobo, iTunes, etc?

This comes down to the individual author. Some writers prefer to lock into KDP Select (Kindle Unlimited), whereas others like me prefer to “go wide”. Something like 30% of my sales come through Kobo Canada; another 20% through iBooks Australia, so there’s no way I’m going to lock something like my Kay Hunter series into KDP Select!

If you’re just starting out though, go for KDP Select to find your feet, and then expand using an aggregator like Draft2Digital to reach a wider audience. Again, test, test, test!

Is there a place for print/audio/foreign?

Absolutely! I have audiobooks for both my series, and print for every book I’ve published. Foreign rights are another pillar to your business, and I have sold rights to publishers in Italy and Germany so far for my Dan Taylor series – all without an agent!

Rachel, what you see in book sales/genre/marketing trends?

This goes back to what I was saying with regard to marketing plans—it changes all the time, but I would say take what you see in the press regarding eBook sales declining with a pinch of salt. A lot of indies who are making six figure salaries don’t use ISBN codes, so their sales aren’t factored into a lot of the reports, which skews the data of course.

Romance is always going to be a popular genre to write in, but crime thrillers have an attentive audience, too – it’s about finding a niche you like writing in (and that you read in) and checking out what those successful indie authors are doing that you can emulate.

Getting personal… What’s your dream where you want to be in 5/10/20 years? Yes, this means sticking your neck out.

I’m a traveller at heart, so I want to be in a position where my writing enables me to work anywhere in the world. That’s the five year plan. I expect to have at least 20 books out by then, and to keep learning the craft so I don’t become stagnant in my writing.

Advice for new and old writers?

Don’t be afraid to experiment, but DO analyse the results – whether that be a Facebook ad you’re testing, or a new genre you’re writing in. Don’t spend more than you can afford to, either. And, be easy on yourself. We’re all guilty of comparison-itis, but you must enjoy this to make a career out of it.

And some advice from now to give the future Rachel Amphlett?

Remember to come up for air every now and again!

What stops writers from being superstars like you’re becoming?

They refuse to learn and/or give up.

If you could start over, what would you do differently?

Well, when I started I only wrote for myself so becoming a full-time writer hadn’t even crossed my mind at that point – I just needed to get the stories out of my head. It was only when I was approached in 2014 for the Italian foreign rights to WHITE GOLD that I realised I might be onto something and immediately took a long hard look at what I needed to do to make this work for me. I don’t think I’d do anything differently – you’ve got to remember that back in 2012, indie publishing as it is now was very much in its infancy.

Who are the best crime thriller/indie authors today? Besides you and me. What were their journeys? What did they do right and wrong

Ooh, I wouldn’t like to comment on what they did right/wrong – we all make mistakes, after all. Some of the people I look up to though are writers such as Mel Sherratt, Caroline Mitchell, and Louise Ross—all very smart cookies when it comes to their writing businesses.

Your takeaway for DyingWords followers?

Find out by attending our FREE thriller writing and indie publishing seminar at Literary Central Vancouver Island. It’s at 2 pm Saturday, October 21, 2017 in beautiful, historic, downtown Nanaimo, British Columbia across from the Van Isle Conference Centre. Seating is limited so make sure you pre-register at garry.rodgers@shaw.ca.

*   *   *

*   *  *

Rachel Amphlett is the bestselling author of the Dan Taylor espionage novels and the new Detective Kay Hunter series, as well as a number of standalone crime thrillers.

Originally from the UK and currently based in Brisbane, Australia, Rachel’s novels appeal to a worldwide audience, and have been compared to Robert Ludlum, Lee Child and Michael Crichton.

She is a member of International Thriller Writers and the Crime Writers Association, with the Italian foreign rights for her debut novel, White Gold, being sold to Fanucci Editore’s TIMECrime imprint in 2014, and the Dan Taylor series sold to Germany’s Luzifer Verlag in 2017.

Get access to exclusive competitions and giveaways by signing up to the author’s Readers Group at rachelamphlett.com or keep in touch through:

Facebook (on.fb.me/TN7rpu)

Twitter (@RachelAmphlett)

Instagram (@rachelamphlett).

And Buy Rachel Amphlett’s Books at:

Amazon.com

Amazon.uk

Kobo