Saturday, November 14, 2009

When the Trail is Cold....

Most of the time, when a murder is committed, the police investigate as soon as possible. Evidence is collected and there’s an arrest. Sometimes, though, it’s not that simple. A death may not be discovered for a very long time. Or the wrong person may be convicted for the murder, and when there’s a conviction, the investigation into the murder typically stops unless there’s a compelling reason to re-open it. Or it may be that the investigation doesn’t yield any solid evidence, so the police can’t make an arrest. When that happens, a case goes “cold.” “Cold” cases can make for intriguing crime fiction, since they involve several levels of interest and conflict that don’t happen in “live” cases.

In some mystery novels, there’s pressure from a particular person to re-open a case. The suspense in those novels builds as the character (often a friend or relative of the victim) tries to convince the sleuth or the police to re-open a case. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), where Poirot investigates the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of Amyas Crale, a famous painter. The novel begins with a visit to Poirot by Carla Lamerchant, Crale’s daughter. She insists that her mother, Caroline Crale, who was convicted of the murder, was innocent, and asks Poirot to clear her mother’s name and find the real killer. Poirot is intrigued by her request and accepts the case. As he begins to look into the case, he’s told time and again that Caroline Crale did, indeed, murder her husband and that there’s no sense in raking up the whole business again. That resistance adds to the tension as Poirot slowly uncovers evidence that didn’t come out at Caroline Crale’s trial. In the end, Poirot uses the separate accounts of the five people who were present when Crale was murdered to solve the mystery and find the real killer.

There’s also an absorbing level of suspense created by a “cold case” in Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence. In that novel, Jacko Argyle is convicted of murdering his stepmother, Rachel. He dies in prison, and everyone assumes that he’s guilty. Two years later, Dr. Arthur Calgary recovers from a bout of amnesia to find that he could have cleared Jacko of the murder. When he comes forward with an ironclad alibi for Jacko, Scotland Yard is forced to look into the case again. The real tension and suspense in this story comes from the reactions of the Argyle family to the news that the case has been re-opened. Calgary believes that the family should be interested in finding out the truth, but as it turns out, the family members emphatically do not want the case re-opened. To re-open the case implies that one of them must be guilty of the murder, and that reality adds an important thread of tension to the story; so does their open resistance to the new investigation.

Carol Sutton’s Ferryman is also a very suspenseful treatment of a “cold case. In Ferryman, Steven Pengelly begins what he thinks is a new life on the Isle of Guernsey, where he buys and sails a beautiful thirty-foot sailboat. He strikes up a romance with Angela Dupont, the young woman who showed him the boat in the first place, and all is well until he finds out that Angela is just using him until she can find a wealthier “catch.” He breaks up with Angela and then, mysteriously, Angela disappears. The evidence suggests that Angela’s dead, and Steven is accused and later convicted of her death, even though there is no body. Two years later, Angela’s body washes up in Cornwall’s Fal Estuary. Forensics evidence shows that, far from being dead for two years, Angela’s only been dead a short time. Based on this, Steven’s proved innocent and freed from jail. He tries to begin his life again, but soon, he gets drawn into the case again by Veryan Pascoe, whose sister has also gone missing. Veryan persuades a very reluctant Steven to help her find her sister and get to the truth behind Angela’s death. Meanwhile, DI Alec Grimstone, who originally prosecuted Steven, has realized that he arrested the wrong man. So he re-opens the case and, in parallel fashion, also works to find out what really happened to Angela.

Sometimes, the interest in a “cold case” mystery comes from the process of unraveling who the victim was and why he or she died. That’s how the suspense builds in many of Kathy Reichs’ Temperence “Bones” Brennan novels. Brennan is a forensic anthropologist for the State of North Carolina and the Province du Quebec, and is frequently called in when unidentified bodies are discovered. In Devil Bones, for instance, she’s asked to investigate when a plumber discovers a hidden cellar where he finds relics of religious ceremonies – including the skull of a teenage girl. Meanwhile, the headless body of a teenage boy is found at a nearby lake. The locals believe that these deaths are the work of devil worshippers, and, led by a local preacher, are soon involved in a “witch hunt” to track down local practitioners. That fanaticism adds to the tension in this novel, and gives the story the sense of a “ticking clock” that also adds to the level of suspense. As is so often true of Brennan’s cases, too, this one’s not as simple as it seems on the surface.

In a similar way, forensic anthropologist Dr. Maureen Cole is called to the scene of an ancient gravesite in Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s Anasazi series. Those novels are bound together by the excavation of ancient ruins in the upper Sonoran Desert in the U.S. state of New Mexico. Archeologist William “Dusty” Stewart and his team are on the site of a dig when they unexpectedly find the remains of eight women. Stewart’s mentor persuades him to ask Cole to examine the remains and try to find out what happened to the women, and the two scientists begin to work together, although both are very reluctant to do so. As Stewart and Cole work together, they find other bodies and use them to piece together what happened to the ancient people whose remains they’ve found. What adds real interest to this series is that the stories take place in two time frames: one is the present day excavation and forensic investigation. The other takes place in the 13th Century, and is the story of the Katsina people’s self-destruction – the story of how the bodies actually ended up at the dig site.

What’s perhaps most compelling is when a modern-day investigation ends up being related to an older case. That’s what happens in Martin Edwards’ The Arsenic Labyrinth, which features Oxford history don Daniel Kind and DCI Hannah Scarlett, who leads a cold case investigation team. In that novel, Scarlett and her team follow a lead to the area near Coniston, where they’ve been told they’ll find the body of Emma Bestwick, who disappeared ten years previously. When they uncover Emma’s remains, they also unexpectedly find another body, fifty years older. As Scarlett leads the investigation of what happened to Emma Bestwick, Daniel Kind takes an interest in the older remains; what they find is that the two deaths are related to the history between the local Clough and Inchmore families, and have more to do with each other than it first seems.

Almost the opposite happens in Rita Mae Brown’s Murder at Monticello. In that novel, archeologist Kimball Haynes is put in charge of an excavation at Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello. In the course of the excavation, the team finds a long-hidden skeleton of a wealthy white man in the ruins of a slave cabin. Haynes begins to look into the history of the skeleton to try to identify it, and in the process, threatens to uncover some-deeply hidden family secrets in the town of Crozet, Virginia. When he’s shot, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, Brown’s sleuth, is sure that his murder is connected to the excavation, and she and her friends connect the two deaths with yet a third, 45-year old death.

Of course, there are lots of other "cold case" novels I haven't mentioned, too. In all of these novels, one important reason for which the “cold case” theme is successful is that the cases are believable and come up as a natural part of the plot, or of the sleuth’s work. Interest builds as the sleuth has to go beyond what witnesses say, and suspense builds as sleuth and the reader make the connections between past and present. That said, however, “cold case” novels can also suffer when there’s too much emphasis on forensic technical details, or when there’s not a logical, believable reason to bring the old case to light.

What’s your view? Which are your favorite “cold case” novels?


  1. Oh, wow...I love "Ordeal by Innocence." In fact, the whole cold case concept is very interesting to me. Great topic! And thanks for the tips on the cold case books you've listed.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Elizabeth - Ordeal by Innocence is a great book, isn't it? It's one of Christie's darker works, but it's got a gripping plot, well-developed, interesting characters and it's a fascinating study in psychology. I'm glad you love it, too.

  3. Cold case mysteries are fun because the sleuth has an added obstacle to overcome; the veracity of people's memories. It's odd how some facts stick with some people and don't with others. Some people have a gift for rewriting history and convincing themselves that their version is the accurate one. What I find always fascinating is that the memories are the memories of the character THEN not now. You could learn the story from a highly respected professor of mathematics; that would be credible, right? Now remember he was 16 at the time of the crime and had a desperate crush on the victim's sister. On second thought, maybe his memories aren't that accurate.



  4. I have to admit that I have only recently become a fan of Cold Cases. That said, you are right, these situations do draw out suspense. An excellent post. Thanks.

  5. Elspeth - You're absolutely right! In fact, Hercule makes that point in Five Little Pigs. In that novel, he asks the five major characters to write out their accounts of a murder that happened sixteen years previously, and it's very interesting to read how different they all are, and how much the characters have forgotten (or have they?) and remembered accurately (or have they?). In fact, one of the characters remembers the murder victim only from the perspective of the younger person she was at the time of the murder. Really interesting point you've made!

    JM - You make a solid point; when they're done well, "cold case" novels add lots of interesting layers of suspense. They also add some really compelling intellectual puzzles. I'm glad you've discovered them.