Monday, August 18, 2014

Old Cases, Cold Cases

Many people are fascinated by old murders. Think of Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper, The Black Dahlia, and think about the Lindbergh Kidnapping. You can look back on them and wonder if things were really as they seemed. It’s been said there’s new evidence in the Lizzie Borden case that indicates someone else killed her parents. Jack the Ripper? Do we really know, without a doubt, who he was?


What is it about old, cold cases that fascinates people? From a writer’s point of view, I think they’re somewhat easier to write about. I took stock of my own books and realized that five of my books involve murders that took place in the past. It wasn’t something I did intentionally, but after thinking about it I realized, in their own way, cold cases are easier to write about – especially fictional old murders that for some reason must be solved today.

I try to include some humor in my books, too, and it’s more difficult when writing about current crimes. There’s nothing funny about death, but you can find humor in the people solving the case and circumstances surrounding the event, especially if they’re working on something from the past.

Does it seem too coincidental when a protagonist finds old letters or clues that have been hidden away for a century? It’s not, and I’ll tell you why.

My family has always loved taking photographs. My grandmother, thankfully, never threw any photos away. They date back into the 1800s. I have family photos galore.

I have a relative who was in the Navy from 1904-1907. He took pictures of all kinds of things from the officers on his ship to the Great Wall of China.

Something unexpected happened. I was going through the family photos, they fill a large trunk, and something caught my eye. In the midst of the family photos was an unusual and disturbing one my relative took while overseas. It was a picture of a firing squad shooting people – not the kind of thing you expect to find in among family photos. I can’t even imagine how he was able to take it. There was an officer on horseback with troops standing nearby. You could actually see the smoke coming out of the guns, and… Well, I don’t want to get too graphic. My point is, you never know what you might find mixed in with family things. If I’d put that in a book, and the photo had significance in a case, no one would believe it. By the way, I had an expert look at the photo and according to him it was a foreign situation, not Americans doing the deed.

Cold cases are different from current cases because you don’t necessarily think of them in the same way. Old crimes are almost more like a legend, and in some cases, that’s what they are.

When writing about old cases the author has to do research, too. The reader needs to know what things were like in the “old days” to understand what those in the past were dealing with to solve a crime. 

With today’s technology we can do a lot more with clues than they could back in the day. Imagine trying to solve a murder back in 1880, or even 1926. You’d have to rely on circumstances much more than you would today. It could become very sticky. Today you can look at DNA, fingerprints, videos and so much more. The technology is mind-boggling.

So, again, what is the pull to cold cases? They involve looking back in time instead of looking over your shoulder. They involve more imagination. They involve a lot of “what ifs”. Things weren’t laid out in an A-B-C easy-to-read format.

Do you enjoy old cases? Do they stimulate your imagination more than current crimes? What case, solved or unsolved, has kept your interest over the years?

Until next time, look ahead, but look back, too. See if you can figure out some of the answers about Lizzie Borden or Jack the Ripper, or any other cold case. Think about what you based your conclusions on, even if you’re not sure you’re right.

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  1. Great post!
    One of my favorite TV shows is Cold Case. I watch the reruns over and over. For me, there's something so intriguing about the combination of history and mystery that's missing in modern day crimes - real or fictional. Old family photos, a letter yellowed with age and found in the niche of an abandoned house . . . all elements that pique my interest and make me want to buy the book.

    1. Pat, You've hit it right on the head. There's so much more to old crimes, or at least there can be. They're intriguing. Thank you so much for commenting!

  2. Marja,
    I can see you writing a novel based on the old photo you found.
    I've outlined the first mystery in a new series, and it's based on a cold case. I think cold cases and old secrets are intriguing.

    1. I agree completely, Marilyn. I'm not sure I could write one about a firing squad. Somehow I have a feeling it might be too dark. Can't wait to see what you're doing with your new series. Thank you for commenting today.

  3. I've always found cold cases interesting, and loved the CBS show "Cold Case." There are area cold cases revisited annually, or every few years, by news media in hopes that someone will remember something and come forward. One of our local news channels did a series earlier this year looking at some of those cold cases, and how they go about looking for new clues. One case even resulted in an arrest, based on information that came about due to that news series.

    1. Interesting, Heather. Even after one hundred years there can be clues or evidence that can change the original conclusion. I'm glad to hear one of the cases was resolved. I wonder if there was a witness or if the story made someone take a second look at something in their possession. Thank you so much for commenting!

    2. After more than 25 years, I'm still baffled by the Jacob Wetterling kidnapping. It happened so close to my hometown, and my oldest nephew was just a year older at the time. I knew instantly what I'd do to the culprit if he'd snatched my nephew, and I could get my hands on him. Continue to be a fan of Cold Case, the TV show, been though it's been nothing but reruns for years.

    3. I find it interesting that we sometimes relate crimes we hear about to our own lives, Sharon. It's easy to do, and I've done it, too. And, yes, we sometimes think about what we'd do if we caught the bad guy.

      By the way, I'm reading your book, Murder on a Stick, right now and enjoying the heck out of it. I only wish I had more reading time. Thank you so much for commenting!

  4. Got me I love those old unsolved mysteries especially the ones you write. Blog was great & got me thinking about those old unsolved crimes that still plague history.

    1. They can be fascinating, Jake. And thank you for the compliment. Also, thank you for stopping in today and commenting!