Many people are fascinated by old crimes. Think of Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper, The Black Dahlia, and think about the infamous Lindbergh Kidnapping. You can look back on them and wonder if things were really as they seemed. At one time it was 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? Do we have all the facts about the sinking of the Titanic?
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 if the story is fictional, or at least partly fictional. I took stock of my own books and realized that several of my books involved crimes that took place in the past. It wasn’t something I did intentionally, but after thinking about it I realize, in their own way, cold cases are easier to write about – especially fictional old crimes that for some reason must be solved today.
I try to include some humor in my books, and it’s more difficult when writing about current times. 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 trying to solve 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 to the 1800s. I have family photos galore. I have a relative who was in the Navy from 1904-1907. He took photos 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 which fill a 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 pictures of Great-Great-Grandma. 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 rifles, and… Well, I don’t want to be 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 involved foreign soldiers, not Americans.
Cold cases are different from current cases because you don’t necessarily think of them in the same way. Old crimes are more like a legend, and in some cases, that’s what they are. When telling the story, it’s almost like the crime is off stage somewhere, not just across town.
When writing about old cases the author has to do research. The reader needs to know what things were like in the “old days” to understand what those in the past were dealing with in order 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 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 aren’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. Think about what you based your conclusions on regardless of what crime you’re trying to solve, even if you’re not sure you’re right.
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