When old cases are re-opened, there’s usually some sort of initial ‘spark.’ Police departments or attorneys might have a new witness come forward. Or, there might be new evidence that comes to light. There are even cases where witnesses change their stories for whatever reason, and that throws a whole new light on a case. There are other reasons, too, for which a case might be re-opened.
Crime writers have some latitude and flexibility when it comes to the way a case is re-opened. And it’s interesting to see how different authors bring in that plot element. When it’s done effectively, it can move a plot forward in an interesting way.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide, Rosemary Barton, her husband, Gerald, and a group of people are out to dinner. Suddenly, Rosemary collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. It’s ruled a suicide, and the case is closed. Six months later, Gerald receives anonymous notes that claim Rosemary was murdered. The notes spur him to action, and he wants to see if it’s possible that accusation is true. So, the same people (minus Rosemary, of course) are invited to dinner, with the idea of forcing a confession from the murderer. Instead, Gerald is poisoned, just the way his wife was. Colonel Race (whom Christie fans will know from other stories) is a friend of Gerald’s and he works to find out who killed both of the Bartons. Christie fans will know that this novel is an expanded (and changed) version of the short story, The Yellow Iris.
Anonymous notes also play an important role in Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden. Ten years before the events of the novel, landscaper Warren Howe was murdered with one of his own tools. At the time, his wife, Tina, was suspected, but the police didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute the case. Now, anonymous notes suggest that Tina really was guilty. So, the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team, under the supervision of Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Hannah Scarlett, re-opens the case. As they slowly look back at the evidence, they find that more than one person wanted Howe dead.
In Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, it’s a business proposition that re-opens an investigation. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist has lost a libel suit against powerful Swedish business executive Hans-Erik Wennerström. The court costs and other expenses will likely force him to close his publication, Millennium. Then, Blomkvist gets a chance to save his business. Wealthy and prominent Henrik Vanger wants Blomkvist to solve a mystery. Forty years earlier, Vanger’s grand-niece, Harriet, went missing and has never been found. But recently, Vanger’s been receiving dried flower arrangements as gifts – exactly like the ones he used to get from Harriet. He wants to know if Harriet is still alive; and, if she is, where she is. In exchange, Vanger will give Blomkvist the information he needs to bring down Wennerström, and the financial backing he needs to save Millennium. It’s an offer Blomkvist really can’t refuse; so, he and his research assistant, Lisbeth Salander, get to work on the case. In the process of solving it, they find out some very dark secrets in the Vanger past.
Sue Younger’s Days Are Like Grass introduces pediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman. She lives in London with her partner, Yossi Shalev, and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Roimata ‘Roi.’ The family’s doing well in London, but Yossi would like very much to move to New Zealand. For Claire, it would be a homecoming, as she’s from Auckland. But she has her own good reasons for not wanting to make the move. It’s very important to Yossi, though, so she finally agrees. She gets a job in an Auckland hospital, and all goes well enough. Then, she discovers a tumour on the kidney of one of her patients. She wants to remove it, but the boy’s parents refuse on religious grounds. The conflict between them and the hospital gets a lot of media coverage; and, as Claire is the face of the hospital in this instance, she gets media notice, too. And that’s just what she wanted to avoid. We soon learn that, in 1970, her father, Patrick, was arrested and charged in the disappearance and presumed murder of seventeen-year-old Kathryn Phillips. He was even jailed, but there was never enough evidence to make a conviction stick. Now, with Claire in the media spotlight, the old case is brought up again. Simon Flaxstone, who’s writing a book about the case, has concluded that Patrick Bowerman may be innocent. He wants Claire’s help to try to find out the truth. For Claire, it may be the only chance she has to end the questions.
Lynda Wilcox’s Verity Long has a very interesting reason to look up old cases. She is the assistant to well-known crime writer Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport. Part of Verity’s job is to research old unsolved cases that her boss later uses as plot inspiration for her books. In the course of her work, Verity finds all sorts of cases that have either been left to ‘go cold,’ or that might not have been solved satisfactorily.
There are other sorts of ‘sparks’ that can spur a fictional character to look at a case again, even one that’s been closed. And that gives an author flexibility when it comes to working an old case into a plot.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Pilate’s Dream.