The cold case
In “Leaving Time,” bestselling author Jodi Picoult uses one of the most effective plot devices available to writers for ratcheting up suspense: The cold case. In Picoult’s latest novel, all that remains of a long-ago crime is a dusty box in an evidence locker with some bloodstained clothing, a single red hair, and a tiny pink tennis shoe. Cold cases are inherently fascinating because they represent justice denied. This novel, which weaves in elephant research, thoughts on motherhood and psychics – is no exception.
Cold cases are timelessly fascinating because they represent justice denied. For a novelist, they provide a structure for going back to a long-ago event and revisiting it from a contemporary perspective. And with scientific advances in evaluating evidence, including advanced DNA testing, there is a resurgence of interest in and hope for solving cold cases.
In “A Cold Case” by Philip Gourevitch, hero Andy Rosenzweig, a former patrolman who became the chief of investigations for the district attorney of Manhattan, meets his match: A charming, articulate sociopath who he sets out to prosecute for a decades-old unsolved murder. The immensely talented Gourevitch crafts a completely fascinating story with unforgettable characters.
“The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases” by Deborah Halber focuses on a group of committed amateurs who devote countless hours to linking unidentified human remains to missing persons reports. The featured case is that of a 30-year-old case cracked open by an amateur detective who matched the description of the remains to that of a posting by a woman describing her missing sister. Halber’s subjects are dogged researchers whose devotion to sifting through volumes of minute details is mind-boggling to the relatives of the missing, many of whom are still nursing a spark of hope, decades after authorities have given up.
Some of my favorite books about cold cases are works of fiction. Michael Connelly’s series focuses Harry Bosch, a brilliant, dogged LAPD detective, are a shining example. In the latest, “The Burning Room,” Bosch is called on to investigate a unique case: A man has succumbed to complications after being hit by a stray bullet a decade earlier. Connelly channels his experience as a police reporter in L.A. and Miami to craft a gripping drama with masterful forensic detail.
Scottish mystery writer (and former Well Read guest) Ian Rankin’s central character, Edinburgh cop John Rebus, has also started working cold cases. “Saints of the Shadow Bible,” the latest in the Rebus series, is a fascinating book that features another Rankin character, internal investigator Malcolm Fox. Fox and Rebus loathe each other, but they must work together to solve a decades-old mystery.
The great J.K. Rowling, author of the “Harry Potter” series, has started a fantastic detective series written under the pen name of Robert Galbraith. The first book in the series, “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” features a cold case of sorts – the death of a celebrity model that the authorities have written off as a suicide. Rowling puts her detective Cormoran Strike on the case, and this hard-boiled detective tale touches on the perils of celebrity culture, which a subject Rowling is all too familiar with. Rowling proves she’s one of the most versatile writers in history with the promising start to a new series.