One really interesting aspect of human psychology is that we like things to make sense. We like questions to have answers. When things do make sense, we get closure. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget called this process ‘equilibration.’ To him, cognitive development occurs when we become aware that our assumptions don’t answer all the questions. When that happens, we adjust our thinking and find out more. That’s how we return to cognitive equilibrium.
And that’s arguably part of the driving force behind people’s reaction to old, unsolved crimes – ‘cold cases.’ Of course, for the family and friends involved in unsolved cases, there’s also the sense of loss and grief. But there are also the unanswered questions. Those questions can drive the sleuths who investigate those cases as well. And they’re sometimes the reason those cases come back to haunt people, as the saying goes, even years later.
In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, for instance, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to find out the truth behind the death of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. Sixteen years earlier, he was poisoned one afternoon during a painting session. His wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted, and she had motive. Her husband was having an affair with the subject of the portrait he was painting. What’s more, she had the poison in her possession. At the time, it seemed that the police had caught the right person. But Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants her name cleared. And Caroline can no longer speak for herself, as she died a year after her conviction. Poirot interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ at the time of the murder, and also gets written accounts of the murder from each of them. He uses that information to find out who really killed Amyas Crale and why. Throughout this novel, we see how this case has come back to haunt some people, precisely because the ‘official’ report at the time didn’t answer all of their questions. I know, I know, fans of Sleeping Murder…
Ian Rankin’s Resurrection Men sees Inspector John Rebus remanded to Tulliallan Police College after an unfortunate run-in with a supervisor. He and a group of other cops (they’re called ‘The Resurrection Men’ and ‘The Wild Bunch’) are given an unsolved case to work together. The idea is that the experience will teach them teamwork and the skills they need to co-operate with authority figures. The case is the 1995 murder of small-time crook Eric Lomax. The victim was hardly an upstanding citizen, but his murder has left some nagging questions. And as Rebus and the others on the team look into the case, they find more there than they’d thought. And Rebus finds that Lomax’s murder is connected with a case he and his team-mate DS Siobhan Clarke were investigating before his remand. As it turns out, the need for answers in that older case leads to answers in the recent case.
In Jan Costin Wagner’s The Silence, we are introduced to Inspector Antsi Ketola. He’s at the point of retirement, but is still haunted by one particular case. In 1974, Pia Lehtinen disappeared and was later found murdered. Ketola was never able to find out who killed the girl. It’s bothered him since then, not least because he wasn’t able to get answers for himself or for Pia’s family. Now another case has come up. Sinikka Vehkasalo was on her way to a volleyball session when she went missing. Her bloody bicycle has been found at the same place where a cross marks Pia Lehtinen’s murder. The older case still nags, and Inspector Kimmo Joentaa suspects that it may be related to this new case. So he asks Ketola’s help in solving both. It turns out that someone has been keeping secrets for a very long time…
Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett supervises the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. The team’s job is to re-investigate old cases that offer new leads. And part of what motivates these people (and the families and friends involved) is the desire to get some answers. In The Hanging Wood for instance, Orla Payne contacts Scarlett because she wants to find out what happened to her brother Callum. Twenty years earlier, Callum disappeared, and no trace of him – not even a body – was found. She’s been haunted by this for years, and part of the reason for that is that it doesn’t make sense to her. At first, Scarlett doesn’t pay close attention to the case; unfortunately Orla Payne is quite drunk when she calls about it, and doesn’t make a good impression. But not long afterwards, Orla herself dies in what looks like a case of suicide. But was it? Now Scarlett feels a strong sense of guilt that she didn’t take the victim more seriously, and re-opens the Callum Payne case. She also works to find out what really happened to Orla.
Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne looks for that same kind of equilibrium in Cross Fingers. She’s working on an exposé of dubious land developer Denny Graham when her boss asks her to change her focus. The idea now is to do a documentary on the Springboks’ 1981 tour of New Zealand – ‘The Tour,’ as it’s called. At the time, apartheid was still very much in place in South Africa, and many New Zealanders protested their country’s welcoming of the South African team. On the other hand, the police simply wanted to keep order. And of course, rugby fans just wanted to see some good matches, politics aside. The tour went from bad to worse to devastating, and it’s certainly documentary-worthy. But Thorne believes that the story’s already been done well already, and that there are no real new angles for her to pursue. Then she gets interested in one small detail. During a few of the protests, two people dressed as lambs showed up at games. They danced, made fun, and entertained the crowds at the matches. Then, they stopped coming to the games. Thorne wants to know what happened to The Lambs, and decides to pursue that question. She discovers that one of them was a professional dancer who was murdered late one night. Now this older case nags at her, especially as it becomes clear that there are some people who do not want her to find the answers.
There’s a powerful example of unsolved cases coming back, so to speak, in Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. In 1978, fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan disappears and is later found dead, with her own scarf round her head. The police do a thorough investigation, but they can’t get clear evidence against any one particular person. Then, a few months later, the body of sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor is discovered, also with a scarf round her head. Now it’s suspected that this is the work of a serial killer the press dubs The Sidney Strangler. The investigation continues, but the killer isn’t caught. There aren’t really answers in this case, and that haunts the people involved more than they know. Years later, journalist Erin Fury is putting together a documentary on the effects of murder on the families involved. She gets an introduction to Angela Buchanan’s cousins Jane Tait and Mick Griffin, as well as their parents. As she interviews these people, we see how much they’ve been impacted by what happened. And it’s not only their sense of loss. It’s also the lack of real answers and their growing awareness that things really aren’t as they seemed.
That need for things to make sense is part of what drives our curiosity. It’s also part of what keeps detectives and family members looking into old cases that don’t have clear answers, especially when those cases affect present investigations. These are just a few examples of what’s out there. Over to you.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Getting Closer.