But They’re Back Again*

Returning to Old CasesSometimes a present-day murder case is integrally related to a past – even a long-ago – murder. When the police are faced with a case like that, it’s often useful to get information from the police who worked the original case. That’s not always possible, and it certainly doesn’t always go smoothly even if it happens. But tapping the knowledge of those who investigated the original case can give the police a really useful perspective. There are many, many examples of how this plays out in crime fiction; space only allows me a few. But if I know you good people, you’ll come up with more than I ever could anyway.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to prove her mother innocent of murder. Sixteen years earlier, her mother, Caroline Crale, was arrested, tried and convicted in the poisoning death of her husband (and Carla’s father) Amyas Crale. There was plenty of evidence against her, but Carla has always believed her mother was innocent. Poirot agrees to look into the case again. One of the people he speaks to is ex-Superintendent Hale, who was in charge of the case at the time. Like most of the other characters, Hale believes that Caroline Crale was guilty. He’s not particularly pleased, either, at what he sees as the insinuation that he and his team acted incompetently. Quick to reassure him, Poirot says,

‘I know you for what you are, an honest and capable man.’

And that’s why Poirot depends on Hale to give him the facts of the case and the evidence that the police amassed. Hale’s input doesn’t solve the case, but it provides Poirot with important information.

Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel helps to provide information about an old case in Recalled to Life. Cissy Kohler was in prison for years for the 1963 murder of Pamela Westrup. Now she’s been released after serving her sentence. There are some not-very-flattering allegations that she was innocent, and that the investigator of record, Wally Tallentire, knew that, and tampered with evidence to that effect. Dalziel bitterly resents that. He was there at the time (Tallentire was his mentor), and is convinced that Tallentire handled the case appropriately. So he decides to look at the case again, more to prove his mentor right and clear his name than for any other reason.

In Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper investigate when two sets of remains are discovered on the property of Pity Wood Farm, in the Peak District. As one of their starting points, the police try to establish who owned the property at the time of the deaths. The farm used to belong to brothers Raymond and Derek Sutton, although it was recently sold to Manchester attorney Aaron Goodwin. One of the avenues of exploration for the police is the nearby village of Rakedale. But very few people there are willing to talk to the police, and certainly not to talk about the Sutton brothers. So Fry and Cooper turn to Dave Palfreyman, recently retired from his job as the village bobby for Rakedale. He knows everyone in the area, and knows the history of Pity Wood Farm and of the Suttons. Palfreyman doesn’t return to official active duty in this novel, but he does give Fry and Cooper information, ‘copper to copper.’

In Jan Costin Wagner’s Silence, Sinikka Vehkasalo rides her bicycle to volleyball practice one afternoon, but never makes it. Her bicycle is later found, covered in blood and with the handlebars twisted the wrong way. Inspector Kimmo Joentaa takes the case, and he and his team get to work. One of the eerie things about this case is that the bicycle was found in the spot where, in 1974, Pia Lehtinen’s body was discovered after she’d gone missing. Joentaa himself didn’t work on that case, but recently-retired police detective Antsi Ketola did. Joentaa thinks that the two cases are connected, so he asks for Ketola’s help as he tries to make sense of this new case. It turns out that he’s quite right, and that someone has been keeping some dark secrets for many years.

Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus has recently returned to active duty in Saints of the Shadow Bible. And in one plot thread of that novel, he looks again a former case. It comes out that prominent business leader Stefan Gilmour may have participated in obstruction of justice in a case of murder more than thirty years old. At the time, Billy Saunders was arrested for beating Douglas Merchant to death. The case fell apart though, and Saunders never went to jail. Now, Internal Affairs officer Malolm Fox wants to look into this case again. He wants to show that the police involved in the investigation (and that includes then-Constable Rebus) colluded to keep Saunders from being imprisoned, because he was a snitch, more valuable to them ‘on the outside’ than behind bars. It’s an interesting case of a looking at a past case through the eyes of a copper who was there – and who may have helped to obstruct justice.

And then there’s Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill. When the body of Yvonne Jenkins is discovered in the Wilton Hotel, Bampton, the police think at first that it’s a straightforward case of suicide. But there’s more to it than that. A discovery is made that links the death to a terrible 1978 case. One day, Sophie Jenkins and Rachel Jones walked to school together as usual. But only Rachel returned. A search was made for Sophie, but she was never found. If this death is linked to that 1978 case, then DI Francis Sadler and his team want to know as much about that case as possible. For that, Sadler turns to Superintendent Llewellyn, who was a part of that investigation. Llewellyn’s help turns out to be key in finding out what really happened to Sophie Jenkins, and how it’s connected to the present-day death. Admittedly, Llewellyn isn’t retired, but it’s interesting to see how his insights help to drive the investigation.

And that’s the thing about former detectives, and those senior detectives who go back to work on old cases. They are often rich resources, and can do much to aid an investigation. For them, doing so can provide a valuable opportunity for closure.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Carpenter and John Bettis’ Yesterday Once More.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, Jan Costin Wagner, Reginald Hill, Sarah Ward, Stephen Booth

21 responses to “But They’re Back Again*

  1. Ooh, In Bitter Chill sounds really good. Is it fast paced?

    • I think it’s quite good, Sue. It’s not breakneck-paced, as thrillers often are. BUt the pace moves along quite quickly, and there’s a solid underlying core of suspense.

  2. Margot as it happens I started reading a book last night that has this very connection – there is a suspicious death of an undercover FBI agent and a “person of interest” who seem to be linked to other crimes – so the FBI starts looking into the older cases…very compelling… the book is Huntress Moon by Alexandra Sokoloff and I am about 30% in – and cant wait to get back to the book tonight. Have you read this one Margot? It is the first in a series.

  3. tracybham

    I can so seldom contribute examples, Margot. I forget plots so easily. But this time I have one. In the Woods by Tana French is that type of plot. A child’s body is found in the woods in the same spot that two children went missing several years earlier. (I think I got that right.)

  4. Kathy D.

    Good point on In the Woods. That rattled the old gray matter around a bit, and I remembered that Tana French’s Faithful Place also goes back to a missing persons (read murder) case from many years earlier. And A Secret Place digs up a murder from a year earlier.
    French must like this plot device. Also, the word “Place.”
    Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill is not a fast-paced thriller, as you say, but it is unputdownable. Once one starts reading this book, she/he does not want to stop. It’s great for a weekend with tea (iced tea, iced coffee these days) and snacks, with the phone turned off and email shut down.
    So many people like this book, including a mystery reading friend of mine, who is raving about it — no gore, no mounting body counts, but a good classic type of mystery but a contemporary story with good characters.

    • I think you have have a point there, Kathy. French uses that plot point in several of her books. And I’m very glad that you liked In Bitter Chill as much as you did. And I do like the role Llewellyn plays in it.

  5. Margot, now you’ve got me trying to remember book titles and plots. I enjoy books like this when the author blends the past and the present in a smooth wave of back and forth. Enjoyed the examples here.

  6. Col

    There’s a few mentioned that sit on the pile that I ought to get to – Christie, Rankin and Hill…..just not enough hours in the day!

  7. You’ve got a lot of my favourites in this post already, Margot – Dalziel, Rebus and of course Ms Christie. Belinda Bauer’s recent novel ‘The Shut Eye’ also mixes a current case, of a missing child, with an older unsolved case. The detective is convinced there’s a link and looks on the new case as an opportunity to re-open the old one, but his superiors aren’t convinced. A good one, as Bauer’s usually are.

    • Oh, I’ve heard lots of good things about The Shut Eye, FictionFan. I’m glad you brought that up. And as you say, Bauer usually delivers a fine read. I actually think this premise takes on all the more urgency when it’s a case of a missing child, too.

  8. Margot, I thought of Sarah’s “In Bitter Chill” when I read through your post. What a terrific debut! I still have to review the book. That said, your examples of theme posts read like short reviews, which is good for the uninitiated reader like me.

  9. Though I can’t think of specific examples, I always enjoyed those tv crime shows – movies, too – in which the grizzled veteran or retired cop/secret agent has that one, last case he hasn’t solved, and just has to solve it. It often involves a Moriarty-type nemesis character as the villain.

    • You know, you have a point, Bryan. You do often see the ‘nemesis’ character in those films, whether on the big or small screen. It’s quite often the motivation behind the veteran coming back into service, so to speak.

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