Digging up the dead: investigating the cold case crime narrative

While the cold case thriller owes its life to new techniques such as DNA profiling and new disciplines such as forensic anthropology, the genre’s practitioners vary in their degree of commitment to these origins.

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The Girl Next Door 
Ruth Rendell
Hutchinson, 282pp, £18.99

An Event in Autumn 
Henning Mankell; 
translated by Laurie Thompson
Harvill Secker, 176pp, £9.99

The Skeleton Road 
Val McDermid
Little, Brown, 406pp, £18.99

Oedipus Rex is often described as the first detective story but it was also the prototype for another sort of thriller, in which the crime under scrutiny was committed long ago. Oedipus, who kills his father and sleeps with his mother, is in Sophocles’s telling a man who has already killed his father and slept with his mother.

If thriller writers were slow to exploit the possibilities of the “cold case”, that was only because they were awaiting the necessary developments in criminalistics, in particular forensic science, with its founding principle of “Every contact leaves a trace”. Until then, the cold case mystery was more or less doomed to tell a story in which, as with Oedipus Rex, the culprit turns out to be the detective, or at any rate someone whose identity the detective could unearth without the help of evidence or, most of the time, eyewitnesses.

But the conditions of a genre’s emergence, though often illuminating, rarely determine the artistic uses to which it is put. And while the cold case thriller owes its life to new techniques such as DNA profiling and new disciplines such as forensic anthropology (and its popularity, as reflected in television programmes such as New Tricks, Silent Witness and Cold Case, is consistent with what might be called the forensic turn in crime fiction), the genre’s practitioners vary in their degree of commitment to these origins.

For Ruth Rendell, the cold case is a means to an end. In The Girl Next Door, she uses a 70-year-old double murder to explore the theme of change, particularly social change as captured in colloquial English. The discovery of a pair of very different hands in a biscuit tin is used not as the opening move in a forensic whodunnit – the culprit is identified in the prologue – but to reunite a group of friends, elderly and mostly widowed, who used to hang around together as children during the Second World War, before anyone used the word “dated”, back when photos were called “snaps” and when: “Everyone read books and most people had hobbies, made things, played cards and chess, dressed up and played charades, sewed and painted and wrote letters and sent postcards.”

One of the old gang falls in love with his teenage sweetheart and leaves his wife of 35 years; another is forced to confront the mounting possibility that one of the severed hands belonged to his mother, the severing having been done by his now decrepit father. (Rendell’s attraction to the cold case goes back a while: her story “The Orchard Walls”, published in the mid-1980s, ends at the point in the proceedings where the new novel begins, with the discovery of an aged crime.)

Rendell has rejected various plot-thickening possibilities in order to compose the portrait of a group and an age – and, for long stretches, the novel is about as brutal and sinister as an episode of The Archers. Rendell’s publisher, evidently a bit baffled, has tried hard in the dust-jacket blurb to create a picture of business as usual – “A weary detective, more preoccupied with current crimes, must investigate a case of possible murder” – though the detective in question features only briefly, just long enough to voice the question that every writer in this area must in some way confront: “Who cared after all these years?”

It is sensible in that context for Rendell to place the emphasis on current events, reducing the crime to bit-player and catalyst, offering developments rather than revelations, attending more to what happens next than to what happened then, though the two are clearly related. The comings and goings of her slow-moving cast at first seem incapable of delivering the satisfactions of a thriller – something that The Girl Next Door never quite stops being. But tensions increase, first gradually, then suddenly, and it becomes clear that the seeming blandness of the earlier scenes was working all along for the benefit of the book’s construction.

Rendell uses the old murder as a way of marking time, comparing roughly now to a long-ago then, missing out the periods in between, so that differences in habit seem stark. Henning Mankell, in his newly translated novella An Event in Autumn, touches on some of the same territory – it is noted that, on the phone, people used to ask how you were but now they ask where you are – but his approach is more direct, less patient.

Mankell’s detective Kurt Wallander is shown reflecting on “how everything had changed during his many years as a police officer”, how he and his daughter “belonged to different generations”, how he feels “old”, even before a hand pops up in the garden of a house he plans to buy. From the first page, the atmosphere is one of reminiscence, which the cold case plot intensifies.

The question of “Who cares?” is presen­ted as inherently ridiculous, asked not by Wallander but by the callous younger generation of police officers – the generation embodied in Rendell’s book by the indifferent Quell, representative of “the age of computers and online games, from ebooks, DVDs and CDs, Bluetooth and Skype, smartphones and iPads”. (It is possible that Rendell overworks this motif.)

On the whole, Mankell’s ambitions tend, like Rendell’s, towards the character study rather than the case study and towards ethical investigation and social portraiture rather than police procedural. In an afterword, Mankell calls the Kurt Wallander series “novels of Swedish unrest” and recalls his realisation that he could “exploit” the character “to make the most of what I wanted to say”. (He also writes that when starting on the series, he proceeded from the belief that: “The best and most fundamental ‘crime stories’ I could think of were classical Greek dramas.”) Like Stieg Larsson in the most canonical of all cold case thrillers, The
Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
, in which Blomkvist and Salander investigate a 35-year-old disappearance, Mankell uses a cold case to root around the historical causes of current unrest – and, as in Larsson’s novel, the Second World War hovers into view.

An Event in Autumn was a commission, written to be distributed for free all over Holland, and it has taken over a decade for someone to translate it – until recently, there were full-bodied Wallander novels to deal with. But since the publication of the final Wallander instalment The Troubled Man, there has been a greater incentive to seek out any odds and ends. In this case, a commercial exercise deals a sort of literary justice, the tone and themes thrown up by the cold case making the novel an appropriate send-off.

The cold case thriller acts as a litmus test, sorting out the straight-arrow crime writers from those, such as Rendell and Mankell, who use the genre as something like a Trojan horse. It also serves to distinguish one sort of straight-arrow crime writer from another. When Georges Simenon used a six-year-old murder in his newly reissued novel The Two-Penny Bar (1932), it didn’t introduce any special theme or mode of detection. Maigret simply visits the alleged scene of the crime and before long witnesses another crime. If Simenon was using a new route, he found a familiar turning very quickly indeed. But for the Scottish writer Val McDermid, the cold case is a world unto itself, and one deserving of tailored investigation.

That is not to say that her new novel, The Skeleton Road, is a dramatised textbook devoid of literary themes (McDermid’s oral history Forensics is published by Profile next month). It’s just that the narrative is linked all the way along to the possibilities of forensics and not only as a way of getting at cold case themes – time, memory, cross-generational bad blood.

The level of engagement is indicated by the professional history given to the novel’s heroine, DCI Karen Pirie, who moved from the cold case unit in Fife but is now head of the historic cases unit in Edinburgh. The difference between a cold case, which reopens an old investigation, and a historic one, in which only the crime is old, is the kind of nuance that McDermid is careful to acknowledge. (And one I’ve trampled over throughout this piece.)

In The Skeleton Road, a demolition quantity survey comes across “a scatter of bones that had clearly once been a human being” but once Pirie’s unit identifies the body – a man in his forties, dead for eight years – the forensic adventures continue. The victim’s past involved crimes that were also dusted, swabbed, poked at. Real historical injustice (in the Balkans this time) makes an appearance, but not in the style of Mankell or Larsson. It’s there not as the suddenly exposed bedrock or cornerstone or centrepiece of the novel, not as what McDermid really “wanted to say”, but as the type of crime that requires forensic investigation – and as a subject well suited to the devotedly forensic cold case thriller.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 10 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Britain in meltdown