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Sunday, 1 September 2019

The Golden Age Cold Cases

The  Golden Age
Probing the Past
The Golden Age Cold Cases
by Carol Westron


The official definition of a cold case is an unsolved criminal investigation which remains open pending further evidence. Contemporary crime fiction often features the cold case both in books and on television, with shows such as New Tricks, Waking the Dead, Unforgotten and Cold Case. Dramatised factual investigations of cold cases are also popular, as are historical investigations, such as History Cold Case. In real life, many cold cases are being solved every year, thanks to advances in forensic science.

In the Golden Age, several authors used the cold case as the basis for their books, but there was a distinction from the definition of solving unsolved crimes because, in the majority of Golden Age books, the crimes were not considered unsolved. Usually, either the crime had been solved to the satisfaction of the authorities or the death was categorised as accidental or due to illness. Occasionally nobody knew that a crime had been committed and it was assumed the missing person had gone away because they were unhappy at home. The investigation of these early fictional cold cases depends very heavily on the investigator’s acumen and the instinct that something is not right.

Agatha Christie used the cold case structure quite often in books featuring all her main detectives: Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. None of these cases have as their starting point a crime that the judicial authorities consider unsolved, but it transpires that those cases that are considered solved have not been solved correctly, while many others have not been characterised as a crime in the first place. In many, although not all, of Christie’s cold case investigations there is an added pressure, either because the wrong person is about to be executed, or from the likelihood that the killer may strike again.

An excellent example of the race to ensure that an innocent man is not sent to the gallows is Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952), in which Poirot is approached by his old friend Superintendent Spence who appeals to him to reinvestigate a case that has already been brought to trial and the accused man has been found guilty. To the jury it had seemed obvious that elderly charwoman Mrs McGinty had been murdered by her lodger, James Bentley, to steal £30 that she had secreted in her house. All the evidence points to Bentley as the killer but Spence’s instincts tell him that Bentley is not guilty. As he explains to Poirot: ‘“I did all I could at the time, I examined every possibility I could. And I didn’t get anywhere. But who knows, it may be different for you. You look at things in – if you’ll pardon me for saying so – in a funny sort of way. Maybe that’s the way you’ve got to look at them in this case. Because if James Bentley didn’t kill her, then somebody else did. She didn’t chop the back of her head in herself.”’

Poirot has several reasons for agreeing to take on the case: he is intrigued by the problem and delighted to have an occupation now that he is semi-retired; also he does not want his friend to be burdened by the fear that he has been part of the process that sent an innocent man to the gallows. Above all, there is ‘“the principle of the thing. If a man has not committed murder, he should not be hanged.”’ Despite the assistance of Superintendent Spence by providing details of the investigation that led to Bentley’s arrest, Poirot’s task is a difficult one because he has to conceal that he is investigating a crime that officially has been solved. This book shows the best side of Poirot, as a man with a passion for justice, who is willing to expend time, money and effort to ensure that the truth is revealed.

Christie shows her remarkable ability for thinking ‘outside the box’ when she makes James Bentley unappealing. As a potential victim of judicial injustice, he does not immediately engage the reader’s sympathy, but she makes the serious point that the unattractive are more likely to be suspected and convicted of crime than the charismatic and charming. Superintendent Spence described Bentley as an ‘“Unprepossessing sort of fellow. Nervous manner. Can’t look you straight in the face. Has a sly sideways way of peering at you. Worst possible sort of manner for a jury. Sometimes cringing and sometimes truculent. Blusters in an inefficient sort of way.”
… “He does not sound attractive, your James Bentley.”

“Oh, he isn’t. Nobody could like him. But I don’t want him to be hanged for all that.”’

Perhaps the most famous race to beat the hangman in Golden Age fiction is in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison (1930), where crime novelist Harriet Vane is on trial for poisoning her former lover. Although Harriet is a reasonably attractive, educated and articulate young woman, public opinion is hostile towards her. This is clearly illustrated in the judge’s remarkably biased summation, when he says that she had 
‘“consented to live on terms of intimacy with him, outside the bonds of marriage. Now you may feel, and quite properly, that this was a very wrong thing to do. You may, after making all allowances for this young woman’s unprotected position, still feel that she was a person of unstable moral character. You will not be led away by the false glamour which certain writers contrive to throw about ‘free love’ into thinking that this was anything but an ordinary, vulgar act of misbehaviour.”’ Fortunately, one member of the jury is a strong-minded woman who refuses to find the defendant guilty and, before the retrial, Lord Peter Wimsey is determined to prove Harriet Vane innocent.

In common with Christie’s Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952), in Strong Poison (1930) the police officer in charge of the investigation is honest and painstaking, as well as being a friend of the unofficial detective. In the case of Strong Poison, the Senior Investigating Officer is Chief Inspector Charles Parker who is sincerely concerned when Wimsey tells him he has got it wrong.
‘“She did not do it. It’s very convincing and water-tight but it’s all wrong.”

… Parker looked distressed. He had confidence in Wimsey’s judgement, and, in spite of his own interior certainty, he felt shaken.’

In most ways, Wimsey has an easier task than Poirot, because he has access to the police investigation and to Harriet’s friends and he can investigate openly. However, Sayers raises the stakes considerably by making Wimsey fall in love with Harriet, so that saving her is not merely a matter of principle but of desperate personal need.

In The Case is Closed (1937) by Patricia Wentworth, Geoffrey Grey has not only been tried and convicted of the murder of his uncle, he has already spent a year in prison. It would seem that the need for haste to prove Grey’s innocence is far less urgent than in the former cases, which hold the threat of the gallows, but Wentworth cleverly builds up the tension surrounding the disintegration of a man imprisoned for a life sentence and the wife who loves him. As Grey’s wife, Marion, explains to her cousin, Hilary Carew: ‘“If I could put my arms around him I could call him back. He’s going away from me all the time – dying away from me – and I can’t do anything about it... Think of him coming out after twenty years, quite dead! What can you do for a dead man? He’ll be quite dead by then. And what shall I be like? Perhaps I shall be dead too.”’
Fortunately, Hilary is a very determined young lady and she decides to investigate. At first it seems as though her amateur attempts are doomed to failure, but the odds become much better when that genteel but shrewd Private Investigator, Miss Silver, becomes involved.

One of Christie’s most intriguing later novels is Nemesis (1971), in which Miss Marple undertakes to reinvestigate a cold case where the man found guilty of murder has been in prison for ten years. Mr Rafiel was an acquaintance of Miss Marple and he once assisted her in apprehending a murderer (A Caribbean Mystery, 1964). In his will, Rafiel commissions Miss Marple to discover the truth about a murder for which his son, Michael, had been imprisoned. Instead of aiding Miss Marple’s investigation by giving her details of what had happened, Rafiel has arranged to send her on a coach tour with various prompts upon the way, which gives the investigation rather the feel of a treasure hunt. In starting this investigation, it seems that Rafiel is concerned not merely with ensuring that his son has been treated justly but also in getting justice for the murdered girl. In a letter to Miss Marple, sent after his death, he explains his actions: ‘You, my dear, if I may call you that, have a natural flair for justice, and that has led to your having a natural flair for crime. I want you to investigate a crime... Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everlasting stream.’

Sadly, in both Nemesis (1971) and Sleeping Murder (1976), probing into a cold case results in further deaths of innocent people. In Sleeping Murder, Gwenda Reed tries to discover what happened to her young stepmother, Helen, who had disappeared when Gwenda was a small child. It seemed that Helen had packed a suitcase and left voluntarily, and, after her disappearance, her brother had received postcards from her. However, when Gwenda returns to the house in which she, her father and Helen had lived, she is haunted by a memory of seeing Helen dead. At first Miss Marple believes that Helen’s killer is dead and advises her to ‘let sleeping murder lie’, but, after another murder occurs, she takes an active part in protecting Gwenda and bringing the killer to justice.

In both Nemesis and Sleeping Murder the main tool the investigators use is that of talking to people who were around at that time in order to piece together a picture of the characters and events.

Another novel that demonstrates even more vividly the dangers of stirring up a cold case, is Unnatural Death (1927) by Dorothy L. Sayers. By chance, Peter Wimsey becomes interested in the death of an old, terminally ill woman, Agatha Dawson, and his investigation leads to the deaths of more innocent people and attacks upon others. Unnatural Death is a howdunnit rather than a whodunnit, and the killer feels unassailable regarding the means of committing murders, but vulnerable about the motive. The only comfort that Wimsey receives to assuage his guilt about the trail of violence that his probing has provoked is that one professional man who could have worked out the killer’s motive was attacked before Wimsey started to interfere in the case. Throughout the book, as Wimsey and his helpers track down and question witnesses, the main mystery that he needs to solve is how the murders were committed.
‘Miss Dawson fascinates me, Charles. Such a beautiful subject. So old and ill. So likely to die soon. Bound to die before long. No near relations to make enquiries. No connections or old friends in the neighbourhood. And so rich. Upon my soul, Charles, I lie in bed licking my lips over ways and means of murdering Miss Dawson.”
“Well, anyhow, till you can think of one that defies analysis and doesn’t seem to need a motive, you haven’t found the right one,” said Parker, practically, rather revolted by this ghoulish conversation.’

Christie’s Sleeping Murder (1976), Sayers’ Unnatural Death (1927) and Wentworth’s Vanishing Point (1955) all emphasize the importance of asking the right questions of the right people. Often it is the ordinary, less-educated people who know a lot more than they are willing to tell, and the trick is to approach them in the right way. In Sleeping Murder part of the solution involves the contents of a suitcase and in Vanishing Point an important clue lies in the postcard sent purportedly from a woman who has disappeared. In Vanishing Point, everybody in authority had accepted that village woman Maggie Bell had gone away without warning in order to escape from a life of drudgery with her elderly, demanding parents, but her cousin, Florrie, has always known that this was not the case. When asked if she’d told the police of her suspicions, Florrie replies, ‘“They never asked me. Made up their minds she’d gone off to London. I could have told them better than that, but they had their own ideas. The old people were tiresome enough – I’m not saying they weren’t – but Maggie wasn’t the one to run off and leave them. I’d say that, no matter who said different. And as to that postcard that came down from London, well, I can tell you right away, Maggie never wrote it.”’ Florrie goes on to explain that Maggie always spelled both their names with a Y and she had always known that Maggie had not sent the card, but she had kept quiet because it would have distressed Maggie’s parents even more if they had known this and anyway the police weren’t interested. It is Miss Silver who gets her to tell what she knows. One thing that appears frequently in Golden Age cold cases, is that the amateur, especially those who can gain the trust of servants, has a better chance of discovering the truth than the majority of police officials.


A large number of Golden Age cold cases rely on the fact that the investigators of the original murder have been mistaken in their conclusions. In Christie’s
Sparkling Cyanide (1945) the coroner ruled that the death of Rosemary Barton was through suicide, due to post-flu depression; and in Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise (1933) the conclusion was that Victor Dean fell to his death by accident. In both cases, later investigation of their deaths depends upon the investigator talking to witnesses and fastening on the small details that at first seem irrelevant but in the end reveal the truth.
Five Little Pigs (1942) is one of Christie’s finest and most respected novels. The writer Robert Barnard wrote that, ‘All in all, it is a beautifully tailored book, rich and satisfying. The present writer would be willing to chance his arm and say that this is the best Christie of all.’ Regarding the cold case aspect, he believed that ‘The-murder-in-the-past plot on its first and best appearance – accept no later substitutes. Presentation more intricate than usual, characterisation more subtle.’ (A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie 1990.) The storyline is fascinating as it involves the same story told from five different viewpoints. Sixteen years previously, Caroline Crale had been convicted of poisoning her philandering,artist husband, Amyas Crale. Caroline died in prison a year later. She had not fought to prove her innocence but when her young daughter, Carla, was twenty-one, she received a letter that had been kept for her in which Caroline claims she is innocent. Carla asks Poirot to discover the truth. Five Little Pigs is an investigation conducted by Poirot’s conversations with the five people present when tragedy overtook Caroline and Amyas Crale and it is a fascinating and beautifully crafted book.

Elephants Can Remember (1972) is a book with much of the same motivation as Five Little Pigs. Poirot’s friend, Ariadne Oliver, introduces Poirot to the case of General Alistair Ravenscroft and his wife, Margaret. Ten years ago, the couple had been found on the cliffs near their home, shot dead. The verdict was murder-suicide, but nobody knows whether Alistair Ravenscroft killed his wife and then himself, or whether it was the other way around. Now Celia, their daughter, wishes to know the truth. The method of investigation is somewhat similar to that of Five Little Pigs, with Poirot and Ariadne Oliver talking to people who had known the couple, but it lacks the subtle characterisation and narrative drive of Five Little Pigs. The solution is clever, but the over-all book is rambling and has several contradictions. Elephants Can Remember was the last Poirot book that Christie wrote (although Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case was published in 1975, it had been written many years before) and it is far from being her best work.

Halloween Party (1969) is a cold case story with an excellent plot, although, as with many of Christie’s later books, it has too many loose ends to be entirely satisfactory. It has a grim start. A thirteen-year-old girl boasts that she saw a murder some years ago, when she was too young to realise what she’d witnessed. Everybody laughs at the girl, who is known to be untruthful, but soon afterwards, she is found dead, drowned in a bucket of water used for bobbing for apples at a Halloween Party. Ariadne Oliver is present at the party and begs Poirot to investigate. With the help of another old friend, Superintendent Spence, Poirot makes a list of people who have disappeared or died in suspicious circumstances in the neighbourhood. This cold case investigation is especially complex because the detective is uncertain of the identity of the murder victim and, as Poirot investigates, more violent deaths occur. 

The two Tommy and Tuppence Beresford cold case books are also the last two featuring them and, sadly, both novels suffer from a lack of narrative cohesion. By the Pricking of my Thumbs (1968) starts well, with a mixture of humour and sinister events, when Tommy and Tuppence visit Tommy’s Aunt Ada in a nursing home for old people. When the cantankerous old lady banishes Tuppence from her room, she encounters Mrs Lancaster, an ‘old lady with white hair combed back off her face... She had a pretty pink and white face, and she smiled at Tuppence in a friendly manner.’ Mrs Lancaster offers Tuppence a glass of milk, which she assures her is ‘not poisoned today.’ Later she asks Tuppence if it is her poor child that’s buried behind the fireplace. Tuppence is very glad to go home with Tommy and forgets all about Mrs Lancaster until Aunt Ada dies and, amongst her possessions, is a painting of a house, which was given to Aunt Ada by Mrs Lancaster. Tuppence sets off to return the painting but tracking down Mrs Lancaster proves both difficult and dangerous.


Postern of Fate (1973) was the last Tommy and Tuppence book and the last book that Christie wrote. In it Tommy and Tuppence move to a new house, suitable for an elderly retired couple. They discover that the house has many secrets regarding a girl called Mary Jordan and her death and some of the old books they bought with the house contain what appears to be a secret code. Unfortunately, the book is rambling and repetitive, making it hard to discover what they are investigating, much less the perpetrators.

In many cold cases the murderer is successful because nobody realises that the deaths are unnatural. Two outstanding examples of this are Agatha Christie’s stand-alone novels Murder is Easy (1939) and The Pale Horse (1961). In both books, several people die, either from unconnected accidents or illness, before a person on the edge of the action realises that there is something amiss and starts to investigate. In Murder is Easy (1939) this early realisation is made simple for the main investigator, Luke Fitzwilliam, because he meets Miss Lavinia Pinkerton on the train to London and she confides in him that she is heading to Scotland Yard to report several murders. She admits that, at first, she had thought she was imagining things, ‘“I might have been the first time, but not the second, or the third or the fourth. After that one knows.”’ Luke thinks that Miss Pinkerton has a vivid imagination and hopes that the Scotland Yard officials will ‘let her down lightly.’ However, the next morning, when he reads in the newspaper that Miss Pinkerton was killed by a hit-and-run driver, he begins to think differently.


In The Pale Horse (1961) the investigator is again set on the track of a killer of multiple victims by a coincidence. After witnessing a girl having her hair pulled out by the roots in a fight, Mark Easterbrook hears of other people who have had the same symptom. Soon after, he learns that these people have died, although the cause of death has been attributed to various illnesses. When he comes into possession of a list of names that was found amongst the effects of a murdered priest, he realises that many of the names match with the people who died. Mark and Ginger, the girl who offers to help him, start by using the traditional detective’s technique of probing into the circumstances and motives for the murders but abandon this for a more dangerous plan of setting a trap for the killers, using Ginger as the bait.

For both Murder is Easy and The Pale Horse, Christie uses an amateur investigator for the simple, practical reason that Poirot or Miss Marple would recognise the truth much too swiftly. The somewhat bumbling stand-alone detective is there for a reason. In Murder is Easy Christie states a basic precept that holds true for the majority of her books and those of many of her contemporaries As Miss Pinkerton explains, ‘“It’s very easy to kill – so long as no one suspects you.”’

In Golden Age fiction, police detectives are far less involved in cold cases than the than the intuitive and less trammelled private investigators. However, Ngaio Marsh wrote one Roderick Alleyn novel that fulfils all the criteria of the cold case, including the fact that the case is still open . In Died in the Wool (1945) Alleyn is in war-time New Zealand, helping to investigate various security concerns. Fifteen months before the action in  this book, formidable Member of Parliament, Florence (Flossie) Rubrick was last seen going towards the wool shed at her sheep station, Mount Moon, intending to practise her speech for a forthcoming appearance. The next morning everybody assumes that she has set off for her meeting but, two weeks later, she turns up trussed into a bale of Mount Moon wool. Investigating a murder is not part of Alleyn’s counter-espionage brief, but two young relations of Flossie are based at Mount Moon doing important engineering work, which could be vital to the war effort. There are fears that details of this vital work is being leaked and so Alleyn accepts the invitation from Fabian Losse, the young engineer who inherited Mount Moon after the death of his uncle, Arthur Rubrick, Flossie’s husband.

All the original physical evidence is unavailable. Even the baling equipment has been replaced. So, Fabian
suggests that Alleyn gathers together all of those who were present at Mount Moon on the evening of Flossie’s
disappearance and listens to them talk about Flossie. The potential witnesses are still all at Mount Moon, apart from Flossie’s husband, Arthur, who died not long after her. Fabian is very eager that his idea is adopted:
‘“If we could get them all together and start them talking, couldn’t you, an expert, coming fresh to the situation, get something? By the colour of our voices, by our very evasions? Aren’t those signs that a man with your training would be able to read? Aren’t they?”
“They are signs,” Alleyn replied, trying not to sound too patient, “that a man with my training learns to treat with extreme reserve. They are not evidence.”
“No, but taken in conjunction with the evidence, such as it is?”
“They can’t be disregarded, certainly.”

Alleyn is aware that he has the double task of solving Flossie’s murder and of deciding whether it is connected to his counter-espionage job. So, it transpires that a police detective ends up using the same techniques that Poirot had used to investigate the poisoning of Amyas Crale in Five Little Pigs. Although initially sceptical, Alleyn discovers that listening to several varying accounts, not just of the evening of Flossie’s murder but also of Flossie the person, does help him to solve her murder and prevent any further espionage at Mount Moon.

I have saved until last one of the most innovative and influential cold case novels of all time, The Daughter of Time (1951) by Josephine Tey. Inspector Alan Grant is confined to a hospital bed after suffering an injury in the course of duty. Unable to even sit up, Grant is hideously bored, until his friend Marta Hallard brings him a selection of pictures of historical characters that are, in some way, tied up with a mystery. Grant is drawn to a portrait of a man, without at that point knowing his identity: ‘A judge? A soldier? A prince? Someone used to great responsibility, and responsible in his authority. Someone too conscientious. A worrier; perhaps a perfectionist.’ When Grant discovers that the subject of the painting is ‘Richard the Third. Crouchback. The monster of nursery stories. The destroyer of innocence. A synonym for villainy’, he is disgusted because he has always prided himself on his ability to read character in a face. He cannot believe that he could not see villainy in the face of the man who, according to historians, had murdered his two young nephews, the Princes in the Tower. Intrigued, he begins to research the history of Richard III, enlisting the help of a young researcher and asking his friends to bring him history books and contemporary accounts, many of which he discovers are far from contemporary and have a political bias. This method of investigation is very different from that of talking to witnesses, but in a strange way it has similarities, because Grant, the detective, is weighing the evidence in accounts and considering whether these witnesses are relating the truth. At the end of his investigation, Grant concludes that the princes survived into the reign of Henry VII, who got rid of them because they endangered his claim to the throne.

The Daughter of Time
was controversial when it was first published and remains controversial to this day, but few readers would deny that it is a magnificent work of detective fiction. In 2012, Peter Hitchens wrote that The Daughter of Time was ‘one of the most important books ever written’ (Mail on Sunday.) It has been described as ‘one of the permanent classics in the detective field.... one of the best, not of the year, but of all time’ (Anthony Boucher), and has been listed as number one on the CWA's Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list and number four on the MWA's Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time list.

There was a resurgence of interest in The Daughter of Time when the body of Richard III was discovered in a Leicester car park in 2013 and his reburial, with due honour, in Leicester Cathedral in 2015. Whatever the opinions of various battling historians, The Daughter of Time is a superbly crafted cold case novel that has stood the test of sixty-seven years.

All the books mentioned in this article can be obtained on Kindle or in paper books.  

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.


To read a review of Carol latest book Strangers and Angels click on the title.








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