The Allure of Cold Cases
By Allison BrennanJanuary 18, 2022
I’ve always been fascinated by cold cases. I’ve often thought about why—is it because I love mysteries? Is it about human nature and the need for answers? Is it a bit darker than that…a fascination with the unknown or the unknowable, or an interest in the murder of strangers?
Whatever the reason, I’m not the only one—hence the plethora of cold case programming on television, the popularity of true crime books, and the explosion of cold case podcasts. My attraction to cold cases started early—when I was in high school—and I began to explore them in my writing.
My long-time character Lucy Kincaid, for example, lost her nephew to murder when they were both seven. It was a cold case for twenty years, shaping the decisions and lives of everyone in the Kincaid family. When I created that backstory, I did it because I knew there were many crimes that were never solved, and I wanted to explore how unsolved crimes affected the survivors. How each person in the Kincaid family handled Justin’s murder is a story and informed their decisions then and in the future. As I think it would be if their fictional story was real.
I’ve listened to several podcasts over the last couple of years, but am always drawn to cold case mysteries. The reason is simple: I read a lot of true crime, so if a podcast is about a case I’m familiar with, I don’t want to waste my time listening to it. But cold cases are unsolved and I’m always interested in the circumstances that led up to the crime, how the crime affects people around the victim, and what the police did—or didn’t do—in their attempt to solve the crime. I love the backstory and set-up and I’m always asking questions, the what if…? that entices authors as they craft their stories.
I think most of us feel a need for closure, in our own lives or in the world around us. Books need to have endings—they don’t need to be happy, but they need to be satisfying. Television series that are canceled without resolution of the big questions make me fume—I can think of several times something has been canceled and had me angry enough to shoot off nasty messages to the creators. (The Glades and Dark Matter jump to mind, but there are others.) If you’re going to cancel a show, at least let the creators wrap up the storyline! Firefly at least had the movie Serenity to give us some answers for the story arc.
So cold cases—a missing person, a murder, an unexplained death—these always draw me in. My imagination goes into overdrive: what happened? Is this missing person dead or alive? Did they leave voluntarily and go off the grid? Why? How? Are they dead? Accident or murder? Where is the body? And if there is a body, is there evidence? What is it? Why couldn’t the police make an arrest? Do they have a suspect and if they do, are they right? Why can’t they prove it? And if they don’t have a suspect, how long do they work the case before it becomes inactive? When does an inactive case go on the front burner?
One of the reasons writers love to tackle cold cases is because the police can take a back seat in the story. Cold cases are generally inactive, and investigators focus on what they can solve, not cases where they don’t have the time or resources to pursue leads. That truth opens the door to amateur sleuths, investigative journalists, and others.
In my book The Sorority Murder, I had a running thread that I didn’t initially think about. The police don’t know what they don’t know. Meaning, if they don’t know to question someone, they may not find the answers they need. Likewise, someone—a potential witness, for example—may not know they have valuable information that could help solve a crime. If they don’t know that they have important information (saw a missing person, heard an argument, etc.), and the police don’t ask them, clues can be lost for years or forever.
I just finished writing a book in my Quinn & Costa series that is (very loosely) based on an unsolved cold case of eight young women. I can’t stand it when stories have no endings, and I wanted to write an ending, albeit fictional. This is human nature—to seek answers, want justice, and find the truth—which is why cold cases on television or in books will continue to draw us in. Or maybe it’s only me!
What about you? Is there a cold case you have been obsessed with? Maybe in the town where you were raised or a crime that just drew you in? Or a television show that got canceled and you wanted to tar and feather whoever made that ill-fated decision and denied you answers to your story questions? Inquiring minds want to know…
About The Sorority Murder by Allison Brennan:
Lucas Vega is obsessed with the death of Candace Swain, who left a sorority party one night and never came back. Her body was found after two weeks, but the case has grown cold. Three years later while interning at the medical examiner’s, Lucas discovers new information, but the police are not interested.
Lucas knows he has several credible pieces of the puzzle. He just isn’t sure how they fit together. So he creates a podcast to revisit Candace’s last hours. Then he encourages listeners to crowdsource what they remember and invites guest lecturer Regan Merritt, a former US marshal, to come on and share her expertise.
New tips come in that convince Lucas and Regan they are onto something. Then shockingly one of the podcast callers turns up dead. Another hints at Candace’s secret life, a much darker picture than Lucas imagined—and one that implicates other sorority sisters. Regan uses her own resources to bolster their theory and learns that Lucas is hiding his own secret. The pressure is on to solve the murder, but first Lucas must come clean about his real motives in pursuing this podcast—before the killer silences him forever.