By Antony M. Brown
I agree with George Orwell, who famously lamented the decline of the English murder. He thought original murders were virtually extinct by the first half of the twentieth century, and that brutality had replaced ingenuity in pursuance of the ultimate crime. Gone were the days of assiduous poisonings, carefully laid traps and mysterious killings without apparent motive. These were now the preserve of thrillers, movies and, of course, dear Aunt Agatha. Fact had lost its frisson to fiction and reality was left somehow diminished.
There is a quality to a bygone murder that seems to set it apart from its modern counterparts. It was an era of etiquette and arsenic, of afternoon tea with a spoonful of malice. Modern Britain is too open, too honest even, to create the social conditions of the past that drove some to commit murder, often with an insidious craft that flummoxed the authorities of the day.
This last point is important. Like revenge, a venerable murder is best served cold. Unsolved. These are the intriguing cases that have several plausible solutions and have bequeathed us enough evidence to let us debate what probably happened. These are the masterpieces of murder, to quote the title of an Edmund Pearson book, the dark art that would be hung upon the cold walls of a Tate Criminal Gallery. These are the cases for the Cold Case Jury.
Does this mean that these crimes were perpetrated by the Machiavellis of murder? No, an unsolved crime from Orwell's golden age of murder does not imply its criminals were more deviously clever than today's. Undoubtedly some were, but the truth is that many of these cold cases would be solved by today's higher standards of professionalism and scientific methods of detection. Even the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, arguably the greatest single murder of the last century, spawned a vast conspiracy theory industry, largely because of a flawed autopsy. Whether this was by malign influence or honourable incompetence is a quicksand best avoided here. My point is that, had the autopsy retrieved the bullet fragments from the President's brain, subsequent forensic analysis would have revealed the type of gun that terminated a presidency that bright November day and then the shadows of doubt, as well as an industry, might have disappeared.
So, am I re-investigating these cold cases, unearthing fresh evidence or presenting new theories to shed new light on old crimes? Sometimes, yes, but my overriding goal is to present the reader with an interesting case for which the verdict is open to doubt. My task is to take the reader back in time to witness the events leading up to a violent or suspicious death; reconstruct how it occurred according to the different theories; and present evidence to the reader as in a real court. I hope to bring these crimes back to life, showing how the drama might have unfolded, emphasising the timeless interplay of the people involved and presenting the historical stage on which they acted. In reconstructing a cold case theory I prefer to use narrative's present tense - dialogue. Some of it is verbatim, drawn from trial or inquest testimony. The rest is more a work of imagination, yet always governed by the facts and theories of the case, connecting the evidential dots by plausible lines of narrative.
I hope I am also an impartial advocate - the Cold Case Advocate, if you like. My aim is to show the strengths and weakness of each theory and then you have your say. I'm hoping you will give your verdict on the this website. Over time, an overall verdict of the Cold Case Jury will emerge for each case.
The verdict always lies with you, the jury.