Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Fifteen Years Ago...

EDIT: Added a link to ahsweetmysteryblog's post on Christie's use of mysterious cases in the past and changed "cold case" to what you see below.               

                                           *squawk!* Don’t forget DL-6! *squawk*

This is inspired by some of Ho-Ling’s posts on different tropes he likes seeing in mysteries, from closed circles to mysteries that have the supernatural as a key part of the story.

We all have those…”plot devices” is the wrong phrase, but I can’t think of anything else that fits beyond “trope,” that tend to suck us in whenever they appear. I’m not so much talking about locked room mysteries or dying message stories, but rather certain elements that hook us. For me, that would be the "mysterious case in the past."

You know what this looks like. At some point, the detective asks about a certain character, maybe a name that keeps popping up, and everyone just averts their eyes and starts mumbling about “that incident five years ago,” or something like that. It’s a case that seems to touch everyone and influence everything. There’s a memorial or gravesite, or an area that no one goes to anymore, or a family member still in the depths of grief. And of course, there’s a bundle of unanswered questions in the back of everyone’s minds.

Usually, if the detective isn’t there to solve the case, she inevitably finds out that the past case connects to her current one, and has to resolve it too. The case is usually unsolved, and the detective will only learn about it in bits and pieces, as the grief is too great, or the shame about how certain characters handled it too overwhelming. (And of course, sometimes everyone is vague to sustain the good old cover-up.) For me, that piecemeal approach is what draws me in with this plot; I enjoy seeing everyone whisper about “that murder” before finally someone starts to come clean about what they’re talking about, why that person is being shunned or why kids aren’t allowed to play in the abandoned factory anymore. Sometimes the past case provides eerie parallels to the present, digging up those unpleasant unanswered questions already mentioned. Sometimes the past case provides the motive for a modern one. While I haven’t read many of them, my understanding is that quite a few of the cases in Case Closed or The Kindachi Case Files have some mysterious crime in the past that often provides a motive in the present. Sometimes it complicates an accepted narrative, such as a body turning up that seems to match the M.O. of a killer long dead. It’s a pretty common device in modern mysteries; the Wesley Peterson novels by Kate Ellis, although I haven’t read them, or the Lake District Mysteries by Martin Edwards will probably jump to mind. And when it comes to past authors, John Dickson Carr liked to give his novels some vim with a mysterious murder, sometimes in the very distant past. Agatha Christie was also a very prolific user of this device.

Sometimes the mystery is already “solved.” If the detective is lucky, most people she meets will agree that the wrong man was convicted or that it wasn’t a suicide, and she’ll have plenty of help. If she’s unlucky, then almost everyone’s going to get real angry about her asking questions about odd evidence or shaky witness testimonies.

Of course one way or another, the detective’s presence, even if they weren’t there to investigate the cold case in the first place, will usually end up provoking more murders, such as in Paul Halter’s The Crimson Fog. Everyone, reader included, is quick to assume that the killer is tying up loose ends…but sometimes there's more to it. On rare occasions, such as Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs or Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, the focus is entirely on solving the cold case. I haven’t read the former, but the latter shows that this can be a bit of risk, since the narrative can get dragged down, especially when the case is so long in the past that most of the witnesses involved are dead.

But the series that always jumps to mind when I think about mysterious cases in the past is the Ace Attorney series. Ever since the first game’s DL-6 Incident, this long-running series usually features a mysterious case in its games, a case that connects most of the main cast and that, considering the series it’s a part of, ended with the wrong person taking the fall. The main character is usually unaware of this case, beyond the occasional mention that the other character tries to deflect from, but finds out that it is part of a seemingly-unconnected modern murder, and from there ends up solving it and bringing justice to the present. The most recent game in the series, The Great Ace Attorney 2, has a great example of this in the Professor case. While this is partly because the game is still fresh in my memory and I was pretty awed by it, I remember being fascinated by this bizarre series of murders that almost every supporting cast member knows something about, learning more and more as the details were given (The killer’s face was hidden with an iron mask during his trial! He rose from the dead!) and seeing the main character slowly but surely pick apart every attempt to cover up the dark truth of the case. It was a very good example of how this type of plot works.

So yeah, I really like this trope, and not just in mystery fiction. Horror fiction can sometimes make even more effective use of it. Unless it’s just a minor part of a larger plot, even the weakest mystery novel is elevated in my eyes once people start grumbling about how “This feels like seven years ago…” or saying “You ever heard of the Calendar murder?” It’s always a joy to see! Feel free to share your favorite examples of this trope in the comments below.

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