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Best Served Cold: About Cold Case Jury

By Antony Matthew Brown, author and founder

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.

Honourable incompetence is a bacterial culture for questions and doubts. The death of Julia Wallace, in a 1931 murder that could have come from the pen of Agatha Christie, might have been resolved had the time of death been recorded with more care. Time of death is always an estimate within a certain margin of error, but a careless forensic examination bloats the range of possibilities. If timing is a critical issue, as it was in this case, then the value of important evidence is destroyed. But incompetence becomes dishonourable if the expert is also belligerent, defending the errors in court rather than acknowledging them. When conceit enters the witness box, truth is always its victim.

So, am I re-investigating these cold cases, unearthing fresh evidence to shed new light on old crimes? No, nothing could be further from my mind. I wish to present to the reader an interesting case for which other writers have arrived at differing conclusions. For example, the perennially imaginative Yseult Bridges argued that Charles Bravo's caused his own death in 1876 by mistakenly ingesting a rare poison. Others thought he was murdered, yet disagreed on the identity of the poisoner. These writers are the theory makers. By contrast, I am a theory collector, gathering up the ideas and sometimes developing them. My task is to bring them to life, showing how the drama might have unfolded according to each one, 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 of the case or the theories propounded by the various authors who researched it.

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 Cold Case Jury website. Over time, an overall verdict of the Cold Case Jury will emerge for each case. My final task is to present my views on the case in the postscript, which is only accessible online after you have submitted your verdict. But my view is only one.

The verdict always lies with you, the jury.

Antony Matthew Brown