Michael Arntfield’s How to Solve a Cold Case And Everything Else You Wanted to Know About Catching Killers (Harper Collins 2022) is a patchwork quilt of a book, its first half explaining the business of cold cases, its second using particular case studies to show how catching killers does (or does not) work and subsequently how cases become cold, and its third details what Arntfield sees as the issues of the true crime genre. This third section is the one I took most issue with, although I think the choppy nature of the book generally made me wonder about what audience Arntfield perceives himself as writing to.
Arntfield is extremely knowledgeable. As a cop-turned-criminologist, a university professor, the founder of the Cold Case Society at Western University and a member of several other organizations that work to solve cold cases, there is much to be learned from the knowledge he espouses in the first half of this book. This half of the book is so chalk-full of information about cold cases it almost reads like a textbook. All readers will not enjoy this approach, but I found it balanced and I appreciated being given the chance to learn from Arntfield’s expertise in this section. However, there are small sections in this part of the book as well as elsewhere that Arntfield is a bit too lenient on the institution of policing, and I think readers should be forewarned about that. He’s never afraid to mention when cops have seriously bungled a case and caused it to go cold, but he makes a few negative comments about the “defund the police” movement and later suggests that modern-day true crime has made consumers needlessly skeptical about law enforcement. It is my opinion that many true crime readers have mistrust in the police for extremely good reasons and I was slightly surprised at these comments considering that Arntfield deals everyday with cold cases that became cold because of neglectful, unorganized, malicious, and untrained cops working within a system that is inefficient and broken. True crime readers don’t just gain this mistrust from carefully cultivated true crime products: they can simply turn on the news and see citizens murdered in the streets by cops. This is the first case, but not the last, where I wondered who Arntfield thought his audience was.
The second half of a book sees Arntfield using particular case studies to explain different aspects of catching killers and to display how cases go cold. I thought this was an effective and logical strategy and one that I learned from. Where the book fell flat for me was in the last half where Arntfield provides a survey of true crime’s progress from the Victorian-era to the present day and then offers mini-reviews of many major true crime texts, docuseries, documentaries, etc. I thought these mini reviews were needless and told me nothing as a reader except what Arntfield thought of something like Making a Murderer. He also makes clear in this section that most modern-day true crime products are as unnuanced and vapid as the audience who takes them in, and I wondered for the second time who Arntfield thinks his audience is. He makes some crucial points about how we consume true crime, but for the most part this section felt overly critical and drew focus away from the book’s stated premise. This criticism felt especially strange to me considering that How to Solve a Cold Case is premised on the notion that members of the general public can (and should) help to solve cold cases. It seemed like Arntfield was both criticizing true crime fans for being vapid but then calling upon them to solve cold cases. This didn’t really track for me.
If you are looking to learn about how cold cases work, how they become cold, and what regular folks can do to assist in their being solved, Arntfield has a wealth of knowledge to offer. Although there were parts of this book that I flat-out disagreed with, I do think the book is worth reading for the cold case knowledge it contains.
A copy of How to Solve a Cold Case was provided to True Crime Index by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
About the Writer:
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime has been published in Crime Fiction Studies.