Solving a Cold Case

By Corrina Carter

True crime and writing are my greatest passions. Only they seldom intersect. In my free time, I read books ranging in quality from Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Executioner’s Song to Lawrence Schiller’s JonBenét Ramsey exposé Perfect Murder, Perfect Town. I also like to research cold cases and visit the graves of homicide victims. Yet behind my laptop, I’m interested in life, not death. My essays and short stories explore topics as diverse as wildlife conservation, LGBT rights, David Lynch films, and—of all things—horse racing. Until four years ago, I couldn’t explain this contradiction.

Then in 2013 I drove to Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California, to pay my respects to Elizabeth Short. Elizabeth, better known as the Black Dahlia, had seduced me with her beauty, Hollywood aspirations, and grisly end. As I wandered through the graveyard in search of her headstone, I trembled with squeamish excitement. Soon grass alone would separate me from the victim of the most high-profile unsolved slaying in the history of Los Angeles.

Elizabeth rested under the best marker her single mother could afford: a pink marble slab. The slab pulled on my working-class heartstrings. I found myself feeling more empathetic than morbidly fascinated. Instead of fixating on graphic details such as Elizabeth’s Glasgow smile, I reflected on her final moments. Did she hope for a reprieve until she couldn’t hope—or experience anything—in the slightest? Did she dwell on her family, missed opportunities, and premature loss of the animal pleasures of existence?

I could only answer these questions with educated guesses. But my guesses, in resurrecting Elizabeth’s last thoughts, also resurrected her consciousness and, by extension, her, for we humans are defined by our interiority, not our physicality. Therein lay the connection. True crime immortalizes the murdered, while writing allows me to immortalize myself. If someone reads my prose once I’m dead, I’ll think again. Be again.

At first, I worried my ulterior motive for writing would prevent me from fully engaging with my subject matter. How could I do justice to, say, a bird threatened by climate change or an episode of Twin Peaks when part of me was preoccupied with my literary hereafter? Yet don’t all writers write to satisfy an ulterior motive, if not the desire to live on, then a yearning for order, community, freedom of expression? Our motives may influence the stories we tell or just compel us to tell stories, any stories. Either way, we hope our work moves others. We hope it binds us to others across time and space, as my imagining of Elizabeth’s demise bound her to me across life and death.