It seems to be human nature that we want things to make sense. We want things to fall into place. You can call it a sense of gestalt or a sense of closure; whatever it actually is, we seem to want the pieces of things to fit together. That may be a part of the reason that unsolved mysteries and murders capture people’s attention the way they do. Even if there’s an official explanation for something, if there are lingering questions, people want the answers. We certainly see that in real life; there are plenty of unsolved murders that have made the news. We also see that urge to tie up loose ends and get answers in crime fiction.
For example, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is faced with an interesting unsolved mystery in The Musgrave Ritual. In that story, Holmes tells Watson about a very early case – a case brought to him by a university friend Reginald Musgrave. Some odd things had been happening at the Musgrave family home of Hurlstone, and Musgrave wanted answers. His butler Brunton and one of the maids, Rachel Howells, inexplicably disappeared. Nothing in the house was missing, so theft wasn’t the reason for their leaving. The only unusual thing that had happened before the disappearance was that Musgrave had caught Brunton going through some family papers. One of those papers was part of a seemingly meaningless series of questions and answers that was part of a family ritual. There wasn’t any logical explanation for what’s happened and that’s exactly why Musgrave wanted this mystery solved. As Holmes tells Watson, once he saw the questions and answers and visited Hurlstone himself, he was able to put the pieces of this mystery together.
In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot gets involved in an interesting case of the murder of a charwoman. On the surface of it, it looks as though the case has been solved. Mrs. McGinty’s unpleasant lodger James Bentley has been arrested for, charged with and convicted of the crime. In fact, he’s due for execution. But Superintendent Spence still has some questions; he thinks Bentley may not be guilty. So he brings the case to Poirot, since he’s now assigned to another case. Certainly neither Spence nor Poirot wants an innocent man to be executed. But it’s also those lingering questions that draw Poirot’s attention. So he travels to the village of Broadhinny, where the victim lived, to find answers. In the course of his investigation, Poirot discovers that Mrs. McGinty’s murder has to do with a set of cases from long ago. In a few of those cases, there was an official explanation for what happened, but there are still some lingering questions and doubts. That thread forms an interesting sub-plot to this novel.
That need for answers and logical explanations is also part of what motivates Josephine Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant and Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse when they get into very similar situations. In Tey’s The Daughter of Time, Grant’s in hospital because of a broken leg. In Dexter’s The Wench is Dead, Morse is in hospital because of an ulcer. In each case, the inspector gets interested in an old case. For Grant, a reproduction of a portrait of Richard III of England gets him interested in the old case of the Princes in the Tower. Was the king really the horrible murderer he was made out to be? For Morse, it’s a book about the 1859 discovery of the body of Joanna Franks in one of Oxford’s canals. Two men were found guilty of Franks’ murder and duly hung, but Morse isn’t sure they were guilty. Neither detective is assigned to look for answers, but both have lingering questions and for each detective, the official explanation leaves too many unresolved “loose ends.” That’s a big part of what drives these investigations.
Lingering questions and the need to find answers are also motivators for Stephanie Anderson in Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. Anderson is a fledgling psychiatrist who’s haunted by the seventeen-year-old disappearance of her little sister Gemma. Gemma Anderson vanished one day when the Anderson family was at a school picnic at a local lake. The police made a thorough investigation and everyone searched diligently, but Gemma was never found; her body wasn’t even discovered. Finally it was decided that she must have drowned in the lake. But Stephanie Anderson has never really been satisfied with that answer. When one of her patients tells an eerily similar story of a disappearance in her own family, Anderson comes to believe that the same person might have been responsible. So she takes up the case of her sister’s disappearance, despite a lot of family pressure to just let it go.
Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Carl Mørck is also motivated by lingering questions and doubts about a case. In Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes), Mørck is recovering from a serious wound and he’s finding it difficult to get back to work. In fact, he’s so difficult to work with that he’s moved to a new department, Department Q, that’s assigned to investigate cases of “special interest.” At first he’s perfectly content to simply do nothing. His interest gets piqued, though, when his assistant Hafez al-Assad calls his attention to the five-year-old disappearance of up-and-coming politician Merete Lynggard. The official explanation for her disappearance is that she drowned in a terrible accident during a ferry ride. But Mørck isn’t satisfied with that explanation; it leaves too many questions unanswered. So he begins to take an interest in the case and starts talking to the people involved. In fact, you could argue that it’s in part those unanswered questions and the fact that this mystery still seems unsolved that slowly pulls Mørck back into daily life.
It’s a fascinating aspect of human nature that we want things to make sense. We want logical explanations for things, and we want answers. That desire motivates at least some of what we do in real life, and it’s a strong theme in crime fiction, too. It’s part of why sleuths investigate even when they’re not assigned to do so and have no personal reasons to ask questions. To me (so feel free to disagree if you do) it’s another example of the way crime fiction can show us what we’re like.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Moody Blues’ Question.