So Many Pieces Still Unsolved*

UnsolvedAs I post this, today would have been Amelia Earhart’s 119th birthday. Her life was certainly fascinating, and her career has been an inspiration to many people. But as much as that, it’s her disappearance that’s captured the public’s imagination. In 1937, she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, went missing in the area of Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean. There were on a round-the-world flight that was being followed by millions of people when they went off the radar.

There have been many theories about what happened to Earhart and Noonan. Some have held up better than others, but as far as I’m aware, there’s been no indisputable evidence of their fate. And that’s precisely what makes this disappearance so irresistibly interesting to so many people. It’s an unsolved case, and people very often find them fascinating.

There are plenty of other real-life unsolved cases, too. They’re the subject of a lot of speculation and theories. There are crime-fictional cases as well. And they capture people’s interest even when those people have no stake in what really happened. It’s human nature to be curious.

In Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, for instance, Inspector Alan Grant is laid up with a broken leg. As he’s recuperating, he happens to muse on a portrait of King Richard III. His reflection leads him to the question of whether the king was really the murderer he was made out to be. That possibility gets Grant curious about what really happened to Edward V of England and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York. Most people have always thought Richard III had them killed. But Grant begins to wonder if there’s another theory. So he looks into the matter.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse shows a similar sort of curiosity in The Wench is Dead. In that novel, Morse is laid up with an ulcer. During his recovery, he reads a book about the 1859 discovery of the body of Joanna Franks in one of Oxford’s canals. At the time of her murder, two men were arrested, found guilty, and duly hung. But Morse isn’t sure that they really were guilty. So he can resist looking into the case again. Neither he nor Inspector Grant is officially assigned to the case in question. It’s just human nature and the desire to get answers that drives them.

Agatha Christie’s The Thirteen Problems also shows the human tendency to want questions answered and mysteries solved. The Thirteen Problems is a collection of short stories, loosely tied together by an overarching theme. A group of people meet every Tuesday evening. At each meeting, one person describes a murder case. The others try to solve the murder. And it’s interesting to see how the human wish to impose order and have things make sense plays a role. I agree with you, fans of Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case.

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes) introduces Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck. In the novel, he’s recently returned to work after a line-of-duty shooting that left him injured, one colleague murdered and another with permanent paralysis. Never the easiest person in the world to work with, Mørck has become even more difficult since his return. So, for several reasons, he’s given a new role: head of a new department, Department Q, which is dedicated to looking at ‘cases of special interest’ – cold cases. Mørck’s first instinct is to do as little as possible, since he’s very cynical about both the department and his appointment to it. But then one case captures the interest of his assistant, Hafaz al-Assad. Five years earlier, up-and-coming politician Merete Lynggaard when missing during a ferry trip with her brother, Uffe. The theory at the time was that she went overboard and drowned. But her body has never been found. Assad is curious about the case, since some things don’t quite add up. So he persuades his boss to re-open it and look into it more deeply. And that’s when the two discover that Merete Lynggaard might still be alive. If so, she may have very little time left.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers, the second of her novels to feature Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne. The nation is getting ready for the 30th anniversary of the South Africa Springboks’ rugby tour, which was to include matches with the New Zealand All-Blacks. At the time of The Tour, as it’s often called, apartheid was in full force in South Africa, and many people protested the Springboks’ visit. Others simply wanted to see the matches. And, of course, the police were responsible for keeping order and protecting everyone’s safety. The controversial decision to let the visit go ahead led to some real ugliness. Now, Thorne’s bosses want a new angle on the 30th anniversary story. Thorne doesn’t really think there is one at first. And in any case, she’s busy with another story. But then, one small item catches her attention. During the match, two people dressed as lambs went to the games, where they danced, made fun, and entertained the crowds. Then, they stopped attending. Thorne’s curious about what happened to The Lambs. Her curiosity is piqued even more when she learns that one of them was a professional dancer who was killed one night. Now, Thorne can’t resist looking into what really happened.

And that’s the thing about human nature. And it’s part of the reason for which people still want to know what happened to Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan. I hope we learn the real truth.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Powderfinger’s Thrilloilogy.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Colin Dexter, Josephine Tey, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Paddy Richardson

22 responses to “So Many Pieces Still Unsolved*

  1. Margot, your mention of The Thirteen Problems reminded me of the marvelous “Black Widower” stories of Isaac Asimov. He’s remembered, of course, primarily for his marvelous science fiction, but he also wrote more than sixty mystery short stories about the Black Widowers. They’re a group of armchair detectives who meet in a private dining room to talk about unsolved mysteries. The group then attempts to come up with the correct solution (much as in the Christie book), but the kicker is that the correct answer, each time, comes from Henry, the club waiter. They’re wonderful stories.

    • Thanks, Les, for mentioning those stories. As you say, it’s easy to forget that, along with his prowess at nonfiction science and science fiction, Asimov really did write quality crime fiction. I’ve always liked his Lije Baley series, and you’ve reminded me that I need to re-acquaint myself with the Black Widower stories. I suppose it should be surprising that a scientist would be interested in (and would write well about) unsolved mysteries; that’s their stock in trade, if you think about it.

  2. I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Amelia Earhart, since reading a YA biography of her as a child. There’s a lovely Joni MItchell song about her, I’m sure you know it with your great feel for music. And the theme of the unsolved mystery in the past is one of my favourite setups for a crime novel.

    • I love Amelia, too, Moira. In fact, I almost chose it for today, but in the end, I didn’t. So I’m glad that you mentioned it. And as for Earhart? I’ve always been fascinated by her life and story, too. There’s just something about her. There’s something about the unsolved mystery from the past, too. Little wonder you find it irresistible as a context.

  3. Col

    I was always quite fascinated by the Lord Lucan case which was in the news again fairly recently. I think his son has just had him declared dead. Unless he turns up somewhere now, we’ll never know.

  4. kathyd

    Mercy is a real up-all-night nail biter. And so are Paddy Richardson’s books.
    I do wonder what happened to Amelia Earhart, but I don’t think it’s such a mystery. I think we want to keep it a mystery as it’s more fun and we don’t want to think about bad endings. She was certainly an adventurer and a woman who faced challenges and kept on going despite naysayers.

    • She certainly was, Kathy. And you’re absolutely right about both Adler-Olsen’s and Paddy Richardson’s work. Both can write a novel that keep you up all night reading.

  5. Margot, in spite of superior communication and technology, we are nowhere close to unravelling real-life mysteries, as evident from the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 two years ago. There have been conspiracy theories about the flight that has vanished without a trace including possible forced diversion to the US-held Diego Garcia island in the Indian Ocean. I can see why unsolved cases would play out so well in crime fiction. Thanks for the wonderful examples.

    • There are definitely some mysteries, Prashant, that may never be solved no matter how much technology we have, Prashant. I hope we do find out the truth about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370; it must be so difficult for the families not to know what happened to their loved ones. I’ve heard some of the theories about what happened, and I do wonder what happened. Glad you enjoyed the post – thanks for the kind words.

  6. With our modern technology one can’t help but hope that one day we will know what really happened to Amelia Earhart’s flight. But so much time has pasted and so much evidence lost we probably will never know. I guess we can’t help but want to solve the unknown. Great post, Margot.

    • Thanks, Mason. And you’re right; humans are, I think, naturally curious. We want to know and we can’t help wondering. It’s part of the appeal of those mysteries. We may never know what really happened to Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan, but I think we’ll always wonder if we don’t find out.

  7. This post reminded me of the Jane Whitefield character (series by Thomas Perry) who actually helped people disappear. A different take on characters who vanish into thin air.

    • Most definitely interesting, Pat! I’m glad you mentioned that series; it is a really interesting perspective on ‘disappearing’ characters, no doubt about it.

  8. Tim

    Tey’s book might be (IMHO) the best of the bunch. Even with the real mystery recently solved (supposedly) in England, Tey’s book remains compelling. Now, though, I will settle for second-best by rereading Dexter’s. And just to put the cat among the pigeons, (Meow!) I posit this argument and wait for your readers’ reactions: Colin Dexter’s Morse remains the best series character ever created! Move over Poirot. Get out of the way Miss Marple. And forget about it Holmes. Morse is first in his class. (Meow!) Let the feathers fly!

  9. I love the way humans are so curious about the unexplained – I was drawn to books on the subject as a teenager which dealt with subjects as wide apart as the Cottingley Fairies and spontaneous combustion. Many of my favourite writers (including Colin Dexter) use this curiosity; Camilla Lackberg has Erica digging around in old stories very frequently in her role as a writer.

    • I like it, too, Cleo, that people tend to be curious, and I don’t blame you for reading up on those different sorts of subjects. You’re right, too, about the Erica Falck character. She does get curious, and I think that adds to her appeal.

  10. Margot: Sue Grafton in her Kinsey Milhone series has more than one mystery involving a long unsolved case. Perhaps the most compelling is “Q” is for Quarry where Kinsey looks into the death of a teenager almost two decades later. I was startled at the end of the book when I learned the book was based on an unsolved 1969 murder and includes photos of a reconstructed face of the victim.

    • Oh, Q is For Quarry is a good example of what I had in mind with this post, Bill, so thanks. And I always think it’s interesting when an author bases a story on real events. In fact, that’s a post in and of itself, so thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  11. tracybham

    I have Jussi Adler-Olsen’s first book and I need to get to reading it. Your description makes it sound very good.

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