Musings on unsolved crimes, inspired by the Writing Community Chat Show

I was on The Writing Community Chat Show last week – here’s a link to the episode – as part of a panel of authors. Panel talks are cool but also challenging: you want to talk, but you don’t want to go on and on and make it all about you, or cut in if someone else has something to say, or veer back if the topic’s already moved on. So, for instance, when a really cool question comes up … you don’t always get to answer it.

But this blog is all about me, so I’m answering it here.

When considering True Crime, how important is it to the guests that the crime is solved? Are there any unsolved crimes that intrigue and have inspired the panel?

Darren Pengelly

First, thank you, Darren, because I love this question. I could go on for hours about it. So it’s probably good other people jumped in and we moved on.

The thing about true crime is that, as a genre, it loves crimes that have been solved. When Ann Rule signed the contract to write about “the Ted Murders,” she knew she wouldn’t be getting it published until after there’d been a trial and sentencing. The Stranger Beside Me was first published in 1980, after Bundy had been found guilty of two murders, three counts of attempted first-degree murder, and two counts of burglary. It came out quickly enough that an update needed to be added when he received his third death sentence for the murder of Kimberly Leach, but it still wasn’t sent to print until Bundy had been found guilty.

True crime likes stories that get wrapped up neatly and tied with a bow. It’s all about the solved cases and the plucky law enforcement agents who went toe-to-toe with the cunning criminals and came out on top. True crime doesn’t like unsolved cases or systemic problems that can’t be pinned on a single person in a catchy mug shot.

Okay, there are some exceptions.

Says the woman who’s written two books on Jack the Ripper. But, in that case, the Ripper isn’t still out there, ready to murder anyone reading a book about him. (Imagine the Golden State Killer reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark before he was finally caught. That’s the premise for Catherine Ryan Howard’s The Nothing Man. The Golden State Killer didn’t actually go on to murder because of the book, but in that case, it was a possibility. He hadn’t been caught. Not enough time had passed to be sure he was dead.) But the Ripper was in 1888, he only killed poor East End sex workers, and he’s dead by now – all layers of safety between the Ripper and the average true crime reader.

If someone writes about an ongoing crime that’s unfolding right now – say, a serial killer – then there’s not that barrier. Maybe, like the Green River killer, there’s a clear victim type and readers can assure themselves that they don’t fit it. If we don’t get into cars with strangers, and never go out after dark, and always take a buddy, and learn self-defense, and message our friends to tell them where we are, and check in with each other, then we won’t be the next victim.

That’s what true crime wants us to believe, and it’s so much harder when there’s an unsolved case out there. Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer, and the Monster of Florence are the exceptions that prove the rule. Two of them aren’t even American, and we all know America likes to think it’s the world leader in serial killers, both having them and catching them.

Considering Ripper’s Victims and Media and the Murderer (and the whole Jack the Ripper tag on my blog) I probably don’t have to go on too much about any unsolved cases that particularly influence me, but I’d like to mull on a related topic for a moment:

What about unsolved crimes in fiction?

This is where it gets tricky. We like fiction because it doesn’t have to follow real-life examples. We can add a full narrative structure, including a proper beginning and an end, the way we do when telling stories about our own lives, but we don’t actually live in a narrative structure. (Narrative theory was one of my three comprehensive exam areas. Can you tell?) We try to make real life into stories, but we’re often restricted by details like evidence and proof. If we’re making the story up, though …

I do think there’s a difference between a character solving the case and the audience knowing the answer. It could be that the main characters have to give up, for whatever reason, before finding the solution. Or, like was mentioned during the chat, there could be a Hitchcockian suspense scenario where the audience knows the killer early on but can only watch as the main character tries to figure it out. That dual cat-and-mouse layer features in true crime: the police hunt the killer hunts the victims. It’s like one of those math problems where two trains are moving at different speeds toward a destination and you have to calculate how long it’ll be before one overtakes the other.

I’m thinking of things like the Lincoln Rhyme series where you can have a character like The Watchmaker who gets identified as the criminal … but not truly identified. He’s the Moriarty or the Big Bad, Rhyme’s intellectual equal and therefore more than capable of keeping out of the clutches of the police. Even the “real” name they come up with for him might not be right, and he’s been behind some of the single-book bad guys who don’t get to come back for a curtain call. The case isn’t solved in a legal sense, since he’s never put on trial and sentenced, but Rhyme knows. And the readers know.

It’s not like The Colorado Kid, which might be the only completely unsolved fictional mystery that I’ve read. Stephen King wrote a book about how frustrating it is for a crime to be a true unsolved mystery, with an unsolved mystery at its center. The main characters even say multiple times that it’s not a story, not exactly, because there’s not a single mysterious element and a single “must-have-been.” A man from Colorado ended up dead on an island off the coast of Maine with a Russian coin in his pocket and a bite of steak caught in his throat. And … that’s about it.

You don’t even know for sure that it was a crime, or just a very weird accidental death. There’s enough to make you think that yes, you’re missing a lot of the pieces, but even the characters who have spent decades knowing the story haven’t been able to find them. It’s an incredibly frustrating story that isn’t really helped by the fact that the characters let you know from the start that it won’t be neatly tied up with a bow. You’re right there with Stephanie as she hears the story for the first time, asks questions, and keeps running up against the fact that there aren’t any answers.

And honestly, it’s probably something only a household name could get published on a grand scale, because that’s not what we want from our fiction, is it? It doesn’t matter if Stephanie and the two older reporters don’t know the full backstory for the Colorado Kid, but King doesn’t even relent and let Constant Reader in on it. We just get to the end and think “Wait did I just waste my time reading that or …?”


Have you read any fiction that deals with an unsolved crime that remains unsolved at the end of the book? Did it feel like a waste of time? Do you think all crime fiction needs to be solved in order to fit the genre? Share your thoughts!

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