Saturday, October 17, 2009


The Itch of the Unanswered Question

My great-grandmother was haunted by a mystery for the last 30 years of her life, after her son Anthony, my great-uncle, disappeared during World War II. He was a gunner on a B-17 bomber that vanished without a trace in bad weather over the Mediterranean.

“Someday,” the old woman insisted to the end of her life, “Anthony will come walking through that door.”

He never did, of course. And I believe my great-grandmother would have found more peace if Anthony had been proven dead, rather than linger as an unanswered question.
Storytellers have been exploiting the power of the unanswered question for thousands of years. The lure of an unsolved mystery is embedded in human nature. We can’t stop thinking about them. The unanswered question is like a maddening itch that you just can’t reach. We’re programmed to seek them out, to investigate, to stamp out riddles, to scratch that itch.

In writing my own books, I learned from a master, the late Donald E. Westlake, that the sooner the novel poses the unanswered question, the quicker the reader is hooked. That’s why in my new novel, LOOT THE MOON, the reader joins a carjacking in progress on Page 1.

The Law & Order TV franchise has perfected the formula. Twenty seconds after the show’s trademark two-note intro (dun-DUNT!) some bystander discovers a body, and I’m hooked. These shows are more addictive than slot machines with caffeine drips.

In that spirit, here are three great mysteries that have been solved in my lifetime:

The Wreck of the Titanic.

The books the made the biggest impressions on me when I was a kid were the Hardy Boys adventures and Clive Cussler’s thriller “Raise the Titanic!” The liner than sank in 1912 was still missing when I read Cussler’s book in the late 1970s. I read whatever nonfiction I could find on the search for the ship. I was about to go off to college when Robert Ballard found the wreck in 1985. I was more excited that the Titanic mystery had been solved than I was about my first day at school.

What happened to Anastasia?

I learned of the controversy over the fate of the youngest daughter of Russian Czar Nicholas II in 1978 from an episode of “In Search Of,” the schlocky pseudo-documentary series narrated by Leonard Nimoy. Was Anastasia murdered with the rest of her family? Or did she survive, grow up under the name Anna Anderson, and move to Virginia?

DNA tests in the 1990s would prove that Anderson, who died in 1984, was an imposter. She was really a Polish factory worker with mental problems. I was sad that she wasn’t the real Anastasia, but glad that the mystery had been solved.

Who was Deep Throat?

The identity of the secret source for the Washington Post’s Watergate coverage was the great journalistic riddle of our times. After hiding the secret for more than 30 years, former FBI agent W. Mark Felt admitted in 2005 that he was Deep Throat. For journalists and political junkies, the Holy Grail of itches had been scratched.

So, what great mysteries am I missing?

Mark Arsenault is a Shamus-nominated mystery writer, a journalist, a runner, hiker, political junkie and eBay fanatic who collects memorabilia from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. His new novel is LOOT THE MOON, the second book in the Billy Povich series that began with GRAVEWRITER, a noir thriller praised for a fusion of suspense, humor and human tenderness. With 20 years of experience as a print reporter, Arsenault is one of those weird cranks who still prefers to read the news on paper. His Web site is:

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