Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Concept of Mystery

There is something fun about reading mystery novels. It is why they can spawn whole series of novels with a central detective who always seems to connect the dots. Part of the fun with mystery stories is that the information that is available to the detective in the book is available to the reader. The race is on for who can figure it out first. A mystery presents a series of facts, and it just takes a good filter, an ability to piece parts together, and creative thinking to solve it.

What about the unsolved mystery? Sometimes those can be the most fun of all. An unsolved mystery invites theories. It encourages creative thinking. An unsolved mystery comes with the problem of time. The longer it goes unsolved, the colder traces go. New evidence or leads rarely pop up, and cases go cold. People lap this up as a whole slew of tv series have been created, appealing to this thirst for mystery. Some of my favorite conversations at Cornell were listening to one another's theories on who killed JFK, who really committed the "Boston Strangler" murders, and why did Barry Sanders retire.

In the past year, two movies have been produced about unsolved crimes: The Black Dahlia and Zodiac. While both were about unsolved murders in California, they went entirely different routes to tell the story. The Black Dahlia was about the atmosphere of L.A. at the time of the murder, while Zodiac was about the serial killer. I enjoyed Zodiac more than Black Dahlia despite the lack of eye candy. It had a stronger cast, and was paced a bit better (even if it was 160 minutes long). The Zodiac was also a serial killer, and there is an added attraction to a story about a serial killer who taunts the authorities and evades capture forever. Recently, a horrible movie was made about Jack the Ripper, and I wonder why no one has made a decent movie about that. It has three things Hollywood loves: murder, a historical time setting, and hookers.

Watching these movies also made me sad that where at a point with forensics and detective work that a serial killer will find it impossible to get away forever. The Green River Killer was caught with DNA he had provided in samples years before the technology. Even one of the unknown soldiers from Arlington National Cemetery was identified. Due to advances in technology, many mysteries thought forever shrouded in a cloak of invincibility are being tapped at with digital or DNA fingers. An audio specialist took a crack at the Nixon "18 1/2 minute gap" tapes. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your point of view, he could not recover what was erased. Who knows what was so special that it had to be erased?

As I watch the crap that passes as news flash across my tv screen, I cannot help but think about the idea of a modern day serial killer who would taunt the police. The Unabomber did this to an extent that he asked major newspapers to print his manifesto..... and he was caught because his brother identified things in the manifesto's writing as wording in letters from his brother. In today's media, a serial killer like the Zodiac would be blown up bigger than the O.J. trial. He or she would probably be caught in a month or two tops, but it would make the current media circus known as the Anna Nicole Smith coverage look small in comparison. The media will never get a chance to rush this to page 1. Here is the problem: it will not happen again.

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