(Editor’s note: This is the 71st installment in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. Today’s contribution comes from Chris Orlet, an Illinois native now living in St. Louis, Missouri, with his wife, son, and baby daughter. An online bio note explains that “He has worked a multitude of dead-end jobs, including bartender, sportswriter, gun seller, Peace Corps volunteer, tech writer, salesman for a trailer parts company, and other occupations too unsavory to mention.” Fortunately, Orlet seems to have found a potentially more interesting career path as a writer. He has contributed stories to Exquisite Corpse, Salon, Utne Reader, McSweeneys, and Hardboiled Wonderland. His first novel—the background of which he relates below—is a mystery yarn, In the Pines.)
Ever since I was a kid I have enjoyed unsolved mysteries. I may not have been much of a reader in my youth, but I was fascinated by cheap
paperbacks with titles such as Chariots of the Gods?, The Devil’s Triangle, and Limbo of the Lost, which hinted at strange and mystifying worlds beyond my mundane existence in Belleville, Illinois. When I wasn’t busily perusing cheesy paranormal bunkum, I would peddle my bike to the Saturday matinee at the Lincoln Theater to watch low-budget documentaries about Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and ancient astronauts. My favorite television show was—you guessed it— In Search of... hosted by Leonard Nimoy.
Four decades later, I get the same rush from unsolved mysteries. I can’t help it. When it comes to whodunits, I prefer not knowing to knowing.
Now, I enjoy a cozy or a true-crime tale as much as the next guy, but after the mystery is resolved, after the wretched scofflaw is captured and
dealt his comeuppance, what more is there to dwell upon? Conversely, an unsolved mystery—as evidenced by the first season of the wildly popular podcast Serial—continues to resonate, continues to haunt months and years later.
Australians, for example, are still haunted by the true-life disappearance of the Beaumont children, a case which dates back a half century.
As am I.
Not familiar with their story? The Beaumont children were three siblings—Jane, 9, Arnna, 7, and Grant, 4—who vanished from a beach near Adelaide, South Australia, during an outing on January 26, 1966. Apart from a brief sighting by a postman early that afternoon, there have been no other sightings of the children since. The disappearance of the Beaumont children has never been explained and remains the country’s most infamous cold case.
Film-wise, one of the most haunting movies I’ve seen is Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). Weir’s film, based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Joan Lindsay, tells the story of a group of Australian boarding-school girls and their teacher, who, while picnicking northwest of Melbourne in 1900, inexplicably vanish into the thin Australian air.
The film drew praise from critics for its hallucinatory depiction of “the chasm between settlers from Europe and the mysteries of their ancient new home,” but groans from some moviegoers who found the picture evasive and insisted on knowing what happened to the girls. They wanted more police procedural and less uncertainty.
Of course, I wanted to know what happened at Hanging Rock, too. Who wouldn’t? Weir certainly did. He even asked the author, Lady Lindsay, about it, even though he was explicitly told not to. Did the school girls fall into a crevice? Were they abducted by aliens, as the author of the book The Murders at Hanging Rock theorizes?
“All of the above,” Joan Lindsay replied.
Lady Lindsay’s point, I think, was that solving the mystery would have been anti-climatic. And indeed, she did provide an explanation in early drafts of the novel. The girls fall into a time warp. Fortunately, her publisher made her excise that final chapter from the published novel.
Such was my mindset when I set out to write In the Pines: A Small Town Noir (New Pulp Press). This novel is based loosely on a true story I discovered nearly three decades ago in the morgue of a small country newspaper where I
worked. On long summer afternoons, I would sometimes thumb through bound volumes of yellowing and crumbling newspapers. One day I came across a front-page story about a local high-school girl who’d died suddenly and inexplicably. The following week’s paper contained another front-page piece, this story about the funeral service and the upcoming coroner’s inquest. A week later there was a detailed account of the testimony given at that inquest. It turned out the young woman died from arsenic poisoning. And yet, nothing about her manner of death made sense. She’d been a normal high-school girl from a normal small-town family, full of life and well liked, busy with school and after-school activities, with plans to attend college. There had been no break-up, no unplanned pregnancy, no hints of abuse, and certainly no arsenic in the home.
After that week, the news accounts stopped. There was never another mention of the young woman and her mysterious death.
(Left) Author Chris Orlet
I was intrigued by the results of the inquest. A coroner’s inquest is supposed to decide whether a death is suicide, accident, homicide,
natural, or undetermined. The jury came back with the finding of undetermined. After hours of testimony, after painfully reconstructing the last few days of her life based on eyewitness accounts, the jury had no clue as to how the young woman ended up with a belly full of arsenic.
We simply would never know what happened to her.
The story left an indelible impression on me. And yet I did nothing with it for decades. Why would I? After all, you can’t build a crime
story around an unsolved mystery. Or so I believed.
Then, a few years ago, I happened to catch Picnic at Hanging Rock on a late-night TV movie channel. As Weir’s film inched toward its inevitable conclusion, I waited for the mystery of the missing girls to be resolved. An alien abduction, perhaps, or a handful of girls cartoonishly tumbling into a bottomless pit.
Then the credits began to roll.
There was no resolution.
“My God!” I thought. “It can be done! And done extremely well.”
In fact, for director Weir, the unsolved nature of the mystery was what made the story a challenge worth pursuing. “My only worry was
whether an audience would accept such an outrageous idea,” he told an interviewer. “Personally, I always found it the most satisfying and fascinating aspect of the film. I usually find endings disappointing: they’re totally unnatural. You are creating life on the screen, and life doesn’t have endings. It’s always moving on to something else and there are always unexplained elements.”
Later in the same exchange he said, “I did everything in my power to hypnotize the audience away from the possibility of solutions.”
Moviegoers, for the most part, accepted the ambiguous ending, and today the film is considered a celluloid masterpiece.
I was determined to try something similar (though, obviously, on a more modest scale). My story would be based on true events from 55 years
ago, and unlike Weir’s film would have a plot, one involving a grief-stricken father’s maniacal investigation into his daughter’s unexplained death. The story would be structured as a traditional crime novel, though one in which the “crime” remains unsolved. And if readers didn’t like it …
Thus far the reaction has been positive. Readers seem to appreciate the story line, the pacing, and the characters. Still, from time to time, a reader will come up to me and demand to know “what happened to her?” Did the 17-year-old girl in my tale commit suicide or take poison accidentally? Did her mother murder her? Were aliens involved?
To which I can only respond: All of the above.