In Mystery Fiction
, the most common ending is the one where the mystery is solved. The detective figures out who the murderer is, the mask is pulled away, the villain shouts "And I would have gotten away with it too if it wasn't for You Meddling Kids
," loose ends are tied up, and everyone (except the villain, of course) goes home happy.
Not so with some cases. In some cases, there are no answers. In some cases, the detective doesn't even know the right questions
. This isn't just a Karma Houdini
, where the bad guy gets away without consequences. This is where the characters don't even know who the bad guy is or where to start looking or perhaps what the hell just happened
See also Criminal Mind Games
, Leave The Plot Threads Hanging
, Riddle for the Ages
. Compare That One Case
- During the time between Zero Hour and Infinite Crisis, the mystery of who killed Thomas and Martha Wayne had actually been this, part of a number of sweeping changes editor Dennis O'Neil wanted for Batman.
- The main storyline of Web of Spider-Man #113-116 (June-September, 1994) is famous for introducing a murder mystery and never resolving it. The storyarc has photographer Lance Bannon, a long-serving supporting character, working to develop a picture in the darkroom of the Daily Bugle. It contains the only glimpse of the unmasked face of Armored Villain FACADE. Bannon is murdered within said darkroom, and the investigation casts suspicion on several major and minor characters who have access to the offices of the Bugle, including J. Jonah Jameson himself. "Who is FACADE", and "Who killed Lance Bannon"? The storyline ended with no definite answers and the initial plan may have been to continue the tale in subsequent issues. But issue #117 introduced the The Clone Saga and all other ongoing storylines were dropped. FACADE has since made a couple of cameos (in 2009 and 2012) whose main point was to remind readers that the case is still open.
- Marvel Team-Up #65-66 (January-February, 1977) had another Chris Claremont sub-plot with no proper resolution, this one involving a murder mystery. A "mystery woman" is seen keeping surveillance over two high-ranking members of the Maggia, Marvel's stand-in of The Mafia. Later, we learn that the woman acted as a "lone wolf" vigilante and (as said in the issue) "did a Punisher-type number" on the entire governing body of the criminal organization. While several of the mysteries Claremont introduced in his issues of this title received resolutions, the identity of the female vigilante was never resolved.
- The Pledge: the case is never solved and there are no details on the murderer except that he's a tall man and he died in a car crash approximately 15 minutes before the hero could learn his identity and catch him. Tough luck.
- The Mothman Prophecies.
- Memories Of Murder, based on the Real Life Hwaseong serial murders of Korea.
- In Minority Report, John Anderton never finds out what happened to his missing son.
- Black Death in which a group of soldiers are sent out in order to investigate an idyllic village that seems to have been spared from the pestilence. Pretty much everything that they see in the village, whether it be a resurrected girl, a woman with supernatural powers, or the lack of disease, could have a rational explanation, or could in fact be the work of demonic powers. No one ever finds out.
- The homicide case in Zodiac remains unsolved.
- In The White Ribbon we never learn who committed the crimes.
- The Thing (1982). One of the main mysteries of the film is who, exactly, sabotaged the blood samples kept in storage. Early on, they narrow it down to either Gerry or Dr. Copper, neither of whom turn out to be The Thing. The other mystery is whether or not Childs became a Thing when he went missing shortly before the confrontation with Blair. The film ends with MacReady and Childs resigning to death from the arctic cold, both of them unsure if the other is human.
- Bullitt. The Cowboy Cop kills a key witness whom he was supposed to bring in alive, so they never find out who is behind the organized crime operation. Movie over.
- In the film, Picnic at Hanging Rock, we never learn how or why the girls vanished. The novel did have a chapter that explained it but the publishers decided to keep it a mystery in most editions.
- The Sherlock Holmes story "The Five Orange Pips", from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Though Holmes is certain that the murderers, high-level members of The Klan, are on a specific ship, said ship apparently sinks at sea, and their identities are never determined.
Some, and not the least interesting, were complete failures, and as such will hardly bear narrating, since no final explanation is forthcoming. A problem without a solution may interest the student, but can hardly fail to annoy the casual reader. Among these unfinished tales is that of Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world. No less remarkable is that of the cutter Alicia, which sailed one spring morning into a small patch of mist from where she never again emerged, nor was anything further ever heard of herself and her crew. A third case worthy of note is that of Isadora Persano, the well-known journalist and duellist, who was found stark staring mad with a match box in front of him which contained a remarkable worm said to be unknown to science.
- In The Sherlockian, an obsessed Holmes fanatic kills himself after realizing that the lost Conan Doyle diary he's been seeking for most of his life had been destroyed. Unable to live with the prospect of never knowing what Doyle'd written in it, he stages his suicide to look like murder for his fellow-Sherlockians' benefit. Played with and double subverted when the Holmes fan who successfully investigates his death discovers the diary does still exist, but contains an admission that would seriously tarnish Doyle's (and therefore Holmes's) image. His companion destroys the diary, leaving Doyle's secret forever The Unsolved Mystery for the rest of fandom.
- In another Sherlock Holmes example, Mitch Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind features an elderly Holmes dealing with three cases, two in the past and one in the present. Holmes solves two of them, but the third, the disappearance of Mr. Umezaki's father, completely stymies him: he cannot remember meeting Mr. Umezaki's father, despite evidence that he has done so, and has burned the volume of Watson's journal that probably would have allowed him to reconstruct the man's fate.
- Frederick Forsythe's book The Day of the Jackal. The titular assassin is killed trying to carry out his plot against Charles de Gaulle, but his real identity remains unknown to the end.
- The Colorado Kid by Stephen King. Two reporters tell their intern about the mystery of the Colorado Kid: a guy found dead on the island, even his name unknown until a year later. Not only is who or what killed him unknown, but nobody knows why he was on the island (he didn't live there) in the first place.
- One of the The Cat Who books was like this. Not only do the characters not find out what happened or who killed the victim, the readers don't, either!
- Played with in Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End: the main villain is revealed to the reader in the beginning of the book, but none of the characters figure out who it is. The trickster, on the other hand, might or might not be an AI and is only ever seen as a holographic rabbit - not even his name is known.
- John Grisham's The Associate. In the end, Kyle McAvoy never learns who Bennie Wright really was, who he was working for or why he wanted the Trylon-Bartin documents. Kyle even points out that he couldn't have been Bennie's only spy at Scully & Pershing; Bennie had knowledge he could only have gotten from an inside contact, a partner no less.
- This happens unintentionally in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. One of the murders is never explained, and when it was pointed out to Chandler, he found himself surprised to realize that even he didn't know who had killed that victim.
- That's the legend, anyway. In fact, the novel does contain an accumulation of evidence pointing to a particular solution, it just lacks a concrete "yes, that's definitely the solution" moment.
- The Nancy Drew story The Clue in the Old Album is kick-started when Nancy witnesses a man steal an old woman's purse during a concert. Nancy goes after him and manages to retrieve the stolen property, learning on its return that the woman didn't care about anything in her purse except several letters. From there the story veers off on a completely unrelated tangent, and though the woman remains a central character, no one ever learns what was in the letters, or why they were so important.
- The Crying of Lot 49 combines this with Interrupted By The End, coming to a close mere seconds before the mystery is solved. Why? Because Thomas Pynchon enjoys messing with you.
- Truth in Television, unfortunately:
- The Alphabet murders of Rochester, New York. From 1971 to 1973, three girls aged 10 to 11 were murdered in the vicinity of the city. The case got its name because it was noticed that each victim had an Alliterative Name: C.C., M.M., W.W. A theory that they were connected to the similar Alphabet murders of California (1977-1978, 1993-1994), which were eventually resolved, is considered doubtful because the captured serial killer targeted adult women.
- The Atlanta Ripper. An unidentified serial killer active in Atlanta and its vicinity. He/she killed more than 20 black women and dark-skinned "mulatto" (mixed race) women from 1911 to 1914 or 1915 (which was the last "canonical" murder is in dispute). Most of them had their throats slit, but levels of additional mutilations on the bodies varied widely. The police and/or the press suspected the involvement of the Ripper on a few murder cases dating from 1917 to 1924, though the similarities were questionable. There are multiple theories on the identity of the killer, including one that claims that there was never a singular killer and that the original murder(s) and the publicized details inspired a large number of copycat killers. There simply are no definitive answers in this case.
- The Axeman of New Orleans. An unnamed serial killer, active from 1918 to 1919. He/she broke into the residences of his/her victims at night, took hold of various blades in the household (mostly razors or axes), and proceeded to attack the sleeping victims in their beds. Six victims were either killed instantly or died later as a result of their wounds, six were injured but managed to survive. The surviving victims were uncertain what happened to them and could provide no definite description. A letter attributed to the killer claimed: "They have never caught me and they never will." Which remains true.
- Bible John. A serial killer with only three confirmed victims, active from 1968 to 1969. All women, aged 25 to 32, who he met at the Barrowland Ballroom, a dance hall of Glasgow. He met the women, escorted them home, and then raped and strangled them. The sister of one of the victims, who briefly shared a taxi ride with him and her sister, recalled him introducing himself as "John" and making various religious references in his part of the conversation. The only other clue in this case is that the killer kept the women's handbags, possibly as a trophy. The case was never solved, and the only witness died of old age in 2010. While still considered a cold case, chances of it ever receiving a resolution are considered slim.
- The Black Dahlia. In January, 1947, the mutilated remains of Elizabeth short, waitress, bit-part actress, and suspected prostitute, were located in Los Angeles. The murder received its nickname as a film reference, and attracted much attention. Despite decades-long investigations, the murder was never solved and several of the key suspects have long passed away.
- Hwaseong serial murders. A series of 10 rapes and murders of women in the provincial South Korean city of Hwaseong, taking place from 1986 to 1991. The killer did not seem to have a preference for a particular age group, as the youngest victim was 14 and the eldest 71. About 21,280 suspects were interrogated in one of the most extensive police investigations in history. The killer was not apprehended.
- Jack the Ripper.
- The Zodiac Killer. A killer mostly targeting couples, with a habit of then sending taunting letters to the press and including mysterious cryptograms. Five victims were killed and two injured, in confirmed cases from 1968 to 1969. The killer is considered a suspect in additional cases dating from 1963 to 1970, and in a letter he/she claimed to have killed 37 victims. The case was never solved.
- The second colony of Roanoke Island. Established in 1587, one of the governors decided to return to England to gather supplies, since lack of supplies was why the first colony failed. War with Spain prevented him from returning for three years. When he finally did return, the colonists had all disappeared, with only the word "CROATOAN" carved on a fencepost as a clue to their fate. To this day, no one is sure what became of the colonists.
- Of course, there's the small matter of the native Croatoan tribe who lived on the other side of the bay, who, when they were finally investigated, turned out to have a surprising number of members with blond hair and white skin. Rendering this more of a Real Life Subverted Trope.
- Or at least, that is one of the prevailing theories of what happened to them. Without DNA testing, there's really no way to know for sure, so it ends up being more a case of "Probably Solved Mystery But Without Proof We'll Never Know".
- A similar case is the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Several artifacts believed to come from her plane (and a possible skeleton, although the bones themselves are lost and there's considerable evidence both for and against) have been found on Gardner Island, close to her last planned refueling stop, but whether the plane landed there or the items washed onto shore after a crash at sea is unknown.
- Jillian never found out why they weren't wearing pants.
- Another light-hearted example: the mystery of Urusei Yatsura's Italian opening from the 80s. Back in the day, the song was never released as a single, the names of the singer and author(s) weren't listed in the credits and the song gets interrupted partway. Despite the internet and JFK-like investigations from fans (in Italy anime were and are still very popular, check out the Anime page for examples), to this day nobody has found out who sang it, or what the complete lyrics were. It should be noted also that the known lyrics are totally generic and not tailored to the series in any way, so it's impossible to do a research using keywords.
- This is what happens if you don't get the True Ending in Persona 4.
- Specifically, this is what happens when you don't get the Good ending. The Bad one acts as the sad outcome, and the characters never ask themselves about the contradictions.
- Silent Hill.
- It's easy to go through the Laura Bow adventure games and have no idea what is going on. Even if you manage to get the good ending, it's possible you haven't figured out quite everything behind the mystery.
- Either of the Dead Rising games if you ignore the main storyline.
- An in-universe example. In Batman: Arkham City, there is a sidequest named "Watcher in the Wings", about a mysterious stalker that Batman keeps seeing. When you finally confront him, he names himself Azrael and talks in riddles about a prophecy involving Batman and Gotham City. Batman simply says "I don't believe in fairy tails" and Azrael leaves. Batman fans know who the guy is and have probably figured out what he's talking about, but Batman has no freakin clue about what that all was.
- The sub-plot regarding Matt's father in Another Code R is dropped about two chapters before the end of the game and not brought up again, even after most of the plot points are solved. Supposedly, the plan was for him to have a Spin-Off game in which the story would have been resolved, but the company went bankrupt before anything could be put into place.
- Who killed Sherrif Deer in Sluggy Freelance.
- Ruby Quest. A girl wakes up in a coffin in some mysterious place, frees this guy from his prison downstairs, and together they start to make their escape and try to find some answers, in that order. They do get away in the end, and many answers were found, but so very much was left to shadows as well.
- Justified, though, due to the nature of the game. Word Of God is that, had the players done a couple of things differently, more answers would have been uncovered. Notably, Filbert was supposed to explain a lot, but he ended up kind of, well, dead.