Amelia Earhart is one of those people in history you never forget. She was the first female aviator to try to circumnavigate the globe. She was a pioneer, role model, a legend. She’s also at the center of a great mystery, one that is still making headlines today. It’s the kind of story books are made of.
A Picture’s Worth 1000 Words
A recent story under the headline “Amelia Earhart May Have Survived Crash-Landing, Newly Discovered Photo Suggests” claims there is photographic evidence that Earhart didn’t die in the plane crash and may have been captured by the Japanese back in 1937.
Whether or not this is true or will be enough evidence to convince the Earhart theorists out there, part of the lasting legacy of Earhart has been her mysterious disappearance. It’s been called one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century. It’s even spawned conspiracy theories that she was spy or she survived and assumed another identity.
Numerous non-fiction books have been written about Earhart speculating what happened to her on that flight. But there have been fictional ones as well. I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn gives a fictional first person narrative of Earhart’s life, the flight and a crash onto a desert island.
The Scooby Doo Effect
Novels like Mendelsohn’s that take a real life mystery and speculate about what may have happened intrigue us for a reason. They fulfill that little part inside us that always wants to solve the mystery. That Scooby Doo code in our DNA that needs to know who done it or what really happened.
Like Earhart, many other people and events at the center of great mysteries have had novels written about what may have happened. Here are a few of my favorite mysteries made into novels that can scratch that itch we all have to know who is under the mask.
Novel Unsolved Mysteries
Jack the Ripper
The facts: Jack the Ripper is the name given to an unidentified serial killer generally believed to have been active in the largely impoverished areas in and around the Whitechapel district of London in 1888. Attacks ascribed to Jack the Ripper typically involved female prostitutes who lived and worked in the slums of the East End of London whose throats were cut prior to abdominal mutilations.
Novel Take: There have been hundreds of fictionalized stories involving Jack the Ripper, including a faked diary and more than one Sherlock Holmes novel. Recently, however, a new YA novel called Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco took a fresh approach by having a teen girl dive into forensics to find his identity.
Seventeen-year-old Audrey Rose Wadsworth was born a lord’s daughter, with a life of wealth and privilege stretched out before her. But between the social teas and silk dress fittings, she leads a forbidden secret life. Against her stern father’s wishes and society’s expectations, Audrey often slips away to her uncle’s laboratory to study the gruesome practice of forensic medicine. When her work on a string of savagely killed corpses drags Audrey into the investigation of a serial murderer, her search for answers brings her close to her own sheltered world.
D. B. Cooper
The facts: D. B. Cooper refers to an unidentified man who hijacked a Boeing 727 aircraft in the airspace between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, on November 24, 1971. He extorted $200,000 in ransom (equivalent to $1,180,000 in 2017) and parachuted to an uncertain fate. Despite an extensive manhunt and FBI investigation, the perpetrator has never been identified.
Novel Take: Although this is a very famous story that many people know, I only learned of the mystery when viewers of the show Mad Men were speculating at the end the writers might make Don Draper turn out to be D. B. Cooper and jump out of a plane and disappear. (That would have been an awesome ending.) The show didn’t end with that, but I started reading about this strange mystery immediately. It’s such an odd tale and seems impossible that this man was never found. And while it will probably remain a mystery, Elwood Reid’s 2005 book, D.B.: A Novel, imagines Cooper as Phil Fitch, a Vietnam vet with a failed marriage who decides the time has come to do something that will save him from a life of punching timecards and wondering what could have been. Fitch ends up in Mexico, where he drifts until a bad turn of luck forces him to return home. Sounds interesting…
The facts: Mary Celeste isn’t a person, it’s a ship, discovered adrift and deserted in the Atlantic Ocean on December 5, 1872 by The Canadian brigantine Dei Gratia. She was found in a seaworthy condition, under partial sail, and with her lifeboat missing. The last entry in her log was dated ten days earlier. The ship still had all its provisions and cargo intact and the captain’s and crew’s personal belongings were undisturbed. None of those who had been on board were ever seen or heard from again.
The Novel Take: In the The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, Valerie Martin takes this mystery and weaves it together with several other stories of intrigue, including that of a young writer named Arthur Conan Doyle, who hears of the Mary Celeste and decides to write an outlandish short story about what took place. This story causes quite a sensation back in the United States, particularly between sought-after Philadelphia spiritualist medium Violet Petra and a rational-minded journalist named Phoebe Grant, who is seeking to expose Petra as a fraud. Then there is the family of the Mary Celeste‘s captain, a family linked to the sea for generations and marked repeatedly by tragedy. Each member of this ensemble cast holds a critical piece to the puzzle of the Mary Celeste.
The facts: Roanoke Island, situated off the coast of North Carolina, was established in 1587 by English settlers and led by John White. White soon departed for England for more supplies, leaving his wife, daughter, and grand-daughter Virginia Dare – the first English child born in the New World. When he got back in 1590, the entire colony was abandoned with only the word “Croatoan” carved on a post.
The Novel Take: There is so much that could and has been done with this story as a basis. There have been shows, movies, non-fiction books and novels that speculate what happened to the settlers. I like the approach of Roanoke Vanishing by Auburn Seal, which chronicles the research efforts of a determined master’s student, Avery Lane. When she encounters a mysterious group called the Descendants, who are determined to keep the colony’s secret hidden, Avery must choose between her obsession for the past and her own survival. The book has elements of mystery, intrigue and the supernatural mixed together.
Any other suggestions for novels that speculate about histories great mysteries?