By Mark Alpert
I wanted to write a post about the art of creating mystery in fiction, so on Friday morning I scanned my bookshelves, looking for a classic novel that could offer some valuable tips to budding mystery authors. But then I glanced at the morning newspaper and found a perfect example of how to tantalize readers and make them gasp, “I just have to know the answer!” I was looking at the indictment of former U.S. House Speaker Denny Hastert.
This indictment is only seven pages long, but it’s similar to the opening chapter of a gripping novel: it hooks you into the story by leaving the most important questions unanswered. For the benefit of those who haven’t seen the news yet, let me summarize the document. Federal prosecutors have charged Hastert — who was Speaker of the House from 1999 to 2006 — with scheming to withdraw $1.7 million in cash from his bank accounts so he could secretly pay off a blackmailer. After Hastert made 15 cash withdrawals of $50,000 each from 2010 to 2012, bank officials grew suspicious and questioned him about it. (Large cash transactions raise eyebrows because they’re often associated with drug deals and other illegal activities.) Thereafter, Hastert was careful to make smaller withdrawals, of less than $10,000 each, just below the minimum amount that has to be reported to the government. He withdrew almost a million dollars this way, and when FBI agents interviewed him last December he lied about why he took the cash out of his accounts. (He told the agents he withdrew the money because he didn’t trust the banking system.) He could be sentenced to up to five years in prison if he’s convicted of either of the two charges against him.
What the indictment doesn’t say is why Hastert was paying blackmail. The document identifies the blackmailer as simply “Individual A” and doesn’t even reveal whether it’s a man or a woman. Here’s all the indictment had to say about him/her: “Individual A has been a resident of Yorkville, Illinois and known defendant JOHN DENNIS HASTERT most of Individual A’s life.” However, the indictment also offered a provocative clue: it mentioned that Hastert was a high-school teacher and wrestling coach in Yorkville from 1965 to 1981. According to the charges, Hastert met with Individual A in 2010 and discussed “past misconduct” that had occurred years earlier. Hastert allegedly agreed to pay millions of dollars to conceal this misconduct.
Now please disregard for a moment whatever personal opinions you might have about Hastert. (To be honest, I haven’t thought about the guy in years. I don’t even remember exactly what he did when he was in Congress.) No matter what your political affiliations are, you have to admit that his situation is dramatic, the kind of setup that would fit right into a political thriller. What kind of misconduct was so terrible that he was willing to pay so much money to keep it quiet? In decades past one might assume he was hiding an affair, but in this day and age it’s hard to imagine anyone getting so worked up about a sexual relationship between consenting adults. But if Hastert was trying to cover up something worse, maybe some criminal activity, why wasn’t he charged with that crime? Was the FBI unable to collect enough evidence to prosecute him for it? Or perhaps the statute of limitations for that particular crime had already run out?
This is the essence of intrigue: giving the reader enough clues to know that something terrible has happened, but not immediately revealing the who, what or why. The novelist’s job is to fill in those blanks, but not all at once! Better to tease the reader over the course of a few hundred pages, while adding new mysteries along the way.
UPDATE: Now it’s 6 p.m. EDT on Friday and the New York Times is reporting that Individual A is a former student claiming that Hastert touched him inappropriately decades ago, when Hastert was a high-school teacher and wrestling coach. This information comes from “two people briefed on the evidence uncovered in the investigation,” whatever that means.
I’m not surprised that the secret came out so quickly after the charges were filed. Just as mystery readers will stay up all night to get to the climax of a novel, newspaper reporters who are pursuing a hot story will badger their sources nonstop until someone spills the beans. But from a purely dramatic perspective, I’m disappointed by this revelation. It’s too much of a sordid cliché — the high-school wrestling coach who’s a little too free with his hands, the sexual abuser who goes on to a political career and becomes a standard-bearer for morality and family values. Unfortunately, this kind of filth is all too common.
To be sure, there are some lingering mysteries, some questions still unanswered. If Individual A was determined to blackmail Hastert, why didn’t he do it ten years ago, when Denny was Speaker of the House? One would think that Hastert was more vulnerable to blackmail back then because he held such a high position in the government. On the other hand, Hastert wasn’t nearly as rich then as he is today. The guy stepped down from his congressional seat in 2008 and became a high-priced Washington lobbyist. Only after a couple of years of working for corporate clients did Hastert get wealthy enough to become a valuable target for blackmail.
The story is still developing, of course, but I can already see a serious weakness in this real-life mystery: The villain’s actions don’t make a whole lot of sense. If the allegations against Hastert are true, then he’s a vile molester and hypocrite, but agreeing to pay blackmail makes him stupid as well, and stupidity is a fatal flaw for a fictional character. A truly devious villain would’ve told the blackmailer, “Go ahead and tell your story to the world. You can’t prove it, and I’ll just deny it. No one will believe you.” And later Hastert showed even more outrageous stupidity by agreeing to talk to the FBI agents about his bank withdrawals. Didn’t it occur to him that he should call his lawyer first? Has the guy never watched a single episode of Law & Order?
But that’s the difference between fiction and real life, I guess. In novels, the villains are evil but clever. In real life, they’re evil and stupid, but we ignore all that and elect them to Congress anyway.