How To Build Up Mystery (Lessons From An Indictment)

By Mark Alpert

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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.

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website: www.markalpert.com

14 thoughts on “How To Build Up Mystery (Lessons From An Indictment)

  1. Loved how you took a real life situation and analyzed it for writing craft purposes.

    As for your last paragraph? Restrained political commentary, but I’m reminded of Ruth Rendall writing as Barbara Vine (RIP). Those stories invariable deal with a horrible secret in the characters’ pasts that haunt them in the ‘present’ of the story. Rendall keeps the secret from the reader until near the end, but the reason why the past is haunting the characters turns out to be not so much the terrible secret, but the stupidity and bad decisions of the characters and how they chose to deal with the past situation at the time, i.e., if they’d handled the situation better, the past would have stayed in the past.

    Perhaps, as we learn more about the Hastert situation, we’ll discover that his secret may not be as bad as it now appears, although I doubt it

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  2. If I were writing this as a murder mystery, I’d kill off the blackmailer. Who else besides the political candidate has a motive? To add tension, I’d have him up for re-election or promotion to a higher office. He might be guilty of the allegations from his past but not of murder. So whodunit?

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  3. I think your thumbs-up button is broken. For the last two posts I’ve pressed thumbs-up, but it recorded as thumbs-down and I was unable to reverse it. I’ve also noticed that there are more than one thumbs-down, which can’t possibly be correct because your posts rock! Just thought you’d like to know.

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    • Sue, I think when you Like (Thumbs Up) the page, it shows as UnLike (Thumbs Down) if you want to undo it. This means you’ve liked the page so it’s okay. At least that’s my interpretation.

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  4. “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.”

    Still chuckling over that one!

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  5. And like a good mystery novel, the drips keep coming. This one came up late last night:

    On Nov. 13, 2014 Hastert appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, and took a call-in from a man identifying himself as “Bruce” who asked Hastert: “Do you remember me from Yorkville?” He then cackled and hung up, leaving Hastert visibly uncomfortable.

    This morning, BuzzFeed is reporting that at the request of Hastert’s lawyers, the U.S. Attorney’s office agreed to withhold the “explicit” details from the indictment that concerned why Hastert agreed to pay Individual A $3.5 million in hush money

    You couldn’t make this stuff up. Actually, we can.

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  6. There should be rankings of stupid. Remember that NY congressman sexting underwear photos of himself to a 21-year-old college student? That’s got to be somewhere near #1.

    That character would be good comic relief, but not a very good antagonist.

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  7. How about the famous “Appalachian trail hike”? Real life crooks — the ones who get caught –are stupid. The big question — what about the smart ones who get away with their crimes? Ask the cops — they always know of one or two people who got away with murder. Excellent blog.

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  8. His real mistake, apparently, was in lying to the FBI about the payments. As often the case in these scandals, it’s the coverup, not the original crime, that tosses them from the frying pan into the fire.

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    • Thanks Kathryn. I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out why he could be facing 5 years in prison for taking his own money out of his own bank account… But if it’s for lying to law enforcement that makes a bit more sense. All the Best.

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  9. Caught Hastert on the back half of a TV news show some 6-8 years ago trying to keep from answering why he was behind the legislation that would send a freeway through a beautiful family farm (another compelling story). The subject land was in his district. What’s that old saying? An uncle of mine once said that if you kick a dead man and he’ll never feel it. Thanks to you all for the good work you do at KZ

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  10. This comes up as I’m reading someone’s story that is a novel built around the backdrop of actual unrest in a foreign country. I’m not up on my international news so as I’m reading the opening chapters, I’m drawn in by the characters but wishing I better understood the nature of the conflict (tell me, darn it! Tell me!) But in this case it builds my interest because I know they’re going to pay out the information over time even as they weave the fictional story. Cool!

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  11. In my book I have the line:

    “You do know the cops are cheetahs. They only catch the slow stupid ones.

    Some of the great lines and plot bunnies I’ve hatched have come out of sitting in the back of the courtroom waiting for my cases to be called. A good indictment just lays out the probable cause and base elements, not the particulars. Not a bad model to follow.

    Terri

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