“The Mystery Gene” (by Miriam Grace Monfredo)

Former librarian Miriam Grace Monfredo is an award-winning writer of historical crime fiction. Her first novel, Seneca Falls Inheritance, was set against the backdrop of the first women’s rights convention. Since then she has written eight more novels that focus on the civil rights struggles of women and minorities in nineteenth-century America. She’s a notable short-story writer too, with many publications in magazines and anthologies, including two best-of-the-year collections. Some readers will also know her as the co-editor of two historical mystery anthologies, and EQMM is indebted to her for steering some of her students of creative writing our way. We have a new historical short story from Miriam coming up in EQMM soon, but in the meantime, she has some thoughts on what compels human beings to want to solve mysteries that we think you’ll find intriguing.—Janet Hutchings

A few weeks ago, editor Janet Hutchings wrote on this blog that attraction to conspiracy theories seems to be hardwired in the human brain. I think much the same wiring draws us to the mysterious. In that respect, conspiracy theorists are mystery writers’ not-too-distant cousins, the kind of relatives you pray won’t embarrass you at public functions.

Somewhere along the great Evolutionary Highway, an ancient progenitor or two picked up a gene which improves our chances for survival, but more on that later. Its carriers flourished, and what I’ll call the Mystery Gene became indelibly stamped in our DNA, like eye color and a craving for chocolate ice cream. Mystery writers undoubtedly receive a double dose, since if real-life mysteries aren’t at hand, we’re compelled to invent them. There are plenty of others, though, who actively search for mysteries: homicide detectives, forensic scientists, archaeologists, and mystery readers are just some who come to mind. These mystery-gene carriers don’t typically morph into conspiracy theorists. They lack the requisite pathology.

Here are two scenarios: one is an actual current event, the other . . . isn’t.

Our TV blares the synthesized trumpets of CNN’s BREAKING NEWS. We learn that Middle America Airlines flight #123 has crash-landed in a wintry Iowa cornfield. Miraculously the passengers reportedly walk away unharmed. FAA investigators later determine the crash was caused by a flock of dazed hypothermic flamingoes that mistook the winged craft for one of their own and attempted to turn it south. (The primary piece of evidence being the cornfield awash in pink feathers). Ah, yes, we agree; that would certainly do it. And we think little more about it. We’re satisfied with an explanation that fits the known facts and comforted that this is an isolated, if bizarre, event unlikely to occur again. Oh, a few ornithological naysayers will point out that pink feathers are not exclusive to flamingoes, nor do the birds frequent Iowa; a few more will insist the feathers were planted by the CIA to disguise what was a terrorist attack, but these will be dismissed by most as nitpicking and the product of unsound minds.

Then the trumpets sound again. This time we learn that Malaysian Airlines flight #370, originating in Kuala Lampur and bound for Beijing, China, is reported missing. If you carry the mystery gene you already know the meager particulars like the back of your hand.The relevant electrifying moment comes when a CNN commentator tells us to stand by; a panel of distinguished experts will be analyzing the plane’s mysterious disappearance.

When we hear that magnetic word, do we carriers hit the off button and think no more of it? Only if we’re fully anesthetized. We immediately check other channels to see if 1) CNN’s BREAKING NEWS is a mountain turning into a molehill, or 2) the plane has been located, having landed safely in an Iowa cornfield. Absent these explanations, we are left with an irresistible riddle: How could a huge Boeing triple seven, reputed to be among the most reliable of aircraft, literally vanish? This has all the elements of a classic mystery: how, why, where, and what- or whodunit.

Demonstrating the subject gene’s far-flung distribution, the Nielson Company reported that when CNN launched weeks of relentless 24/7 coverage of its headlined The Mystery of Flight 370, its international viewership rose 84 percent!

A CNN commentator’s explanation of that phenomenal number was “. . . interest is high because all of us have some theory as to what might have happened [to it].” Theory as used here is a questionable descriptor. So is CNN’s use of the word analyze to define the activity of its inexhaustible expert panels. Speculate is the more apt word for what these talking heads do for hour upon hour, days upon days. They are undaunted by constantly changing information (clues) when the inept or purposely misleading Malaysian government finally notices the whole world is watching and is not buying the obfuscations it allows to trickle out as fact. While changing clues may not derail CNN experts, they are guaranteed to drive us mystery aficionados right out of our minds. (Without rest and medication, one or two might even morph into the dreaded CTs.)

And now a mystery upon a mystery has been introduced: Why do millions worldwide hang on every word aired about Flight 370’s disappearance? Why, when we confront global climate change, endless religious and territorial wars, and world poverty, all of which receive little or cursory attention from 98 percent of humankind, does a single missing airplane compel the interest of so many?

If you believe the theory of natural selection, is species survival a subconscious reason for the intense effort to solve this mystery? Because we hope that if we find the cause, we can remedy and prevent it from happening again? And that the solution, unlike those of climate change, wars, and poverty, won’t require a wholesale, fundamental shift in human nature. Over which we have no foreseeable control. Then, too, most of us travel by air at some time or another and expect to complete our travel in corporeal form. In the case of the missing plane, unlike the flamingoes’ self-immolation, we are unsatisfied by what we don’t know and discomforted by the possibility of that unknown repeating when we board our next flight. Although by now some among us will have deduced enough to suspect the last plane we should ever get on is one operated by Malaysian Airlines.

There’s also the mystery’s altruistic component. Most of us have loved ones, so we can emphasize with those of Flight 370’s lost passengers and their desperate need for finality. Empathy, so sociologists posit, creates strong bonds beneficial for cooperation and thus contributes to species’ survival.

It’s likely the potent element of curiosity explains a substantial portion of that 84 percent. Instead of calling the plane’s disappearance solely a mystery, we could expand the definition to include thesaurus synonyms: an unknown and a curiosity. Human history teems with the useful items invented when a needy mystery-gene carrier is driven by curiosity. Since I clearly can’t list them all, just a few of our solutions must serve: the wheel, beer, penicillin, Boeing 777s, and pizza.

Curiosity also accounts for another category of mystery-seekers: historians are commonly impelled by not much more than a modest need to know. If history teaches us what it means to be human, there are countless lessons in its mysteries. My own books are set in the maelstrom of mid 19th century America and attempt to fill in some gaps where the historical record is silent. Research into that silence is often sheer grinding detective work. Yet, like Sherlock, I am never happier than when I find an inexplicable incident never satisfactorily resolved. I’ve based short stories on these mysteries, for instance: What caused Amy Robsart Dudley, the young wife of Queen Elizabeth I’s handsome horse master, to fatally tumble down a flight of stairs? What was behind the mysterious disappearance of the Confederate spy Harrison during the battle of Gettysburg? While both these incidents occurred at turning points of history, both stories stemmed from nothing more profound than my own compulsive curiosity.

So, can we confidently say the mystery gene increases our chances for survival? It creates fear and self-interest (our plane disappearing ); inspires empathetic connection with strangers (victims of tragedy); and expands knowledge through curiosity Or is the compelling attraction of mystery something more inscrutable? Something we can’t explain.

I don’t know the answer. To make a point I isolated a single imaginary gene in the vastly complex human genome. But genes don’t act in isolation. I do think, however, our fascination with the mysterious is old and powerful and existed eons before Japanese puzzle boxes. Before Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone) and Dickens (Bleak House), and then Edgar Allan Poe ever set pens to paper. Of one thing, though, we can be certain. If the mystery of Flight 370 remains unsolved, it will inescapably become a target for generations of theorists, conspiracy-minded and otherwise. And to bring this full-circle, at least when we mystery writers take a shot at it, we’ll label our efforts fiction.

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4 Responses to “The Mystery Gene” (by Miriam Grace Monfredo)

  1. Jane Meep says:

    Please. This is LOUSY “science,” and the whole cynical find-a-gene stupidity game was started by bigots trying to discredit whatever they find inconvenient in their fellow human beings. Please may the day come soon when everyone knows enough about genetics to laugh this BS off the face of the earth. WISE UP.

    • Miriam did not intend this to be taken as science. She said, “To make a point I isolated a single imaginary gene.” That point being that “our fascination with the mysterious is old and powerful.” —Janet Hutchings

  2. kramnyc says:

    Jane–
    Wow! You took the bait! Charles Darwin is chuckling in his grave.

  3. kramnyc says:

    Ms. Monfredo:

    As you point out, genes don’t act in isolation; the wider question is, what ensemble of genes does the “mystery gene” stand for? What is its survival value? The answer is enough material to fill several books, but in short, I’d say it’s the congeries of genes that make us social. Needless to say, there’s a whole big bunch, and together they–together with upright posture and toolmaking–are what drove the evolution of language, imagination, forethought, and overall raw intelligence.

    First, sociality makes us far more concerned with what happens to people–and indirectly other living things–because, hermits aside, other people are largely what sustain our lives.

    But there’s more to it. Key to the success of any social species is the ability to anticipate and influence the actions of others, and what we call the Theory of Mind raises that ability by an order of magnitude. Hence the universality of Mystery Gene(s), since the world’s greatest mystery is what is actually going on in the heads of other people, and the keener our Theory of Mind, the better we are at solving that mystery, thus the better we are in the vital task of negotiating the twists and turns of social activity.

    It’s no accident that “whodunit” is the most common catchall term for mysteries–emphasis on the *who*. It’s no accident that the two examples you draw from your own work suggest human machinations. Why would we be interested in Amy Dudley’s fatal fall, or Confederate spy Harrison’s mysterious disappearance, if not for the suspicion that some evildoer was responsible?

    As for the disappearance of Flight 370, we become engaged, not only because of our compassion for the victims and their families, but also because of our speculations as to human agency and motivation. A deranged pilot? Terrorists? A lone hijacker, unwilling to accept the pilots’ warning that the plane would run out of fuel over the ocean before they ever got near his or her destination?

    When the Mars Climate Orbiter crashed on Mars in 1998, it failed to be headline news for more than a day–at the time we could be confident there was no human agency, no people were harmed, and solving that accident was left to scientists and engineers. Sure enough, the explanation came down to an overlooked discrepancy between metric and English units, the only human agency being someone’s failure to to investigate two navigators’ prior alerts. The blunder was quite an embarrassment to NASA, but it was primarily technical, and hardly the riveting stuff of human mystery.

    Far more closely scrutinized were the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters. We became engaged not just because of the human tragedy, but with the suspicion that someone or someones had not paid enough attention to human safety.
    Which indeed turned out to be the case. Still, it was largely NASA “culture” that came under fire, not any specific villains, and these tragedies have failed to occupy our imaginations in the way that the Kennedy assassination continues to do. (Even if we’re pretty darn sure Oswald acted alone [and there’s plenty of recent forensic evidence to back that up], the question of his motivation–and Jack Ruby’s–remains a tantalizing enigma to this day.)

    In sum, our fascination with mysteries is deeply embedded in human nature, and for very good reasons. The drive to solve mysteries has expanded to underpin we call natural science, especially the science of evolution and heritability. So we come full circle, trying to explain the mystery of how it is we thirst to solve mysteries.

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