Leaving a mystery unsolved?
Hello, I'm outlining the plot of my first novel. The story is about a couple that is accused of murdering a child and their lawyer who has just graduated and doesn't know how to handle the crime since he believes the couple is guilty. I want the lawyer to start as an innocent and naive professional who simply wants to end injustice in the world but since he needs the money he takes any case he can get and I want him to slowly turn into a dark and complicated character. In order to do that I was thinking of doing something that would leave the murder unsolved and I'm not sure if that would ruin the story or not?
Not every story has a happy ending.
Let's assume the couple are guilty.
If the goal of the story is to obtain the couple's freedom, and if your lawyer succeeds in that pursuit, but at a cost of his faith in justice, we would call that a comi-tragedy.
On the other hand, if the lawyer fails to get them off, the reader might see that as a happy if ironic ending (justice is served, and the lawyer can be glad for his failure).
If the couple are actually innocent, things get trickier.
If the lawyer loses his idealism because he fails to get the couple off, that would be a tragedy. (The film Chinatown
is a good example in which a detective becomes increasingly embittered by his failure to protect the innocent.)
If the lawyer succeeds in getting the couple off, but perhaps must do some dishonest things in the process resulting in him losing his sense of self-worth in the process, that would be a different type of comi-tragedy.
If you want to leave the murder unsolved, a common choice is to have the truth somewhat murky, but let the court make a decision anyway based on the balance of evidence. Then, after the couple's fate has been dished out, a bit of evidence turns up that casts doubt on the verdict. Thus, you can turn an apparent happy ending into a comi-tragedy, or an apparent tragedy into a happy ending.
This is fine as long as you play fair with the reader and don't let the final flip seem to come out of nowhere. In other words, don't turn an open and shut case on its heel, but let a case that was perhaps a close call be turned slightly the other way, so there's still some doubt. (The film, Anatomy of a Murder
is an example where this happens.)