The idea of a mystery story is kind of a conundrum, if you think about it. They’re impossible because in a pure form, you can’t understand the problem of the mystery before you. It must be solved, but even then the mystery has to be good enough to be almost unsolvable for it to be a draw.
How do you solve something unsolvable in a story? The easiest way is to introduce a flaw in the mystery. Have a deus ex machina. Something to cheat, to magically help “fix” the mystery at the end so that you can make it work and still preserve the status quo of our protagonists.
Or, you can so it the hard way.
The best way, the real hard way to solve a mystery is to require a sacrifice. A deep and good mystery is one that you can’t solve from the surface. You need to get deep into it. You need to bury yourself in it’s world. You have to give up something of yourself, either literally or metaphorically, to find the root.
To find out what happened.
How the hell do you sum this all into a consumable story? How do you solve an unsolvable mystery in a way that people can connect with?
The LIMETOWN podcast, from creators Skip Bronkie and Zack Akers, manages it. I don’t know how, but they manage it. Journalist Lia Haddock and her journey to find out the truth of what happened to the town of Limetown, a community of people living by and working in a secretive research facility, is a fascinating and impossible mystery.
It’s a fascinating mystery that plumbs some interesting depths, reaching for some weird cliches of mystery, sci-fi, and at the fringes, horror. Something happened the night the town went wild, and three days later it mysteriously became a desolate ghost town. Why? Why were they doing there? And why are the survivors, or “citizens,” reaching out now?
The sacrifice is great. The sacrifice here is even greater than we’d think is Being given, because Lia pays for the truth. She paid for it with her life and her freedom, taken by strangers to be the insurance, the bait, the backup harvest.
We can all still walk away. That is the warning in the final episode, but there’s another warning in there as well. “No damn cat. No damn cradle.”
No damn cat.
No damn cradle.
Vonnegut’s words, encompassing a massive wonderful joke played on us all, that in the end, the things we think are there are in fact, not there. Life is a trick, a set of string meant to distract us from the bigger thing. We pay attention to the string, looking for the cats and looking for a cradle, but failing to realize that the hands and the face are what we need to be looking at. The mechanisms of the joke, and the face that laughs while we struggle.
Limetown, the town of the story, is not the mystery here. Sure, it is in the surface, but the real mystery here isn’t about this town, this testbed of research into artificial telepathy through biomedical implants. The real mystery here isn’t the connection between the main character of Lia Haddock and the mysterious root of the Limetown technology itself. The real mystery is about the sacrifice. It’s about the sacrifice that Haddock is willing to make to get to the truth, to see beyond the cat, beyond the cradle. The very usage of this metaphor, from Kurt Vonnegut’s book Cat’s Cradle, is meant to imply the distraction of someone from the larger issues at hand through a complex but ultimately shallow and useless structure.
Here, the useless structure is what happened that night, the night that Limetown burned as un-implanted townspeople rioted and killed implanted friends, family, and neighbors. The story that the “citizens” tell is important, yes, but it’s the cat’s cradle. The real thing that Lia doesn’t realize until its too late is that Limetown, as the mysterious and horrific woman from the end tells us and her, was only the beginning. It was only one of many. The work must continue, with or without Lia’s uncle, Emile, “the man they were all here for.” But if the work must go on, then they will need Emile.
To get Emile, they need Lia, a trap she’s basically walked into through her sacrifice for the story. She sacrifices her logic, her consciousness, and her own safety (albeit without a full sense of the true danger) for the sake of the truth, and she feels almost until the end that the truth is worth it, no matter what. Of course, her discovering exactly what happened to non-implanted people, the hideous truth of men and women and children turned to slurry and poured down the drain…was it really worth it?
I think that’s why I find this story all so fascinating. The unraveling of the story into a bigger and bigger structure, only to see the true evil at the end, in a twist that in fact makes perfect sense, is why this works so well. It’s what makes Limetown such a concise and really interesting mystery. Yeah, it’s Serial meets “The X-Files”, but it’s also very much its own thing, something much more important and valuable as a mystery.