Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Wrapping it Up

Mystery and crime fiction readers want to know who committed the crime at the center of a novel. They want to know why it was committed, and when and how it was committed. Finding out the murderer is a real catharsis. However, most mystery novels don't end with the naming of the murderer. There's usually a dénouement that tells what happens to the major characters in a novel. The dénouement gives the reader a sense of closure - it "wraps up the package" of the novel.

Some dénouements "tie up the loose" ends of a novel. For instance, in Agatha Christie's Appointment With Death, Poirot investigates the sudden death of a sadistic elderly matriarch. At the end of the novel, he meets the members of her family five years after the events of the novel. In his conversation with them, and the conversations they have with each other, we find out what's happened to them. Most importantly, we find out how they've blossomed since being freed from her tyranny. That kind of dénouement gives the reader a great deal of closure; that's its chief advantage. The reader can move on from the story.

Other kinds of dénouements add one final twist to the story. For instance, in Carol O'Connor's Shell Game, the dénouement is told from the perspective of a twisted, ruthless killer who Detective Katherine Mallory has been tracking. As the novel ends, the killer makes one final move in the cat-and-mouse game he and Mallory have been playing. The beauty of that sort of dénouement is that it keeps the reader's interest - right to the last sentence. I found it hard to let go of that ending, actually.

O'Connor isn't the only one who lets the killer have the final word. Agatha Christie does it in Thirteen at Dinner (AKA Lord Edgeware Dies). That's one really fascinating example of how the reader can get the killer's perspective. In the novel, the killer writes a letter to Hercule Poirot that explains exactly how the murder of the fourth Baron Edgeware was committed. In a way, it's like a conjurer showing the audience how the trick was done. We also see the killer's perspective brilliantly outlined in the dénouement of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Some dénouements tell the reader how the characters in the novel move on from the murder. Robin Cook's Seizure and Emma Lathen's Murder to Go are like that. As Seizure ends, we find that Carol Manning, assistant to Senator Ashley Butler (a central figure in the novel), is planning to use what she's learned through the course of the novel in her own political career. In Murder to Go, a group of franchisers whose fast-food chicken restaurants have been threatened by a series of mysterious deaths are finally free to move on when the killer is caught. At the end of the novel, they eagerly plan for the future with a whole new chicken recipe. There is hope in dénouements like these, and readers who've gotten to like the characters often enjoy finding out that they're going to succeed and move on.

In mystery series such as Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, the dénouement often gives strong hints about what's to come. For example, in the original novel, the last sentence of the story lets the reader know that Precious Ramotswe is getting married to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. This whets the reader's appetite for more novels, and sets the stage for what's coming. Laurien Berenson does the same thing in her Melanie Travis mysteries. We also see that kind of dénouement in many of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels.

I think that murder has a profound effect on people, so I also have a fondness for dénouements that admit that, and let the reader see how the characters deal with the unthinkable. In Hugh Pentecost's The Fourteen Dilemma, the novel ends with Pierre Chambrun, manager of the Hotel Beaumont, reacting to the arrest of a murderer who's taken two lives at his hotel. I actually recommend the Pierre Chambrun series. They are not easy to find, but they're well-written, and I find Chambrun a very interesting character.

In my own Joel Williams series, I want the reader to know what happens to the characters. I want to show how the death of the victim affects them, and what they do as they move on with their lives. For instance, in the dénouement of B-Very Flat, I follow each of the major characters in the short period of time after the arrest of the murderer of a talented young violin virtuosa. The reader gets to see the choices each makes, and how the characters pick up their lives.

What's your preference? Do you like dénouements that hint at another book? Do you prefer that the novel end with the killer's arrest or death? Or do you like dénouements that shock?


  1. I like ones that are consistent with the POV, the genre and the character. Just read NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH and it ends with...well, I shouldn't spoil it but is totally consistent with a first person POV and a psychopath. Surprises usually don't surprise anymore...we've all read too many books. I don't like hinting at another book very much. Finished should be finished.

  2. I don´t mind being left with the feeling that something is going to happen between the sleuth and the sidekick later, for example, but like Patti, I want a proper ending so I can lean back and feel the story is over for now. And if the story is good, I will definitely be back for more (with a beginning, middle and end, please). I may also enjoy a sequel, but if the book does NOT end, I really want the author to tell me that I´ll have to read one more before I can rest.

  3. Patti and Dorte,
    You have a good point that it's nice to be finished with a novel when the novel is done. It gives the reader a sense of gestalt, which I think most readers want. Even in a series, there's a good argument that one story in that series should definitely end before the next begins.