Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Does hope spring eternal?

A murder leads to drastic changes for everyone in the victim’s life. If the victim was loved and cared for, the result is tragedy, and the healing process can take a lifetime. If the victim was reviled, the result can be a sense of release. Even in those cases, though, a murder is a shocking, sometimes horrifying event. The question is, then, is it realistic that a murder mystery would have anything like an optimistic ending? Can those close to a murder case have hope?

Some murder mysteries have a distinctly pessimistic ending and offer little to look forward to for those who’ve been close to the murder. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians) is an example of this kind of story (Dorte at DJ’s Krimiblog has an excellent review of the book). In that novel, ten people are invited to Indian Island, off the Devon coast. When they arrive, they realize that they’ve all been lured there. When, one by one, the guests begin to die, it becomes clear that they’ve been trapped by a murderer. In the end, even though we learn who the murderer is and why the guests have been brought to the island, this novel doesn’t have what might be called a hopeful, or even very optimistic, ending. Nothing is really fixed, and in a way, even the killer realizes that.

There’s a similar pessimism to the ending of Hugh Pentecost’s The Fourteen Dilemma, in which the lucky Watson family wins an all-expenses-paid week at New York’s exclusive Hotel Beaumont. The family’s suite is on the posh fourteenth floor of the hotel, along with the suites of several other extremely wealthy guests. The morning after their arrival, twelve-year-old Marilyn Watson wanders off and disappears. At first, no-one worries; the hotel has tight security and it’s unlikely that she’d leave the hotel, anyway. Later, when she doesn’t return, a search begins for her. The search ends tragically when her body is found stuffed into one of the hotel’s large wastecans. Pierre Chambrun, the manager of the hotel (and Pentecost’s sleuth) and public relations manager Mark Haskell (through whose viewpoint the story is told) work with the police to find out who murdered Marilyn and why. They find the killer, but in the end, nothing – really – is solved. The Watson family is still devastated by their loss, and Chambrun in particular is disturbed by what he has to do to catch the killer.

In Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder, we also see a pessimistic view of what happens within a family as a result of a murder. In that novel, Howard Van Horn, son of wealthy tycoon Deidrich Van Horn, wakes up after a blackout covered in blood. He asks his old college friend, Ellery Queen, for help in figuring out what horrible crime he might have committed during his bout of amnesia, and Queen agrees. Queen’s search for the truth about what’s happened to Howard leads him to Wrightsville, a small New England town where the Van Horns live. While Queen is there, Howard has another episode of amnesia, and his stepmother, Sally, is murdered. There’s also a theft of a valuable necklace. Queen solves the murder and gets to the bottom of the problems within the dysfunctional Van Horn family. However, by the end of the novel, there’s another death and hints of yet another, and although Queen has solved the mystery, his solution fixes nothing. The Van Horn family is permanently shattered; in fact, this is one of Queen’s darker novels.

There are many, many other crime fiction novels with bleak, pessimistic endings; I’ve only mentioned a few for the sake of space. Other murder mysteries, though, take a more optimistic perspective. In those novels, we can see that even in the face of murder (sometimes even because of it, actually), there’s reason for hope.

Agatha Christie’s written several novels with more or less hopeful endings. For example, in Appointment With Death, Hercule Poirot investigates the death of a tyrannical matriarch while she and her family are on a visit to the ruins at Petra. Her death frees the members of her family from a lifetime of what amounts to mental slavery. Because each of them benefits from her death, and all of them had a strong motive to kill her, each of the family members comes under suspicion. When Poirot finds out who the real killer is, the innocent family members are finally able to go on with their lives. In fact, there’s an epilogue to the novel that takes place five years after the murder. In that scene, we see the family gathered again; they’re all happy and successful and Christie makes it clear that this story had a happy ending.

There’s a similar optimism to the ending of Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, in which Poirot investigates the murder of Arlena Stuart Marshall, a beautiful and notorious actress. Arlena, her husband Kenneth, and her stepdaughter Linda are taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Also staying at the hotel are Odell and Carrie Gardener, American tourists; Rosamund Darnley, a famous dress designer and an old friend of Kenneth Marshall’s; the Reverend Stephen Lane, an eccentric clergyman; Miss Brewster, an athletic spinster; Colonel Barry, retired from service in India; and Horace Blatt, a businessman. While the Marshall family is staying at the hotel, Arlena takes up with Patrick Redfern, an admirer whose wife, Christine, is heartbroken by his infatuation with Arlena. Late one morning, Arlena is strangled and her body left at Pixy’s cove, not far from the hotel. Poirot is staying at the Jolly Roger Hotel himself, and he was possibly the last person to see Arlena Marshall alive (except for her killer), so he gets involved in the investigation. Once Poirot finds out who killed Arlena, and why, and the killer is caught, a cloud seems to lift for the rest of her family. It turns out that Arlena’s death has freed both her husband and stepdaughter to start a new life.

In Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth, Queen and his new partner, Beau Rummell, take on a commission from very eccentric and mysterious millionaire Cadmus Cole. Cole dies before he can tell them what the commission is, so instead, they search for the heirs to his considerable fortune. They track down Kerrie Shawn, a struggling actress trying to make a name for herself, and Margo Cole, who’s been living in France most of her life. Both agree to come to Cole’s estate and soon find themselves vying for his fortune. When Margo is shot, Kerrie becomes the prime suspect. In the end, Queen and Rummell find out who really murdered Margo, and in the process, also solve the mystery of Cadmus Cole. This story has a very optimistic ending, especially for Kerrie Shawn.

Of course, in real life, a murder has tragic consequences, even when there’s hope. Really well-written crime fiction acknowledges this. For instance, in Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Jim Chee, one of Hillerman’s sleuths, investigates the murder of Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who’s killed during a stay on the Navajo Reservation. Gorman’s in hiding there because he’s an FBI informant for a major Los Angeles car theft ring. Connected with Gorman’s death is the disappearance of Margaret Billy Sosi, a Navajo teenager who’s looking for her grandfather, a kinsman of Gorman’s. Chee’s sent to find Margaret and bring her home safely, and he’s strictly told to leave the Gorman case alone. True to Chee’s nature, though, he can’t ignore the Gorman case since, to him, it’s part of the Sosi case. So he goes to Los Angeles to investigate. In the end, Chee is able to find out who killed Gorman and why, and he finds Margaret Billy Sosi in time to save her from a similar fate. The case leaves two other people dead, and both Margaret and Chee are deeply affected by their experiences. In fact, at the end of the story, Chee requests a Ghostway, a traditional Navajo cleansing ritual for those who’ve encountered chindi or the evil spirits left behind when someone dies However, Hillerman holds out hope; Margaret’s been found safely and returned to her family, and the murderer’s been stopped.

Again, I’ve only mentioned a few novels where there’s optimism in the face of murder. There are many more. Do you have a preference? Do you enjoy novels with this kind of hope, even after murder? Or do you prefer a more pessimistic outlook?


  1. By nature I am a pessimist, but when I read I like to have hope at the end. Books are a way to escape reality. Sometime there isn't hope at the end in real life, so I want books to provide that.

  2. I miss Tony Hillerman. And the rest too, of course.

  3. Mason - That's an interesting point. If we read fiction in order to escape, it can be nice if a book provides the hope that's not always there in real life. When an author can do that and still make the reader believe the story could happen, that's a really fine book.

    Patti - I really miss Hillerman, too!! I'm so glad that he and the rest of the authors I mentioned left such a great literary legacy.

  4. I like the dark side every once in a while, Margot, but I do like my cheery endings. :) Nice summation of the books that fall in the two categories.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  5. Elizabeth - Thanks : ). I agree that hopeful endings do have appeal. When they're done well, they can reflect real life, too. I think another important thing is that the ending should "match" the story. A truly bleak ending isn't so much a fit for a light cozy, for instance, as it is for a darker thriller.

  6. Oh, thank you for linking to my review!

    While I claim I like ´realistic´ stories, I am not quite sure I mean it. Like Elizabeth, I prefer to feel that order has been restored when I close the book. With most police procedural that is exactly what happens: we are not told about relatives still mourning their loss, but we see satisfied and relieved detectives who ´got their man´.

  7. Dorte - I'm quite sure you're not the only one who feels that way. We like our mystery novels to be believable, which means that things don't always end happily. At the same time, though, we want a sense of order restored (You put that quite well!). For most of us, that means a positive sort of ending, or at least a sense that the murderer won't strike again.

    And it's my pleasure to feature your review; your reviews are quite well-done : ).

  8. Any mystery is going to have a type of happy ending; the murderer gets caught. The consequences of the murder are a different kettle of fish, depending on the personality and the actions of the victim. Sometimes, people are better off, sometimes not. Was the victim loved? More consequences. Was he powerful? Different consequences. All the suspects will be happier since they all had a motive for knocking the poor boy off; however, the reality may not live up to their fantasies.


  9. Elspeth - That's a very good point! Even if the murderer isn't brought to justice, the murderer is found out. That, in itself, is a good ending, especially for the other innocent suspects who are now cleared. And, as you say, for everyone who had a motive to kill the victim, her or his death turns out to be a good thing. Interesting comment, too, that you make about the consequences of the murder depending on the victim, the murderer, and so on. That's why the victim's personality matters so much.