Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Should auld aquaintance be forgot...

We’re at the end of 2009, and in real life, we’re finishing out the year, possibly “tying up loose ends,” and closing that chapter in our lives. In the world of crime fiction, authors do very much the same thing when they end a series. Different authors, of course, have different ways of closing out a series, but in general, it’s effective when a series finale gives the reader a sense of closure. We find out what happens to the protagonist, and we can then move on to the author’s next series, or to another series by a different author.

One of the most famous exits was made by Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Final Problem. In that story, Holmes has been tracking Professor Moriarty and his criminal gang for months, and has pieced together their plot. His goal is catch the entire gang. Moriarty knows this and warns Holmes to give up, or it could mean Holmes’ life. This is no mean boast, as Moriarty is quite Holmes’ equal in terms of cunning. Holmes continues dogging Morarity and his group, and as the story ends, he and Moriarty engage in a final face-to-face fight at Germany’s Reichenbach Falls. The two of them tumble over the Falls, and both are presumably lost. Of course, the problem with this exit was that Conan Doyle’s readers wouldn’t stand for it. There was such a loud protest over the loss of Holmes that Conan Doyle was forced to bring him back. The last Holmes adventure, which takes place right before World War I, is His Last Bow. Holmes and Watson (both much older and, through most of the story, in disguise), work together to catch Von Bork, a German spy living in England who has worked for four years to gather intelligence. Just as Van Bork is getting ready to leave England, Holmes springs his trap and Van Bork is sent to Scotland Yard. At the end of the story, it’s revealed that Holmes now lives in retirement in Sussex, where he’s a beekeeper and that he’s writing a scholarly book on the practice of investigation.

It’s said that Agatha Christie was concerned that someone else might use her sleuths after her death. So she solved the problem in Poirot’s last case, Curtain, and in Sleeping Murder (Miss Marple’s last case, which I’ll get to in a moment). She wrote both during the Blitz in London, and, afraid for her own safety, had them locked away for many decades. In Curtain, Poirot, who’s now confined to a wheelchair with arthritis, asks Hastings to join him at Styles Court in Essex (incidentally, the scene of their first case, The Mysterious Affair at Styles). Styles Court has been turned into a Guest House, and it seems that one of the guests is a serial killer who’s already been responsible for five seemingly unrelated deaths. Poirot needs Hastings’ help to be his “eyes and ears,” since his own health has failed. Poirot is sure he knows which of the guests is the killer, but he won’t tell Hastings the killer’s name; he only identifies the killer as X. While they’re at Styles, another death occurs, and it seems that X has struck again. In the end, and after some very neat plot twists, Poirot gives Hastings the facts he needs to solve the case, but not before Poirot himself dies.

Christie’s last Miss Marple case and her last Tommy and Tuppence Beresford case don’t end so conclusively. In Sleeping Murder, Gwenda and Giles Reed are newlyweds who’ve just moved to Giles’ native England. Gwenda is drawn to a house in Dilmouth, and she and Giles move in. Soon afterwards, though, Gwenda begins to have the sense that she’s been there before, even though she has no memory of ever living in England. She knows things about the house that she couldn’t know if she’d never been there, and she even sees an image of a dead woman lying in the hallway of the house. Wondering if she’s either psychic or mentally ill, Gwenda accepts the chance to leave the house temporarily and go for a visit to London with Miss Marple’s nephew, Raymond West, and his wife. When Gwenda tells Miss Marple (who’s a distant relative) about the new house and her feelings of déjà vu, Miss Marple at first tells her to “let sleeping murders lie.” But one night at the theatre, Gwenda has a bizarre reaction to a scene in a play, and Miss Marple believes there may be more to Gwenda’s visions and memories. Soon, she and the Reeds do some research and find out that there was, indeed, a murder committed in the house and that Gwenda might have witnessed it. In the end, the three of them unearth some of Dilmouth’s old secrets and Miss Marple helps the police catch a murderer who’d escaped justice for eighteen years.

Postern of Fate is the last novel Agatha Christie wrote, although it wasn’t the last one published. This is Tommy and Tuppence Beresford’s “swan song.” The couple, now retired and getting on in years, have retired to the village of Hollowquay. While they’re unpacking, Tuppence finds a cryptic message that a death that occurred long ago in that very house was not natural. Intrigued, she begins to ask questions about the victim, Mary Jordan, who was a German maid. She and Tommy find out that Mary Jordan’s death was, indeed, a murder, and that it was related to espionage that took place in Hollowquay during World War I. They also find that that someone is very anxious that the truth about Mary Jordan should be kept a secret. As they get closer to the truth about Mary Jordan’s murder, Tuppence and Tommy also get closer to present-day danger, and in fact, Tuppence comes close to being a victim herself. At the end of the novel, it’s hinted strongly that the Beresfords are quite happy to settle into uneventful retirement.

Dorothy Sayers’ last Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Busman’s Honeymoon, also ends a series on a positive note. Wimsey and Harriet Vane have finally married and head to Tallboys, a Herefordshire farmhouse, for their honeymoon. When they arrive at Tallboys, though, they find the house deserted and the former owner, William Noakes, dead in the basement. Far from a quiet honeymoon, the Wimseys now get involved in a murder investigation. Noakes was not only disliked, but he was also a blackmailer, so there are several suspects in his murder. What’s very interesting in this novel is the effect of the investigation on Wimsey and Harriet’s relationship. At first, Wimsey has difficulty dealing with the reality of sending even a guilty person to execution, and this causes him to withdraw into himself. In the end, though, Harriet proves a great comfort to him, and Sayers ends the series optimistically.

That’s not the case for Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. The Remorseful Day, Morse’s last case, ends quite differently. That novel begins with a flirtatious scene between Morse, who’s in hospital getting treatment for his diabetes, and Yvonne Harrison, his nurse. The novel then moves ahead a year. Yvonne Harrison has been murdered and her nude body found gagged and handcuffed to her bed. Her husband and children were out of town at the time of the death, so they have alibis, and the police weren’t able to find enough evidence to charge anyone with the crime. The police re-open the case when Superintendent Strange receives an anonymous tip that Harry Repp, who’s just been released from jail on burglary charges, may be responsible for the case and bears watching. Morse and Lewis are put on the Harrison case, but Morse is extremely reluctant to investigate. This causes more than a little consternation for Lewis, who thinks he’s found the shocking reason why Morse doesn’t want to get involved. Gradually, with Lewis’ persuasion, Morse does take more of an interest in the case, and he gives Lewis valuable help, clues and hints – as well as a final summing-up of his views of the case. In the end, Morse and Lewis together are able to solve the case, but Morse is proven right only after he’s died from heart failure that’s been caused by complications from his diabetes.

Ian Rankin’s Exit Music is much more ambiguous as a “swan song.” This novel focuses on the impending retirement of John Rebus. As that novel opens, Rebus is less than two weeks from retirement when he and his partner, Siobhan Clarke, get a new case. A controversial Russian poet, Alexander Todorov, has been brutally murdered in one of Edinburgh’s less-than-desirable neighborhoods. Todorov’s views angered several people, including Sergei Andropov, a wealthy local businessman, who was heard saying he wished Todorov were dead. To complicate matters, Charles Riordan, a recording whiz with whom Todorov had dinner the night he died, is soon himself killed when his studio and his archived tapes are torched. When evidence turns up that Rebus’ old nemesis, Gerry Cafferty, may be connected to these two deaths, Rebus starts stepping outside the official bounds of what he’s supposed to be doing, and is suspended three days before his retirement. Although the ending isn’t “neat,” Rebus helps Clarke, who’s now in charge of the case, to solve the murders. I don’t want to spoil the very end for those who haven’t read the book yet, but there's a fascinating epilogue with quite a twist in it.

Are there series you didn’t want to end? Which are your favorite exits?

On another note.......

As 2009 ends and 2010 begins, I wish to all of you a safe, happy, healthy New Year. May the new year bring you all good things! Here's to all of you!


  1. Another thought provoking post Margot. You have such a good handle on things! All the best for the New Year

  2. Great post!

    I don't like series to end with a death. It makes me feel like I've lost a friend!

    I miss Morse. And Poirot. So, no, my Myrtle will never die. :) And, since she's in her 80s, this will present some difficulty!

    I hope you have a wonderful 2010, Margot! I've so enjoyed meeting you this year.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  3. Kerrie - Thank you : ). That's very kind of you. I wish you all the best in 2010, too.

    Elizabeth - I really miss Morse and Poirot, too! The Remorseful Day and Curtain were hard to read for that reason. So I'm glad you're not planning to put me through that with Myrtle : ). I know that'll be a challenge for you, but still... It's been an honor to meet you, too, this year, and I wish you all the best in 2010.

  4. I can understand that an author wouldn't want someone else to use their characters in a later book or series. But at the same time, those characters have become a part of the readers who have followed them. I don't like to see the series end with a dead or a big question of what now. I like it to end with a hint that some thing could come back so that it never really ends, but you're not left hanging either.

    May 2010 bring you peace, good health, happiness and much success at all you do. I have enjoyed getting to know you through our posting back and forward. I look forward to what the new year brings. Thank you for your friendship. Have a safe and Happy New Year.

  5. Mason - Thank you so much for your good wishes. I've been privileged and proud to get to know you this year, and I'm very much enjoying your friendshp.

    There certainly are some fictionsl sleuths that have become a part of the culture; in that sense, they do "belong" to the raeder, whatever the author may feel. It's important, I think, that the author keep in mind what the readers like, especially when s/he is thinking of ending a series, or starting a new one. Many readers probably feel exactly as you do about their favorite sleuths, and it can feel like a personal loss when a sleuth dies.

    I wish the very best for you and those you love in 2010!

  6. I understand why an author would kill off their character, but it breaks my heart. Reading THE REMORSEFUL DAY was tricky. Watching the show was heartbreaking, especially knowing the wonderful John Thaw had actually died very soon after filming.

    I won't kill off my detective; I'll just go on to writing other characters.

    Best wishes for a spectacular 2010, Margot; I'm so pleased to have *met* you this year!


  7. Elspeth - Oh, it breaks my heart, too! That timing of John Thaw's death really was tragic, wasn't it? You're right that it can be so very sad when a sleuth you've loved died. I'm not sure yet whether my sleuth will die or whether I'll do as Ian Rankin has and move to a new sleuth. It's an interesting question...

    I'm honored we "met," too, Elspeth, and I wish you and your family the best in the new year :).

  8. Margot, dropping back in again. When you have a chance, stop by Thoughts in Progress - I have an award for you.
    Happy New Year.

  9. The Swedish Wallanders that have just ended on BBC4 with on screen tragedy and marked by real life tragedy have left me contemplating life's ups and downs.
    John Thaw [ a wonderful actor] and Morse were such a great loss to TV that I find it very difficult to watch Lewis the sequel with Kevin Whately.
    But I have a great selection of books to read in the New Year, so I must not get depressed.
    Margot, very best wishes for 2010, meeting you online has been one of the great pleasures of the year.

  10. Best wishes for a wonderful New Year, Margot. I'm so glad we met online this year!

  11. Norman - How kind of you : ). It's been a true pleasure to meet you, too. You are so right about the Wallenders and John Thaw. Truly sad losses. As you say, though, there are new books to read, and a new year to contemplate. I wish you and those you love all the best for 2010.

    Ingrid - I'm very glad that we met, too! I wish you and those you love a wonderful 2010!

  12. You come up with the best connections, and the most interesting posts. I loved every word of this. I don't know if you happened to see the article on Henning Mankell that I put on my blog, but it deals with the same sort of thing only in reverse. What does an author do when his or her character on screen dies in real life? Perhaps it depends on the kind of death. John Mortimer kept writing about Rumpole even after Leo McKern's death, but maybe that's because the actor was older when he died. The suicide of the Mankell character creates a different feeling in all of us, and especially the author. My personal choice is for a series writer to just stop writing rather than make a 'end.' Like say, Mrs. Pollifax. I can still picture her flying around the world doing great deeds. :<) And I wonder about Amelia Peabody. I thought the last one I read ended perfect with them literally walking off into the sunset, but now I see Elizabeth Peters has a new book. I can't imagine she would ever kill off those two! I've had a wonderful year of series' discoveries with Mankell and Tarquin Hall and Reginald Hill.

  13. Nan - Thanks for the kind words : ). Thanks also for the reminder of that terrific Menkell article. Folks, that great post is here.Check Nan's blog out here . think it really is a sad and sobering question to think about; how do you handle it when a charcter you've created - and who is still alive in your stories - is played by someone who dies. Suicide, especially, is such a very sad kind of death...

    It's funny you would mention Emily Pollifax, who's always been one of my favorite fictional detectives. She's terrific! I can't picture her dying, either : ). It'll be interesting to see what happens with Amelia Peabody, won't it? I kind of wonder the same thing about Ian Rankin's John Rebus. I can see plenty of scenarios where Rankin might bring hiim back. We'll have to see : ).

  14. One series that ended prematurely was Stieg Larsson's, which was planned to be a series of 10 books but the author died after completing three. It is very sad as one can see in all three of the novels (which form a loose trilogy) many themes that the author has set up for future books.

    Another sad fact of life for those like me who like translated fiction is that sometimes, the first two or three novels in a series are translated, but for commercial reasons additional novels are not. This has happened to Helene Tursten and may happen to Ake Edwardsen and Asa Larsson. Of course, this also happens to series which are written in the English language, one quite often reads about poor authors and readers who have the rug pulled out from under them prematurely.

    I think the Rebus series did come to a natural end: sometimes an author can gain a new lease of life by leaving a series, starting other books, and then perhaps returning to it later. I won't be surprised to re-encounter Rebus in future, but for the time being am looking forward to Ian Rankin's new series (when The Complaints is out in PB).

    John Harvey's excellent Resnick series was planned and written as a series of 10 books. The author then wrote other novels: a trilogy about Frank Elder which I liked a lot; and two (so far) about a couple of detectives in the east of England - not as successful in my opinion because I don't like the main character all that much. But Harvey is a great writer and I shall definitely continue to read him. The ending of the Resnik series was amusing becuase Resnik himself kept popping up in the Elder books, as if he had gained a life of his own. Eventually, Harvey did return to the series, creating an 11th volume, Cold in Hand.

    One of the problems facing any series author is how to stop the titles turning into forumla. Sometimes this is quite apparent if you discover a series late and read a lot of them all at once - I read the first 10 or so "in death" series in one go (J D Robb) and found that the books are all structured in a similar way. We've earlier mentioned Jack Reacher (Lee Child) - sometimes, with a series, one feels that an author has hit a successful formula and then continues it each year. If the author took a few risks, more readers might accrue!

    Ann Cleeves has written a very good quartet - the Shetland Quartet - and although she could continue with it, she has rounded it off fairly definitively in the final novel (published in the UK in Jan 2010). She also wrote an apparent stand-alone, the Crow Trap, but liked the detective, Vera Stanhope, so much that she has written (so far) two more books about her.

    Perhaps series can be more fun when they don't take a predictable course? Otherwise they can end up like James Patterson or Jonathan Kellerman, starting out very good indeed but eventually becoming, to put it politely, bland to the extent that it seems pointless spending the time necessary to read them.

  15. Maxine - As always, you've added a great deal of richness and depth to this post. Like many other people, I wish that Stieg Larsson had had the chance to complete his series, as it would have been so interesting to see where he'd have gone with it.

    I'm not as well-versed in translated fiction as you are, but I can only imagine how frustrating it must be when books in a series aren't available in one's language.

    One of the crucial points you make in your informative response is how important it is that an author know when to end a series, or at least keep it fresh with new character developments and variations on whatever formula the author has developed. We've mentioned Lee Child and James Patterson. There are a lot of other examples, too. Many people think that about Robin Cook and Patricia Cornwell, too, among others.

    It takes creativity and wisdom, I think, to start and end a series in an effective way. I like Cleeves' Vera Stanhope novels and I hope that she'll continue that series and then "wrap it up" as she did the Shetland quartet. It'll be interesting to see where she goes with that series.

  16. Wishing you a happy new year.

  17. Thank you, Cassandra - I wish you a wonderful 2010, too!