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!