Tuesday, January 12, 2010

So Much For My Happy Ending*

In real life, murder investigations don’t always end neatly. The murderer isn’t always arrested, tried and convicted. Sometimes, the murderer is never even caught. Even when the murderer is caught, she or he may be released on a legal technicality, or the police may never get the evidence to bring the killer to justice. Some murderers escape to another country. Sometimes, murderers commit suicide rather than face justice; that, too, makes for a less-than-neat ending. In crime fiction, though, most mystery lovers enjoy the catharsis of seeing the murderer brought to justice. We want the “bad guy” to be caught. In fact, when I write, I prefer to write endings where the murderer “gets his.” But that doesn’t always reflect real life. Sometimes, even in crime fiction, it just doesn’t work out that way.

In some crime fiction, the murderer doesn’t get caught. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s The Chocolate Box, in which Hercule Poirot investigates the death of Paul Deroulard, a French deputy. Deroulard has died from eating poisoned chocolate, and his cousin asks Poirot to investigate. Poirot does so, but the clues lead him to the wrong suspect. It’s only after that wrong suspect is imprisoned that we find out who the real killer is, when that person summons Poirot and confesses to the crime. It turns out, though, that the real killer doesn’t have very long to live, so we’re left knowing that that murder isn’t going to be brought to justice.

Robin Cook’s Fever is another example of a case where a criminal goes free. Dr. Charles Martell, a brilliant cancer researcher, is devastated to find out that his daughter, Michelle, is suffering from acute myeloblastic leukemia. At the same time, he’s pulled away from his own cancer research at the Weinburger Institute to work on a new cancer treatment called Canceran. A successful result of the new treatment will put the Weinburger on strong financial footing; poor results could close the institute down. Martel reluctantly agrees to finish the Canceran studies, although their results have been questionable. He soon finds out, though, that Michelle’s cancer was caused by toxic waste from Recycle, Ltd., a local waste treatment plant. When he tries to get the plant closed, he finds out that both the plant and his own Weinburger Institute are owned by the same company. Now, Charles risks his own life and the lives of his family members as he struggles to have the company held accountable for the toxic waste dumping and the dubious cancer treatment. Some have argued that this novel has a positive ending, in that Michelle’s cancer is treated and Recycle, Ltd. is held accountable for dumping waste. However, the real criminals – those “behind the scenes” – are not really brought to justice, and the epilogue shows clearly that the problem of toxic waste dumping in the area is not solved.

There’s another example of a criminal who doesn’t get caught in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. That’s the story of Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their children, Pete and Kim, who move from Manhattan to the small, peaceful, “perfect” town of Stepford, Connecticut. Everything seems to be going well until Joanna begins to notice some mysterious and frightening goings-on. As she tries to find out what’s really happening in Stepford, Joanna soon realizes that she’s up against a powerful enemy who’s willing and able to silence her at any cost. In the end (and in a famously chilling final scene and epilogue), we find out that even though Joanna has learned the truth about Stepford, that doesn’t stop what’s happening in the town.

In some crime fiction, the end of the story isn’t neat because the murderer commits suicide, rather than face the consequences of having killed. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours). In that novel, successful Harley Street doctor John Christow is shot while staying at the country home of his friends, Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Hercule Poirot, who’s taken a nearby cottage as a weekend retreat, is drawn into the investigation, since he arrives at the Angkatell home just after the murder has been committed. There are a number of suspects, and Poirot and the police find the evidence and clues that lead to the real killer. In the end, though, the murderer doesn’t face justice, but dies of accidental suicide. Even though Poirot sees it as “the best way,” the ending is still not a neat finish where the reader gets the catharsis of knowing the murderer will pay for the crime.

That’s also the case in Ellery Queen’s Ten Days’ Wonder. Howard Van Horn, son of wealthy manufacturer Diedrich Van Horn, has had a troubling series of blackouts. When he wakes up after one of them covered in blood, Van Horn asks his old college friend, Ellery Queen, to help him find out what’s behind his blackouts and what crime he may have committed. Queen’s search for clues leads him to the Van Horn home in small-town Wrightsville. While Queen is there, Diedrich Van Horn’s much-younger second wife, Sally, is murdered, and everyone thinks that Howard committed the crime, since he had a blackout the night she was attacked. In the end, and after another death, Queen finds out who the real killer is, but the murderer commits suicide instead of facing conviction for murder. Moreover, the Van Horn family is permanently shattered. This ending is actually one of Queen’s more “messy” endings.

Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden offers another example of a murder mystery that doesn’t end at all neatly. DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team investigate the ten-year-old murder of Warren Howe, a landscaper who was killed with his own scythe. At first, his wife Tina was the major suspect, but since she had an alibi, the police couldn’t pursue a case against her. Scarlett soon finds that a number of people had a strong motive to kill Howe, who was an unpleasant, abusive adulterer. She and Oxford historian Daniel Kind solve the mystery of Howe’s murder, but not until three more deaths occur – including the death of the murderer.

One might think that there are “neater” endings in cozy mysteries, but that’s not always the case. For example, in Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Knew Shakespeare, Jim Qwilleran, Baun’s sleuth, finds out that the original editor of the paper for which he writes features was killed when his car hit a rotten plank on a local bridge. At first, the death looks like an accident, but Qwilleran begins to believe it’s a murder when the newspaper office goes up in flames. His sleuthing leads him to a case of murder-for-hire and a plot to get a fortune in antiques. In the end, Qwilleran identifies the killer, but not before a fatal fire claims the murderer’s life.

There’s an equally “messy” ending in M.C. Beaton’s Love, Lies and Liquor. Agatha Raisin is persuaded to go on what’s supposed to be a romantic getaway with her ex-husband, James Lacey. Lacey chooses a seaside resort, Snoth-on-Sea, that he knew as a boy. Since then, the place has gone to seed, and Agatha is on the point of leaving in disgust. Lacey persuades her to stay one more day until they can make other arrangements. That night, Geraldine Jankers, an obnoxious fellow guest at their hotel, is strangled on the beach – with Agatha’s own scarf. At first, the police suspect Agatha of having killed Geraldine, as they’d had an argument in the dining room earlier in the evening. When Agatha is able to prove her innocence, James wants to leave Snoth, but now, Agatha’s intrigued. So she and two of the detectives who work with her investigate the murder. After several false starts, Agatha identifies the killer of Geraldine Jankers. However, the murderer commits suicide before the police can make an arrest.

One of the most famous “messy” endings (I’ve purposely saved this one for last) is the ending to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Final Problem. In that story, Holmes is on the point of having his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, and Moriarty’s henchmen arrested for forty separate crimes. Three days before the arrest, Holmes and Watson leave London because Holmes fears for his life; he knows that Moriarty has made him a target. Once in Continental Europe, Holes and Watson make their way to Germany, but Moriarty trails them and he and Holmes have a final confrontation at the Reichenbach Falls. Instead of facing justice for t he crimes he’s committed, Moriarty faces the bottom of the Falls. That ending was so unsatisfactory that fans protested vehemently. In fact, as we all know, Conan Doyle ended up bringing Holmes back.

What do you think of “messy” endings, where the murder doesn’t get caught, or doesn’t face justice, or the "loose ends" aren't tied up? Do you still enjoy the novel, or is it important that the sleuth “get his man?”

*NOTE - The title of this post is a line from Avril Lavigne's My Happy Ending.


  1. In the stories where the killer isn't caught, I'd hope the author would write a second book where they would be apprehended. As a reader the only way a book with "loose ends" would be enjoyable would be knowing there would be more to come. Even if the killer wasn't caught in the second book as long as it would lead to one where he was. Otherwise, when the killer doesn't face justice it's more like reading true crime than a work of fiction.

  2. Mason - A lot of readers agree with you that they like the idea of the killer getting caught. It seems to fulfil an important sense of "rightness" when the "bad guy" has to face justice. Maybe that's one reason for which so many people prefer crime fiction to true crime.

  3. Margot, I always appreciate your essays - and the way you pull examples from both classic and contemporary mystery writers.

  4. I'll answer with an unequivocal "it depends." Usually I like the bad guy to get his, and the nastier the better. But there have been books I've enjoyed where only partial justice is done, perhaps more reflective of reality.

    One thing's for sure, no matter if justice is carried out or not, a bad ending can wreck an otherwise good read.

  5. Chris - Thank you : ). I appreciate your kind words. That means a lot to me.

    Alan - In general, I have to agree that I have a soft spot for mysteries where the "bad guy" gets it, even though I know that's not always realistic. If that's not going to happen, I think it's important that the author have a very compelling alternative - something we can really believe would happen. Like you, I think that a badly-written ending can ruin a book that's been well-done throughout.

  6. Either can work in the right hands, especially if we have some sympathy for the bad guy. Or if he is just too damn interesting to dispense with-like Ripley.

  7. Patti - You've got a strong point. If the author paints the murderer in a sympathetic way, we can forgive a "messy" ending. I hadn't thought of Ripley, but you do have an interesting point there, too. If we find a murderer intellectually compelling, it makes sense that we could like an ending that's less "neat."

  8. I agree with Patti; did the bad guy commit the crime for some sort of noble cause ( in his/her mind at the least) or was the crime committed for the pure joy of it? What was their motive? Bad motives deserve punishment. Good motives might be forgiven. Murder is never a good thing, but sometimes the good can outweigh the bad. Get caught, yes. Punished? Maybe not.


  9. Well, I like variation, but I don´t think a mystery is satisfactory unless the reader KNOWS who the murderer is.

    "In real life, murder investigations don’t always end neatly." I discussed this with my daughter yesterday, because she has just written a paper about antidetective novels (Paul Auster + Thomas Pynchon). As part of their postmodern views, they criticize crime fiction for being too neat. Of course I realize that I read crime fiction BECAUSE it is neat. I like my bit of escapism after having taught Hamlet etc. And actually, most murder cases in Denmark do end rather neatly. Very few murder cases are not solved eventually in this little corner of the world.

  10. Elspeth - You do make an elegant point. A lot really does depend on the murderer's motive. The more self-serving or sinister the motive, the more we want the case neatly solved and "tucked away." It's so interesting, too, that you make a distinction between getting caught and getting punished. They are different things, aren't they, and I like it, too, when crime fiction distinguishes them.

    Dorte - I know exactly what you mean about liking neat endings. In real life, a lot of things aren't neat, so it can be a pleasant escape when a murder mystery is efficiently solved and the "ends tucked in." I didn't know that, by the way, about Danish real-life casess. I'm happy to hear that, actually. My own (admittedly quite biased) preference is for the "bad guy" to get caught and face consequences, so I'm glad there are places where that usually happens :).