Wednesday, October 27, 2010

And These Are the Last Words I Have to Say*

A well-written crime fiction novel is made up of several different elements, all of which work together. Many of them are obvious - plot, characters, suspense, believability and so on. Others, though, are more subtle. We may not even notice them at first, but they're there, and if they're well-done, they can make a book that much better. One of those little touches is the way the novel ends - the last few words or sentences. When they're well-written, they can leave the reader eager for the next instalment of a series. Or they can leave the reader with a smile or a laugh. Or they can haunt the reader because they're evocative. Carefully chosen last words and phrases can tie up the package of the book, so to speak, so that the reader is left satisfied.

Some crime fiction novels end with a touch of humour. For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle's
The Adventure of the Priory School, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Thorneycroft Huxtable, founder and Headmaster of the ultra-exclusive Priory School. He wants Holmes to investigate the kidnapping of one of the school's students, ten-year-old Lord Saltire, son of the Earl of Holdernesse. Saltire disappeared from his room one night and has not been seen since. Huxtable wants the case solved with as little fanfare as possible since the reputation of his school is at stake. Holmes agrees and he and Watson begin to investigate. Holdernesse has offered a considerable reward for the safe return of his son, so when Holmes discovers where the boy is and who kidnapped him, he asks Holdernesse for the reward. Once Holmes names the culprit and explains how he knew, Holdernesse writes him a cheque for the reward money. Holmes also gets the chance towards the end of the story to see an ingenious device by which the kidnapping was accomplished. Here's how the story ends:

"'Thank you,' said he…'It is the second most interesting object that I have seen in the North.'
'And the first?'
Holmes folded up his check and placed it carefully in his notebook. 'I am a poor man,' said he, as he patted it affectionately, and thrust it into the depths of his inner pocket."

Some of Agatha Christie's work also ends on a light note. For example, in
Hallowe'en Party, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds, who's drowned in a bucket of water while she's attending a Hallowe'en party. Poirot's friend Ariadne Oliver attends the party and, thoroughly upset and distressed by the murder, visits Poirot and asks him to investigate. She believes that Joyce was killed because earlier in the day, she had said that she saw a murder committed. Ariadne Oliver thinks that the murderer might have overheard Joyce and decided to silence her. Poirot agrees that that's a possibility and visits the village of Woodleigh Common, where the Reynolds family lives. As Poirot finds out about the history of the village and the people who live there, he connects a past series of events with Joyce's death and finds out who killed her. As the novel ends, he thanks Mrs. Oliver for getting him involved in the case:

"'…I have to thank you for bringing it to my notice-' 'That's right,' said Mrs. Oliver in an exasperated voice, 'blame it all on me as usual!'"

At times, a novel's last lines give a real insight into the character of the sleuth. In Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Roseanna, for instance, we meet Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck. He and his team are called to the town of Motala when the body of an unidentified woman is dredged up from Lake Vättern. It takes hard effort, but eventually, the police team discovers that the woman was Roseanna McGraw, an American tourist from Lincoln Nebraska, and that she was on a Swedish cruise when she was killed. Beck is haunted by the case and determined to solve the murder. Finally, at the cost of painstaking effort, many overtime hours and a great deal of stress, Beck's team discovers who killed Roseanna and why. When the case is finally solved, the team is able to return to a normal life, if there is such a thing for police detectives. We see both Martin Beck's happiness at solving the case and his eagerness to put it behind him in the novel's last lines:

"Here comes Martin Beck and it's snowing on his hat. He walks with a song; he walks with a sway! Hello, friends and Hello friends and brothers; it squeaks underfoot. It is a winter night. Hello to you all; just give a call and we'll go home to southern Stockholm! By subway. To my part of town.

He was on the way home."

We see a similar relief and happiness at the end of Peter Robinson's
Gallows View. In that novel, DI Alan Banks and his family have recently moved to the Yorkshire town of Eastvale. Soon after their arrival, a voyeur begins to make life frightening and miserable for the women of Eastvale. To make matters worse, there's been a rash of break-ins and thefts in the area. Then, everything escalates when local resident Alice Matlock is killed. At first, her murder seems to be the work of the same people who've been responsible for the break-ins, but Banks soon suspects otherwise. Now, he and his team have to investigate the murder, the break-ins and the peeping incidents, all under public scrutiny and with the intense pressure of time. It turns out to be an un-nerving set of cases, but in the end, the team is able to solve them. We get a sense of Banks' relief when it's all over in the novel's final lines:

"As he walked home in the steady drizzle, Banks began to feel some of the pleasurable release, the sense of lightness and freedom that was his usual reward at the end of a case.
Before leaving, he had slipped a cassette of highlights from La Traviata , usually reserved for the car, into his Walkman, and now he fumbled around in his pocket to switch it on… When the jaunty "Drinking Song" began, Banks started to sing along quietly, and his step lightened almost to a dance."

Some crime fiction ends on a sobering, even haunting note. That makes sense, too, since murder is a horrible, tragic thing to happen. Those kinds of endings can be tricky, because most crime fiction lovers don't want to be left depressed at the end of a novel. On the other hand, murder is terrible and not to acknowledge that can cheapen the novel's effect.
For example, in Michael Connelly's The Black Ice, Harry Bosch gets involved in the difficult, dangerous investigation of the supposed suicide of fellow officer Calexico "Cal" Moore. Bosch doesn't believe that Moore's death was a suicide, and the forensic evidence soon suggests that it was, indeed, murder. So Bosch takes it on himself to trace Moore's last days and weeks to try to find out who would have wanted to kill him and why. The more Bosch finds out about the case, the more he sees how tied up the case is in departmental politics, corruption, drug smuggling and seaminess. In the end, Bosch discovers the truth behind Moore's death. On one hand, it gives him a deep satisfaction, because he's been able to best the department brass who wanted to keep everything quiet and manipulate the facts. On the other, he gets no joy from the outcome, really. The death was sad, the outcome is, in many ways, sad, and Bosch knows only too well the tragedy that murder is. All of this is evoked, you could say, in the last lines of the story, which take place at Moore's gravesite:

"Then he [Bosch] lit a cigarette and watched as the sleek black machine carried her out through the gate and left him alone with the dead."

It's also quite interesting when a crime novel's last lines come from the killer. Not only does this give us an insight into the murderer, but also, it's an innovative way to end a novel. For example, in Agatha Christie's Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Hercule Poirot is hired by famous actress Jane Wilkinson to convince her husband, the 4th Baron Edgware, to grant her a divorce. Poirot's reluctant at first, since he doesn't usually get involved in domestic matters like that, but he's finally persuaded. He and Hastings visit Edgware, who surprises them both by agreeing to the divorce. In fact, says Edgware, he's already written to his wife to that effect. Poirot and Hastings leave, only to find out the next day that Edgware's been shot. Poirot works with Chief Inspector James "Jimmy" Japp to find out who shot Edgware and why, and there are plenty of suspects. In the end, Poirot discovers the truth. At the end of the novel, Poirot receives a letter from the very unusual killer, who's been convicted and is now in prison. The letter ends this way:

"p.s. Do you think they will put me in Madame Tussaud's?"

Final lines can finish of a story neatly, leave the reader wanting more, and stay with the reader for a long time. Which final lines have you especially enjoyed?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's Famous Last Words.


  1. I like the last lines that leaves you with just a hint of something so that you know the characters you feel in love with will be back for another adventure. But there have been some books that with the last line you realize the killer will be back too. Interesting post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - Oh, now that is an intriguing end to a novel, isn't it? The idea that a killer will be back can be quite suspenseful. And I agree completely; whenever a novel gives readers the sense that beloved characters will be back in the next book, that's a solid motivation to stay faithful to the series.

  3. I wrote a cozy once on a book entitled, And Then The Sun Shone Brightly and that was also the last of the book. It's an important element in the book. I love to make the last line important. It should be powerful enough to make a reader thing and propel them to read the next book.


  4. Clarissa - Oh, that title's intriguing :-). You're right, too, that the last line matters. If it's well-written, it does make the reader want more, while still adding some closure. It takes planning to do that well, I think.

  5. That was a great post!Lord Edgware Dies is a perfect example of a great line to end the book. I think she wrote that line to remove any trace of doubt that the reader may have about the thinking of the killer.May be the extremely effective red herrings she incorporated in the plot necessitated this!

    Once in a while, it is indeed thrilling to read that the killer will be back. Though I personally prefer the endings suggested by mason.

    Another example is the short story "Witness for the Prosecution" by Agatha Christie. I don't think I can quote it without spoiling the secret, but those who have read it will surely remember! ;)


    P.S. Have you read the play? Does it end with the same line?

  6. Amey - Thank you :-). I agree, too, that Christie might have created that line so that readers know, with no question, the way the killer thinks.

    Interesting that you would bring up The Witness for the Prosecution. Actually, the play does not end with the same line as the story. I don't want to spoil it, either, for those who haven't read it, but it is said that Christie wasn't satisfied with the original ending to the story, so that when it was later adapted as a play, she made changes.

  7. In theatre it's known as 'putting a button on the scene'; it could be a line of dialogue, it could be an action, but it just puts another level on the conclusion of the scene. I'm very aware of these 'buttons' when I write and try my hardest to make sure every scene I write is complete. The end of a book calls for the best button of all. You want a reader to close the book feeling satisfied, but yet eager to read the next one.

  8. Elspeth - Thanks for the glimpse into "theatre thinking." It's interesting; movies and plays often have excellent buttons. I suppose that's because that piece of a story has been an integral part of acting for a very long time. You're right that books benefit from those buttons, too. I'm sure with your background, your buttons are terrific.

  9. You hit one of my favorites today -- Harry Bosch. It has been awhile since I've read a Michael Connelly mystery. I think it's time I catch up.

    Although a lighthearted finish can be fun, I like any ending to create a picture, to help me see where the protagonist is and what's she's doing as the story ends.

  10. Patricia - Ah, a fellow Harry Bosch fan :-). I think he's a fantastic character.

    And you've got a good point: a story's end should really give us a clear picture of where the protagonist is. I think readers want that mental picture so they can get some closure to a story.

  11. The last line of Lord Edgware Dies is my favourite last line ever.
    But many of the Sherlock Holmes stories end on a note that stays with you for a long time.

    Thanks for another great post.

  12. Rayna - You're very kind :-). And I agree with you 100%; that last line of Lord Edgware Dies is truly memorable. It speaks volumes, doesn't it? Just a brilliant line. And yes, Conan Doyle did, indeed, know how to end a story...