Some of those unforgettable moments are simply beautifully-written or especially powerful lines, whether of dialogue or description. For instance, one of the most famous lines in crime fiction (and arguably one of the most powerful) is the first line of Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone:
“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”
The novel then goes on to tell the story of housekeeper Eunice Parchman and her relationship with her wealthy, educated employers. We learn about a terrible secret that she tries to keep, and what leads her to murder four members of her employer’s family. That first, line, though, tells the whole story, really. It is truly memorable.
Sometimes, a line is unforgettable because it paints a very clear picture and reveals a lot about a character in the process. For instance, here’s the last line of Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice, in which his sleuth, Harry Bosch, solves the mystery of the death of Calexico “Cal” Moore, a fellow cop. Once the case is finished, Bosch attends Moore’s funeral:
“Then he lit a cigarette and watched as the sleek black machine carried her out through the gate and left him alone with the dead.”
This line tells us much about Bosch and gives a sense of the tone of the book, too.
Some of those unforgettable moments are dénouements. They may be especially powerful because they’re so unexpected. Or they may be powerful because they’re especially clever. Whatever the reason, some of the greatest moments in crime fiction come at the end of the story.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot has retired to the village of King’s Abbott (or so the thinks). His peace and quiet are soon interrupted when young and beautiful Flora Ackroyd begs him to investigate the stabbing death of her uncle, wealthy retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd. Poirot agrees and begins to look into the case. He finds out that almost all of the members of Ackroyd’s household had reasons to want him dead. The dénouement of this story, one of the most famous in crime fiction, is so memorable because it’s so unexpected. In fact, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, Christie was heavily criticized for “not playing fair” with readers. Since then, though, it’s been recognized as an outstanding moment.
So is the dénouement of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. In that novel, Poirot solves the murder of wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett. Ratchett’s on a three-day journey across Europe on the world-famous Orient Express when he’s stabbed to death. Poirot is on the same train, and is asked to investigate. He agrees and begins to examine the evidence. The solution to this case is innovative, unusual and remains one of the truly memorable dénouements in crime fiction.
Sometimes, a crime fiction novel’s most memorable moments involve conversation. Conversations can be used to build tension, reveal clues and set scenes, so it’s not surprising that they can also be unforgettable. Here, for instance, is a bit of dialogue between Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno, who share a long train ride in Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. The two have struck up a conversation and ended up telling each other their troubles. Bruno has taken the conversation into uncomfortable territory and offered to help Haines plan the murder of his estranged wife. Haines wants no part of it:
“Guy stood up. ‘I want to take a walk.’
Bruno slapped his palms together. ‘Hey! Cheeses, what an idea! We murder for each other, see? I kill your wife and you kill my father! We meet on the train, see, and nobody knows we know each other! Perfect alibis! Catch?’”
In this snippet, we get a sense of Bruno’s psychological instability and of Haines’ growing concern about him. We also get a sense of what’s to come. Sure enough, Bruno kills Haines’ wife and then demands that Haines fulfill his part of the bargain – a bargain Haines didn’t make. Now, Haines feels compelled to kill Bruno’s father. The tension continues as Haines gets more are more drawn into two murders.
In Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, FBI trainee Clarice Starling is sent on assignment to the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. She’s been asked to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who is a brilliant psychiatrist. He’s also a very dangerous resident of the hospital. Starling’s commission is to get Lecter’s insights on a serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” by the investigators working on the case. This killer was once a patient of Lecter’s, and Starling’s asked to get his help on the case. The two of them engage in some extremely tense, powerful conversation as they discuss the case, and Lecter ends up agreeing to help – provided that for every piece of information he offers, Starling reveal a personal secret. Here’s just a tiny bit of one of their unforgettable exchanges:
“‘…or maybe you’re afraid of yourself.’
‘You’re tough, aren’t you, Officer Starling?’
‘Reasonably so, yes.’
‘And you’d hate to think you were common. Wouldn’t that sting? My!’…
Now, please excuse me. Goodbye, Officer Starling.’
‘And the study?’ [referring to a questionnaire Starling has asked Lecter to complete]
‘A census taker tried to quantify me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone. Go back to school, Little Starling.’”
Sometimes, a truly memorable moment isn’t a piece of dialogue, but a scene – a mental picture that the author helps to create. These moments, too, can make a crime fiction novel unforgettable. For instance, in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team investigate the rape and murder of American tourist Roseanna McGraw. The investigation takes months of hard work and a great deal of time commitment on everyone’s part. But finally, the murder is solved and the criminal caught. Here’s the last scene of the novel:
“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."
The mental picture of a lighthearted Martin Beck walking home through a snowfall is especially strong.
So is the mental image we get of psychiatrist Joe O’Loughlin trying to prevent Christine Wheeler from committing suicide in Michael Robotham’s Shatter. O’Loughlin’s called to the Clifton Suspension Bridge when Wheeler is spotted on it, preparing to jump off. He tries unsuccessfully to talk her out of what she’s about to do and that tense scene is very powerful:
“She doesn’t fight gravity. Arms and legs do not flail or clutch at the air. She’s gone. Silently, dropping from view.
Everything seems to stop, as if the world has missed a heartbeat or been trapped in between the pulsations. Then everything begins moving again. Paramedics and police officers are dashing past me. People are screaming and crying. I turn away and walk back toward the barricades, wondering if this isn’t part of a dream.”
Powerful scenes like that can stay with the reader for a long time, even if the reader forgets some of the rest of the story. What I’ve shared with you, though, is only a tiny selection of the many truly unforgettable moments from a few crime fiction novels. Which are your favourites? Which scenes do you still remember, even if you haven’t read the book in a long time?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Nat “King” Cole’s Unforgettable.