Friday, December 31, 2010

And They All Lived Happily Ever After...

…Of course, we all know it doesn't always work out that way. There aren't always neat and tidy ends to stories. And even when a story has a definite, clear ending, there may still be "loose ends." But it's natural to want to know how things work out. So, as 2010 ends and 2011 begins, I thought it might be a good time to take a look at how some crime fiction stories have worked out. Oh, not the mysteries themselves; most of the time, readers find out whodunit and why by the end of a novel. Rather, I'm talking about the larger stories-across-stories that you find in several well-written crime fiction series.

There are some stories-across-stories that play out in Agatha Christie's novels, and where we get to see how it all worked out. For instance, in Mrs. McGinty's Dead, we meet James Bentley. He's a socially-inept former real-estate salesman who's arrested and convicted for killing his landlady. Superintendent Spence doesn't think Bentley's guilty, though, and asks Poirot for help in finding out who was really responsible for the murder. Poirot agrees to take the case and goes to the village of Broadhinny. Among the villagers he meets is Deirdre Henderson, a rather awkward young woman who doesn't believe that James Bentley is guilty, either. Poirot finds out that Deirdre Henderson has feelings for Bentley, although he wouldn't have thought Bentley to be particularly attractive to women. Surprisingly, Bentley has another admirer, too: Maude Williams, who worked with Bentley at the same real estate office. She, too, believes Bentley is innocent. By the end of this novel, we know who really killed Mrs. McGinty and why, but we don't know what's going to happen in Bentley's personal life. Poirot himself says that Bentley will "award the golden apple." Later, in Hallowe'en Party, we find out what happened. Poirot pays a visit to Superintendent Spence, now retired, to get his insight into a case Poirot is investigating. During one of their conversations, Spence refers to Bentley:

"'Married that girl, didn't he? The wet one [Deirdre Henderson]…Wonder how they got on together. Have you heard about it?'
'No,' said Poirot. 'I presume all goes well with them.'"

In Death on the Nile, Poirot investigates the shooting death of Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, who was on a honeymoon cruise with her new husband Simon when she was killed. One of the other passengers on the cruise is Cornelia Robson, whose wealthy elderly cousin Marie Van Schuyler has brought her along as a kind of companion. Throughout the novel, Cornelia is at her cousin's beck and call, and does exactly as she's asked. She's not conventionally gorgeous and certainly not wealthy. And yet, she's intelligent, kind and compassionate and manages to attract two suitors. Poirot and Colonel Race, who's on the same cruise, find out who the murderer of Linnet Doyle was and in that sense, this novel ties up all of the proverbial loose ends. At the end of the novel, though, Cornelia surprises everyone by telling her cousin that she's not going back to America. Instead, she's chosen to marry fellow passenger Dr. Carl Bessner and live with him in Germany and help run his clinic. We find out more about her in Christie's Evil Under the Sun. In that novel, Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay when one of the guests, Arlena Stuart Marshall, is strangled. Since he was quite possibly the last person to see the victim alive, Poirot gets involved in the case. Early in the novel, he meets Mrs. Connie Gardener, a fellow guest, who fills him (and the reader) in on what happened to Cornelia. She tells Poirot:

"You see, M. Poirot, I've heard a lot about you from Cornelia Robson who was. Mr. Gardener and I were at Badenhof in May. And of course Cornelia told us all about that business in Egypt when Linnet Ridgeway was killed. She said you were wonderful and I've always been crazy to meet you…"

Just in those few sentences, we find out how Cornelia's story has worked out.

Dorothy Sayers ties up several loose ends as her novels evolve. In Clouds of Witness, for instance, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates the death of Denis Cathcart, his sister Mary's fiancé. Wimsey's brother Gerald, Duke of Denver, is accused of the crime. Wimsey sets out to clear his brother's name and slowly puts together what really happened when Cathcart was killed. It's a confusing series of events, and when Wimsey finally sorts them out, he's able to prove his brother's innocence. In the course of this investigation, Mary meets Wimsey's friend Inspector Charles Parker. We find out what happens to them in Strong Poison, when their relationship is referred to several times. By the end of Strong Poison, it's clear that Mary and Charles Parker are going to marry and in fact, they do.

Strong Poison provides the beginning of another story-across-stories when Wimsey meets and falls in love with mystery novelist Harriet Vane. The only problem is, she's on trial for the poisoning death of her former lover Philip Boyes. Wimsey's smitten and determines to prove her innocent so he can marry her. He does, indeed, prove who really killed Boyes, and at the end of the novel, he makes it clear to his family that he's going to marry Harriet Vane if she'll have him. As that series of novels moves on, Wimsey and Vane's relationship evolves, although it has its ups and downs, and finally, at the end of Gaudy Night, Vane accepts Wimsey's proposal. In Busman's Honeymoon, we finally see the couple married and starting their life together and in later short stories, we even get glimpses into their lives as a family with children.

There are several "loose ends" in the life of Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee when we first meet him. He's a member of the Navajo Nation and also a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. He's studying to be a yata'ali, or Navajo healer, and feels a strong connection to his Navajo identity. He also, though, feels a strong connection to Mary Landon, a White schoolteacher who teaches on the Reservation, and with whom he's fallen in love. There's also the conflict he feels between his job on the Reservation and some excellent opportunities he's been offered for higher-level police work, including the FBI. As the novels featuring Chee go on, we find out how things work out for him. We discover that Chee chooses not to leave the Reservation, even though it means the end of his relationship with Mary Landon. In The Shape Shifter, the final novel in which Chee appears, he's married fellow Navajo Tribal Police officer Bernadette (Bernie) Manuelito (and we also see their relationship evolve over the course of a few novels) and has managed to strike a balance between his traditional Navajo outlook and the demands of his job.

Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series features several "loose ends" that are slowly tied up as the series moves on. For instance, in the first novel, we meet Mma. Precious Ramotswe's friend Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, owner and manager of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. The two are good company for each other and Matekoni is helpful to Mma. Ramotswe. At one point in the novel, he asks her to marry him and at the very end, she accepts. However, Matekoni seems to be in no great hurry to actually go through with the wedding, so for a few novels, there's a story arc in which Mma. Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni have to work out their relationship. At the end of The Full Cupboard of Life, they do marry and we find out in the novels that follow that how their family life evolves.

There are lots of other examples, too, of how "loose ends" are tied up over the course of a series, whether those "loose ends" are about relationships, unsolved crimes or something else. What do you think of "loose ends?" Do you like to find out how it all works out within the course of one novel? Or do you prefer to find out over a series? If you're a writer, do you tell readers how it all works out within one novel? Or do you leave "loose ends?" And which stories are you looking forward to hearing more about in 2011? Aaa-hem, Daniel Kind and Hannah Scarlett!! ;-). Aaaa-hem, Salvo Montalbano and Livia Burlando!

On Another Note…

My very best to you and all of those you love for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2011! See you next year ;-)!


  1. Such a perfect post for the end of the year!
    The one person who keeps referring to past crimes is Conan Doyle- in practically every short story, at least one previous one is referred to in passing.
    The examples you have quoted from Christie - I've read them all, but not been astute enough to get the hint.
    Thank you for introducing me to several wonderful books and authors, Margot, and here's wishing you continue doing the same for me and many others in MMXI.

  2. Rayna - Thank you for the kind words and the good wishes :-)! May MMXI bring you peace, fulfillment and lots of good.

    And thanks for reminding me of how often Conan Doyle's stories bring up other past crimes that Holmes as solved. I hadn't thought of that when I was writing this post, but you are exactly right.

  3. My very best to you too in this 2011, Margot. Looking forward to learn more about detective fiction thanks to your great blog posts.

  4. José Ignacio - Thanks very much for the kind words and the good wishes :-). I am looking forward to reading your great blog posts this year, too.

  5. I hope *your* year went really well, and I wish you a very happy, prolific New Year, Margot!

  6. Dorte - Thank you so much for the good wishes! I wish you a wonderful 2011, too!

  7. A very happy new year to you, too, Margot. As usual, this is a great post and I look forward to reading more of them as 2011 progresses!

    I have a feeling Harry Bosch and his collection of semi-regular characters might be tying up a few loose ends in the next book or two, as Harry reaches mandatory retirement age...

    Best wishes

  8. Maxine - Thank you very much :-). I wish you the very best in 2011, too.

    And yes, I agree with you that there will be several loose ends tied up as the Harry Bosch novels go on. I do wonder what's going to happen to him as the series goes on and he faces retirement. I've a feeling Michael Connelly's got some good plans for him.

  9. I enjoy learning more about the characters throughout a series. I'm always glad that an author does tight up loose ends when they finish a series.

    A special thanks to you for your wonderful posts throughout 2010 that have enlighten, entertained and inspired my interest in reading. I look forward to 2011 and learning more from you. Wishing you and your family much happiness, good health, prosperity and love in 2011.

    Thoughts in Progress

  10. Mason - *Blush* Thank you so much for your kind words. I've thoroughly enjoyed learning from during 2010, too, and I really look forward to what you have to teach us in 2011!

    And I know what you mean; I like it, too, when authors tie up those loose ends when they finish a series. I don't mind waiting for a book or two (or a few :-) ), but I do like knowing how it all works out.

  11. I like loose ends in a series character's relationships, especially if there is change and growth in each installment. But loose ends in a plot, or a horrid cliffhanger at the end of a novel (as in Child's 61 Hours) do not make me happy.

  12. Patricia - Oh, there is a big difference, isn't there? Loose ends in relationships and life events can really be interesting. But I agree. I do not like to not know (or, let's face it, be told) whodunit by the end of a novel. It bothers me.