Saturday, December 4, 2010


Well-written crime fiction is nothing if not suspenseful. The suspense may build slowly or quickly but it’s there, and crime fiction fans want it that way. Readers want a good reason to turn the next page or stay up too late reading. One way that that suspense is built is through cliffhangers. There are all sorts of cliffhangers, too; some of them involve the sleuth being in danger, some involve an important discovery, some involve an arrest. There are other kinds of cliffhangers, too. When they’re used well, a cliffhanger drives the action along and keeps the reader engaged. On the other hand, of course, cliffhangers can be contrived and almost melodramatic, so they’ve got to also be believable.

Agatha Christie’s fictional novelist Ariadne Oliver has some interesting things to say about cliffhangers. In Cards on the Table, she works with Hercule Poirot to solve the stabbing death of the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana. Shaitana was murdered on the night of a dinner party to which he’d invited eight guests: four sleuths (including Oliver) and four people who Shaitana thinks have gotten away with murder. At one point, Oliver is having a conversation with an ardent fan of hers about her writing. Her guest compliments her on her ability to think up things, and Oliver says:

“I can always think of things…What is so tiring is writing them down. I always think I’m finished, and then when I count up I find I’ve only written thirty thousand words instead of sixty thousand, and so then I have to throw in another murder and get the heroine kidnapped again.”

Oliver herself gets involved in more than one “Christie cliffhanger.” For instance, in Third Girl, she works with Hercule Poirot to solve the mystery of Norma Restarick, a young woman who thinks she may have committed a murder. Norma visits Poirot to ask his advice about the crime she might have committed, but leaves abruptly without giving her name or many details. As it turns out, Oliver met Norma Restarick at a party and is able to find out who she is. By then, though, Norma has disappeared. Now the mystery deepens as Poirot and Oliver try to find out where Norma Restarick is and whether she’s killed someone. In the course of trying to track down the truth about Norma Restarick, Oliver decides one day to follow David Baker, Norma’s boyfriend. She follows Baker to the seedy studio flat of a friend of his where he tells her he knows she’s been following him. The two smooth out the situation and Oliver meets Baker's friend. Then, she leaves the flat and promptly gets lost. Here’s the cliffhanging ending of that chapter:

“The walk seemed endless and King’s Road incredibly far away. She could hardly hear the traffic now – where on earth was the river? She began to suspect that she’d followed the directions wrong...Mrs. Oliver turned another corner wearily, and there ahead of her was the gleam of the water. She hurried toward it down a narrow passageway, heard a footstep behind her, half turned, when she was struck from behind and the world went up in sparks.”

Of course, Agatha Christie is by no means the only author whose work features cliffhangers. For instance, several of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels involve using those suspenseful moments. In The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, for example, Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the poisoning death of Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of Oxford’s Foreign Examinations Syndicate, a body that overseas the administration of exams to students who live in other countries with a British connection. As the two sleuths look into Quinn’s death, they discover that the members of the Syndicate had several secrets that Quinn had discovered and that more than one member of the Syndicate had a motive to murder Quinn. Two of those suspects are Monica Height and Donald Martin. At one point in the novel, Morse has interviewed them about their whereabouts on the afternoon of Quinn’s murder, and they’ve duly given their responses. Here’s the end of that chapter:

“After they had left…Donald and Monica had stood silent for a few moments in the polished corridor. ‘Come in for a second,’ whispered Monica. She closed her own office door behind her and looked at him fiercely. She spoke clearly and quietly, and with a force that was impressive. ‘We don’t say a word about it. Is that clear? Not a single word!’”

Some authors use cliffhangers at the end of novels. Sometimes, those cliffhangers tie one novel to the next. Other times, they give the reader a clue that a character will show up again. For instance, in Stuart MacBride’s Broken Skin (AKA Bloodshot), DS Logan McRae is investigating several cases. One is the case of Jason Fettes, a pornography film actor whose brutally murdered body was dumped outside the Accident and Emergency entrance to a local hospital. Another is the case of a serial rapist who could very likely be Rob Macintyre, star striker of the Aberdeen Football Club. A third is the shooting death of seventy-two-year-old Jerry Chochrane – by eight-year-old Sean Morrison. McRae and his team follow up on these cases, track down leads and deal with the witnesses. In the end, though, all is not neatly solved. In fact, the last scene of the novel leaves it quite plain that one of these cases has not really been solved, and the criminal will be back.

That also happens in Sam Hillard’s The Last Track. In that novel, former Special Forces operative Mike Brody and his ex-wife, investigative reporter Jessica Barrett, have made plans for a stay at the Pine Woods Ranch, a Montana dude ranch. They’d made reservations there before their marriage ended and, mostly for the sake of their eight-year-old son Andy, decide to go ahead with their plan even though they’ve since divorced. They no sooner arrive than Brody, who now operates an extreme adventure tour company, is asked to help in an urgent case. Fourteen-year-old Sean Jackson has run away from the ranch because he witnessed a murder, and is afraid the killer is after him. Detective Lisbeth McCarthy asks for Brody’s help to find Sean before the killer does. Brody agrees and is soon involved in the desperate search. There are plenty of cliffhangers in this novel, and one of the most interesting ones comes at the end. It turns out that the murder that Sean Jackson witnessed is related to a larger conspiracy and other crimes. In the course of the novel, we find out who killed the dead man and why, but at the very end, there’s a cliffhanger that shows that one important part of the case has not been “tied up.” There’s very likely to be more from that character…

The Last Track also brings up another kind of cliffhanger that authors sometimes use – the personal cliffhanger. In several crime fiction novels, the sleuth has a cliffhanger in his or her personal life. Very often (but of course, not always), it has to do with his or her love life or family. In The Last Track, we’re left in some doubt as to what’s going to happen with Mike Brody and Jessica Barrett’s relationship. They may or may not reunite. We also see that in M.C. Beaton’s Love, Lies and Liquor, which features Agatha Raisin and her ex-husband James Lacey. In that novel, Lacey convinces his ex-wife to take a holiday at the Paradise Hotel at Snoth-on-Sea, a resort he’d remembered fondly from his childhood. The hotel and the town prove to be a terrible disappointment, and Agatha Raisin is all for leaving immediately. Lacey convinces her to stay, and that night, she gets herself involved in a murder case when she has an argument with hotel guest Geraldine Jankers. Late that night, Jankers is strangled – with Agatha Raisin’s scarf. So Raisin finds herself a suspect. She’s soon able to clear her own name, but gets engrossed in the mystery at hand. She discovers that Geraldine Jankers’ murder has everything to do with her past, and the kind of person she was, and in the end, she finds out who killed Jankers and why. Throughout the novel, Agatha’s relationship with James goes up and down. On one hand, she knows she’s quite well rid of him. On the other, she still finds she has feelings for him. At the end of the novel, there’s an interesting cliffhanger about that relationship:

“Agatha turned into Lilac Lane and then stopped short. The lights were on in James’ cottage and smoke was rising above the thatch from the chimney. She walked forward, paused and then walked forward again.

This is stupid, she thought.

But she went up to his door, her heart beating hard, and rang the bell.”

Cliffhangers at the end of novels can be effective at getting readers interested in reading the next book in a series. They’re also sometimes quite authentic, in that many things in life are not tidily “wrapped up.” Some readers, though, find end-of-novel cliffhangers annoying, as they want a sense of closure. What’s your view? Do you like cliffhangers that end chapters and novels? If you’re a writer, how do you use cliffhangers if you use them?


  1. I like the use of cliffhangers in chapter endings (but I like it limited to just one or two in a book.) If it's a subplot/personal cliffhanger, I enjoy having those continued from book to book (it's what makes series reading fun). But having a book end on a cliffhanger, as far as the mystery goes? Not so wild about that! :)

  2. I love cliffhangers at the end of chapters, but hate them at the end of novels. I found "61 Hours" by Lee Child (who just happens to be one of my favorite authors) just plain annoying.

  3. Elizabeth - I make exactly the same distinction! I like cliffhangers at chapter endings, but not at the end of the book if it's about the mystery at hand. I much prefer the mystery part to be settled. Well, I at least want to know whodunnit. Personal cliffhangers can be enjoyable, though, if they take the reader from book to book. It makes the reader want to follow the characters.

    Patricia - I'm right there with you about end-of-book cliffhangers if they're about the mystery. I like the case or plot to be more or less resolved at the end of the story. I don't mind it if I think a character might come back, if it's done well, but to have a mystery not solved? I don't care much for that.

  4. The chapter cliffhangers are great. They keep you reading 'just one more' chapter before putting the book down. Cliffhangers at the end of the book can be annoying. Readers what closure at the end, but if done right a writer can turn a twist at the end to make the reader wonder about a character until the next book.

    Thoughts in Progress

  5. I love cliffhangers of all sorts. I try to start my novels with a bang (no pun intended) and keep it going throughout the book. From the end of each chapter all the way through to the end of the book. I usually tie up loose ends crime-wise however, I try to leave some of the MC's romance or personal side open for each progressive books. It's like reading Crombie's books where the person loose ends get explored in each subsequent book. Great topic, Margot.


  6. Mason - You make a very interesting contrast between end-of-chapter and end-of-book cliffhangers. An end-of-chapter cliffhanger certainly can make the reader want lots, lots more. They add suspense. End-of-book cliffhangers can be annoying because as you say, readers want closure. They want to know how it all works out. Of course, once in a while, if it's done right, an end-of-book cliffhanger that doesn't involve the main mystery can add some "spice." :-)

  7. Clarissa - Thank you :-). There is a delicate balance, isn't there, between making sure the reader gets closure, and leaving a few things open for another novel. That's the way authors keep readers turning pages. I like your distinction between cliffhangers regarding the crime (and I love the cliffhangers you write, by the way) and those regarding other things like the sleuth's personal life. They really are, I think, different kinds of cliffhangers.

  8. It seems I am with the majority for once in that I like my cliffhangers to be enclosed within a book rather than at the end - and not too many within the book either.

    I understand why authors put them at the end and as you say if it's not involving the main part of the story it's OK to leave some things unresolved - personal issues is a good example such as with the Elly Griffiths series. But sometimes I think it's just laziness or desperation to get us to buy the next book. Part of the reason I stopped reading James Patterson's Alex Cross novels was the increasing use of big cliffhangers at the end - I feel like it's a very manipulative thing for the author to do.

  9. Bernadette - You bring up two fine examples of a contrast between the way cliffhangers are used. Griffiths uses personal cliffhangers that resemble real life. Personal issues are not always resolved quickly, so it's logical that there'd be some of those issues in a character's life. Cliffhangers, though, that are based on the plot can actually take away from it if they're contrived, and if they're at the end of the novel, they really can be annoying.

    You know, I hadn't thought of the word "manipulative" when I wrote this post, but I can see exactly why why you use that term for the way some cliffhangers are used - especially those major ones that have to do with the plot.

  10. Cliffhangers--at the end of the book or at the end of chapters--don't frustrate me if the writing is really good, since I'd read the next book by that author anyway. But if the writing isn't good, or if the book doesn't attract me overall, I find them bothersome because I have to figure out if reading the next novel is worth it or not.

  11. Golden Eagle - Oh, that's a very good point! Cliffhangers can force a reader into making a decision about the next book if the present book isn't well-written. On one hand, that's what authors want: for you to read the next book. On the other, it is off-putting if you don't like the present book and weren't going to move on in the series.

  12. I'm happy to know that the majority here shares my view of cliffhangers (@ End of the chapter- Rocks, @ end of the book- Sucks!) :)

    I think sometimes the author finds it hard to say goodbye to the killer. Creating a great killer every time you write a new story could be one of the biggest challenges for a mystery writer. And a cliffhanger offers an easy way out!

    It's great when the entire book is one large cliffhanger with tight oscillations on both sides of the line throughout the plot.

  13. Amey,
    You know, that's a very good point! If the killer is a particularly interesting person, it can be hard for the author to remove the killer - to let her or him go. I know there are characters I've created that I liked enough to want to bring them back.

    You also make an interesting point that if the book has a strong cliffhanger plot, this can keep the reader actively turning pages, so long as the plot's realistic and the cliffhanger is not contrived.

  14. Cliffhangers always remind me of soap operas--the way they fade away to a commercial. I do love suspense though, more subtly integrated into the plot. Maybe we are talking about the same thing and it just the word "cliff hanger" that reminds me of Nancy Drew or Bobby Ewing.

  15. Patti - LOL! I hadn't thought about cliffhangers in the "soap opera" way, but I do see your point. There are ways to subtly weave suspenseful moments throughout a mystery novel without making them the melodramatic and contrived moments they are in soap operas.

  16. Like everyone else here, I love cliffhangers at the end of chapters, because they keep you going just one more chapter. And I definitely like a "relationship" cliffhanger at the end of a book (either way, it doesn't impact anything- if I like the book, I will read the next without or without one, and if I dislike the book, I am not likely to read the next on either way), BUT, if the book ends on a plot cliff hanger, I may just feel cheated enough to dump the series forever.

    Having said that, I know that stories are often conceived as a trilogy (or whatever), and as long as that is made clear before I pick up the book, and there is some kind of a logical conclusion at the end of each book, I am okay if the killer is only unmasked at the end of the series.

  17. Rayna - I know exactly what you mean about feeling cheated at the end of a book if there is a plot cliffhanger. As you say, it's one thing if one knows that a book is part of a trilogy, let's say. Then, the reader knows there is more coming and can decide to commit to the series or not to do so. But otherwise, I agree: plot cliffhangers at the end of novels are annoying. Personal cliffhangers can work well if they're not contrived.

    You make an interesting comment, too, about the effect of a cliffhanger on one's willingness to read more. It only works if the book's good already.