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?