Monday, 20 June 2011

How to end a detective story?

The topic of how to end a crime/detective novel is truly fascinating, I think. The obvious method is to have the culprit identified and brought to justice, but there are plenty of variations. There is nothing new, for instance, in the idea of a murderer escaping justice. Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley repeatedly got away with murder, and earlier, major writers of the Golden Age such as Anthony Berkeley often took the view that the victim was rather more reprehensible than the killer, and that it was perfectly okay for the culprit to evade arrest.

Sometimes, endings can be ambiguous. We may be left in some doubt as to whether the murderer will be caught or not. Or there may be one or two strands of the storyline – perhaps the outcome of a subplot – that are left unresolved. I've tried this a few times myself, occasionally resolving the subplot in a subsequent book in the series. It's not an easy trick to pull off, but when it works, I think it can be just as satisfying as a fully resolved storyline.

I've been tempted to muse on this topic after finishing the latest Wesley Peterson novel by Kate Ellis, The Jackal Man. It's a splendid book, possibly the best that Kate has written, and I certainly recommend it. It features a string of serial killings in the present-day that echo similar crimes committed more than a century ago. One of the connecting links is an obsession with Egyptology and ancient rituals which the Egyptians practised in relation to the dead – quite gory stuff, but handled sensitively.

It is a very well made story indeed, but I was especially fascinated by the final pages, which have about them a pleasing – and chilling – uncertainty. Kate, like me, is keen on the traditions of the genre, but this is an excellent example of how to end a book by leaving an important question unanswered. Of course, I will spoil the story by saying any more, but I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on unusual endings of detective stories.


Col Bury said...

Hi Martin,

Interesting post. The one that jumped out at me, while reading this, was 'Silence of the Lambs'. I don't know how Harris did it, but it felt right that Lecter escaped at the end.


Anonymous said...

Martin - In real life, not every question is answered and not all killers are brought to justice. Some might say that not all killers should be brought to justice. So I think it can be really interesting when a killer isn't caught. In fact, I just finished ├ůsa Larsson's The Black Path, in which a killer isn't caught. It's an interesting book on a lot of levels, and in that particular aspect, it's realistic and "fits" when you know the story.

Deb said...

I don't mind sub-plots that continue on through subsequent books--I just finished one of Peter Robinson's Inspector Banks mysteries which pick up several threads from prior books, and I have no problem with that. I do, however, like the central mystery of the book to be resolved within the book. And I hate, hate, hate it when psycho killers walk away scot-free at book's end; I usually do not go back to a series if that happens.

aguja said...

I would go with the ambiguous endings. I prefer them to the neat ones with everything tied up and neatly in its place. Good luck with pulling yours off, Martin. I can imagine that it is hard to do.

Rob Kitchin said...

I have to say I'm a fan of ambiguous ends or a lack of resolution or loose ends. That's how life is - full of contradictions, paradoxes, and general messiness, rather than nice neat, linear, closed threads. I think Gene Kerrigan's latest, The Rage, is a good example of an ambiguous end that is actually satisfying. One thing recently said to me is that there is a big difference between UK and US publishers on this - US publisher apparently don't like ambiguity and want full resolution. Not sure how true that is, but I suspect it might have something in it.

Maxine said...

Well I am very keen to read Ernesto Mallo's second novel which I've just ordered - because I was so intrigued by the ending of the first (Needle in a Haystack). Not so much by the ending itself, but how on earth the author was going to write a sequel (it's a trilogy in total). I am all agog to find out once the book arrives.

Anonymous said...

You have really made me curious to read Kate´s novel. I like her series very much, and I enjoy it even more after meeting her in Bristol. She was such a nice person.

I think I prefer traditional crime novels, but I am not against experiments - as long as the reader knows who the murderer is!