When the Answer is Worse than the Question

Warning: For obvious reasons this article discusses the endings of some classic works of « crime fiction ». If you haven’t read Tragedy at Law, Not to be Taken, The Origin of Evil, The Wailing Rock Murders, The Fourth Door or The Lost Gallows then maybe you’d better stay away and skip this – or process at your peril.

Classic mysteries, we are often told including by people who should know better, are basically about restoring order. Crime, whatever the form it takes, is but a brief interruption of said order, a blip in the eternal scheme of things that the Great Detective will fix, bringing things back to their natural state of everything being right and everyone being happy. Except, promptly add the same people, that real life is nothing like that. Crime is not a bug but a feature of a messed-up world and even when solved and punished it leaves deep scares on the collective and individual levels. Modern mysteries recognize that, and don’t shy away from it. Hence they’re better.

There is some merit to that argument. Classic mysteries indeed tend to have happier endings and in general a more optimistic view of how and where the world is going. Also real life is indeed much messier and bleaker. The problem is, it is build on both a questionable premise and a generalization. The former is that fiction should always imitate life; you know where I stand on that so I won’t repeat myself. The second is the view that all classic mysteries end with everyone happy like before. This is patently untrue as anyone familiar with the genre knows.

There are many ways for a mystery to end on a sour note. The most common one is to have the criminal escaping a richly deserved punishment, either because they are too powerful or because the detective has no evidence enough against them, or both. Another one is having the victim or their relatives not being able to overcome their grief, ending in some tragedy from divorce to suicide. Classic mysteries sometimes made use of both devices but their favourite was to have the truth being worse than or at least as unsettling and damaging as the crime itself and « bring no joy » to use the late William DeAndrea’s words as he discussed the ending of Cyril Hare’s Tragedy at Law.

It can be that the murderer is a sympathetic character, sometimes more than the victim. It can be that the criminal is the detective or main protagonist’s best friend or love interest. It can be that the revelation will cause pain or worse to someone the reader cares for. Or it can be that it will change the protagonist’s life forever – and not the better. Either way it turns out in that matter that ignorance was better than knowledge and injustice than justice.

Most of the time it ends with some cover-up. John Dickson Carr for instance was very willing to let murderers, be them sympathetic or not, go free if their capture was to have worse consequences on the other people involved. There are exceptions to this rule, however, as in The Lost Gallows in which near-biblical justice is visited upon both the « genuine » and « justified » criminals. Another, riskier, option is the open ending leaving up to the reader to decide the way things will sort out (or not) Anthony Berkeley’s Not to be Taken or in a lighter vein Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil are good specimens of that approach. Some writers however go one step further and dare to do what most of their colleagues seek to avoid, mindful that they are of not offending their readers’s sensibilities – a downbeat ending. The most « popular » has the lead character’s love interest turn to be the murderer and either go to the gallows, commit suicide or leave them. The most radical, if not necessarily most probable, unhappy ending in classic crime fiction may however be the one in Clifford Orr’s The Wailing Rock Murders in which the detective deduces he himself is the murderer and then proceeds to take his own life, though Paul Halter’s The Fourth Door comes close with the final line revealing to himself and to the reader than the previously likeable narrator is actually a ruthless killer. (Halter would recycle this trick several times afterwards but never so effectively.)

While it is, or professes to be, a rationalistic genre, « crime fiction » often asks whether in some cases ignorance is not better than knowledge. The truth doesn’t always set people free, at least as far as criminal matters are concerned – and the price for knowing may sometimes be more than one had bargained for.

3 commentaires sur “When the Answer is Worse than the Question

  1. The recently reprinted The Singing Masons by Francis Vivian is a good example of this. It has a genuinely tragic, hard-hitting conclusion.

    Another example that immediately came to mind is A.C. Baantjer’s De Cock en de dood van een kunstenaar (De Cock and the Death of An Artist), in which a friend of De Cock and a popular side-character in the series, Peter Karstens, is murdered. More murders follow as a response to his death with the murderer only being identified at the end, but not apprehended. Learning the truth in that case was certainly more than De Cock bargained for.

    Aimé par 1 personne

    1. Another example is Rex Stout’s A Family Affair, in which one of the series characters – won’t tell which one even though it’s an open secret in the fandom – is revealed to be the killer. A radical move on Stout’s part, especially considering that it was his final work.

      Another bitter ending that just came back to me is that of René Reouven’s Sherlock Holmes pastiche L’Assassin du Boulevard. Since it’s unlikely to be available in English or any other language any time soon, I’m going to « spoil » it, so skip what follows if you have hope of reading it someday.

      Sherlock Holmes after a lengthy and dangerous investigation manages to identify Huret, « L’Assassin du Boulevard » and thus exonerate the man who was wrongly sentenced to life for his crimes. The catch is, only the French President knows about the whole business and he is assassinated before he can issue a pardon, so that he innocent man spends his whole life and finally dies behind the bars, which Holmes describes as his worst failure.


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