Wednesday, May 4, 2016
Tying Up the Loose Ends
I once read a mystery novel by a conventionally published author of multiple titles in which four bodies were discovered in a storage locker early on. By the time the book reached its conclusion, there still had been no explanation of who killed the four people and why.
Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. Leaving one murder unaccounted for might charitably be excused as simple carelessness. Leaving the reader in the dark about four corpses borders on gross negligence.
When something like that happens, the reader is left wondering not only about the lack of editing services at the publishing house, but also dissatisfied in a spiritual and existential way. To put it another way, unexplained puzzles are a violation of the author’s compact with the reader and the reader’s expectations.
Better Than Life
Life is random, absurd and chaotic, which is why we expect mystery novels not to be. One of the great pleasures of a mystery novel comes from being confronted by a baffling situation (the crime) and seeing smart, competent people (the detectives) work through the confusion and get everything sorted into place. The comfort of seeing chaos turned to order is one of the reasons for reading these books.
In the classic mysteries of the Golden Age (between the First and Second World Wars), authors took great pains to be sure and dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s at the end of the book. They assumed the reader wanted that, and probably no publisher of the time would have accepted a novel that didn’t explain everything (or almost everything) in the final pages.
In the hands of masters like Carr, Christie, and Ellery Queen, the explanations made for gripping reading. They were so tight and plausible that, after reading them, you could find yourself wondering why you hadn’t seen what the detective ultimately saw so clearly.
Sometimes Not So Plausible
Of course, not everyone brought it off as well as the masters. I recall reading one book of that era in which the criminal got into a rowboat during a tide so high it took the water nearly to the top of a 60-foot cliff, enabling the killer to fire a shot from the wave-tossed boat through the windows of the house and plug the unfortunate victim. It was a case of better shooting than plotting.
As a writer of mystery novels in the classical tradition, I do my best to see that a reader gets a good explanation of the crime or crimes by the end of the book. Loose ends belong in bad hair, not mystery novels. You can no longer call all the suspects into the study, as the detectives of the 1920s and 30s routinely did, but you can show the investigation as it develops and leave the reader in no doubt as to how and by whom the crime was committed.
Tying the story up neatly by the end is important in a mystery novel, but so are character development, atmosphere and detail. It’s a challenging time to be practicing in the genre, but some of the old ways are still good ways. If nothing else, the reader should finish the book knowing what happened and why.