First, a confession: when I pick up a mystery, I almost immediately skip to the end. Sure, I read the opening chapters – far enough to become acquainted with the characters and the premise of the plot. But at that point, I turn right to the conclusion. Once I satisfy my desire to know the resolution, I can better appreciate the art of what the writer has done: embedding a clue here, ratcheting the suspense there, and weaving it all into a taut mystery or thriller.
I’m fascinated with endings these days – no doubt because I’m trying to craft one for my own latest book. And I’m not the first writer to think endings are important to our assessment of a book. In The Art of Fiction, Henry James ridiculed most novels as ending with “a distribution at the last of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies, millions, appended paragraphs and cheerful remarks” or “being full of incident and movement, so that we shall wish to jump ahead, to see who was the mysterious stranger, and if the stolen will was ever found, and shall not be distracted from this pleasure by any tiresome analysis or ‘description.’” He preferred the open-ended, unresolved conclusions that may reflect an artist’s representation of “real life,” but which don’t lend themselves as well to the mystery genre. Most of us like closure in our mysteries; it’s essential to a genre that depends upon solving the crime and (usually) dispensing some measure of justice.
Yet, I’ve realized something about endings: my favorite stories are those with a memorable ending. By that, I don’t mean a happy ending. Or even a clean ending that resolves the story in a neat package, although those types can be pleasurable and satisfying. I mean the kind of ending that is so exceptional, it actually improves the story: a finale so well done that it makes the memory of the story even better than the experience of reading it. Kind of like when the aftertaste of the coffee is better than the drink itself.
The first time I recall experiencing this kind of ending was with Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The narrator’s final revelation was one that made me appreciate anew everything that had gone before … so much so that I’ve re-read the entire book many times. Because of its finale, it remains my favorite Christie mystery to this day.
Another story that evoked a similar response from me was the film, The Usual Suspects. Its story proceeds along compelling but traditional lines until the final scene, when the image of a message board – and the protagonist/narrator, Verbal Kint, making his way through the crowds as his crippled limbs straighten – reframes the narrative entirely. With his final words – “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist” – the audience realizes what has happened. The story is changed into something different than we first thought. And for me, it becomes a tale I take more pleasure in recalling than I did in experiencing.
My final two examples manage to pull off a similar feat, even though as readers/viewers, we actually know the end before the story begins. In Louis Bayard’s The Pale Blue Eye, set during Edgar Allan Poe’s brief tenure at West Point, the narrator announces the ending (his own death) in the first sentence of the novel. Yet, two remarkable twists in its final pages reframe the story – creating a whole that is richer than the sum of its parts. Just like the 2009 season of Dexter involving the Trinity Killer, which gave viewers a memorable ending to the story line’s seemingly inevitable conclusion. Even if we know that each season’s killer must end up on Dexter’s table – and even if we suspect the coming “twist” because of Dexter’s own story arc this season – the actual end reconfigures everything in such a way as to make us want to remember, relive, and reflect upon the story that’s just finished.
These endings haunt our memory beyond the simple telling of the tale. And the success of each goes beyond a well-managed twist. I know, if only because of my own absurd habit of reading the ending first.
There may be no perfect endings – but there are memorable ones.
What makes an ending memorable for you?
And how important is the ending to your assessment of a good mystery?
Debut Edgar-Winning Author Stefanie Pintoff’s second book, A Curtain Falls, was recently released by St. Martin’s. After the impressive debut, her latest release falls in the category of one of the books I most wanted to read this year, but never received a review copy of. I hope to track it down soon, but meanwhile, I did track Stefanie down and later this month she’ll be answering some questions about her debut novel, her recent release, future plans and approach to writing.