One thing many people enjoy about crime fiction is the sense of closure they get when the “bad guy” is revealed. And for a lot of people, it’s important to get a sense that the criminal is going to be brought to justice. In some way, the criminal will pay for what s/he did. The thing is, though, that life’s not always that neat. Even if the police find out who the criminal is, they may not have enough evidence to get a conviction. Sometimes criminals are very highly-placed and powerful, so it’s hard to pursue a case against them. There are other reasons, too, for which a guilty person might not end up convicted of a crime. So when that happens in crime fiction, it can lend an air of authenticity to a novel. That’s one reason most crime fiction fans can accept a criminal not being brought to justice if there’s a really believable reason for it and so long as they know whodunit (I honestly think most crime fiction fans get frustrated if the culprit isn’t revealed).
For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, Hercule Poirot has taken a cottage near the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Even he admits to a bit of snobbery, so he’s quite pleased when the Angkatells invite him for lunch one Sunday. When he gets there, he’s dismayed to find what looks like an “amusement” arranged for his dubious benefit. The body of John Christow, one of the Angkatells’ house guests, is arranged by the swimming pool, and the murderer is standing next to the body, holding the weapon. Very quickly, though, Poirot realises that this is no tableau. Christow really has been shot. The police are called in and Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who the killer is. At first it seems clear that Christow’s wife Gerda is guilty. But soon, several pieces of evidence turn up suggesting that she’s innocent. And as Poirot and Grange look into the matter, they find that more than one other person had a motive to kill Christow. In the end, Poirot discovers who the murderer is, and it’s interesting to see how Christie deals with the whole question of bringing the killer to justice.
In Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger, postman Joseph Higgins has suffered a fractured femur. He’s rushed to Heron’s Park military hospital, where plans are made to set the bone. The next morning, he’s taken into the operating room where, tragically, he dies on the table. Inspector Cockrill is sent to the hospital to put a “rubber stamp” on the incident but as he soon discovers, this is no accidental death. First, Higgins’ widow claims he was murdered. One might put her claims down to denial or to the desire to “lash out.” But then one night at a cocktail party, Sister Marion Bates has too much to drink and blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered. What’s more, she says, she has proof of that. Later that night, she’s found stabbed to death in the operating theatre and her body is stretched out on one of the tables. Now it’s clear that Cockrill is dealing with a double murder, and he goes to work to find out who the killer is and what the motive is. In the end, Cockrill finds out whodunit and (what’s really quite interesting) howdunit. A very creative twist, though, means that this killer isn’t brought to justice in the way that Cockrill had planned.
In Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice, Harry Bosch hears over the police radio that an apparent suicide victim’s been found not far away. Bosch is annoyed that he wasn’t informed officially, since this is his patch of turf. So he goes to the scene himself where police have discovered the body of Calexico “Cal” Moore, a fellow L.A.P.D. cop. Some aspects of the scene make Bosch begin to wonder whether Moore really committed suicide, but he’s quickly shuttled off the case. In fact, he’s given other cases to solve. But when one of the cases turns out to be tied in with the Moore case, Bosch plunges back into the death of Cal Moore. Evidence suggests that Moore “went dirty” and committed suicide because of that. So there’s little wonder that the top brass doesn’t want this case to make headlines. But Bosch doesn’t think it’s as simple as that, and goes looking for the truth. His search takes him to the heart of a Mexican drugs ring – and to Moore’s boyhood home. In the end, Bosch finds out who killed Cal Moore, but the killer doesn’t get locked up and tried in the usual way. There’s a very creative twist in this story that gives the reader answers without it ending in the traditional way.
Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent also contains a very creative approach to justice being served, so to speak. In that novel, chief deputy prosecutor Rožat “Rusty” Sabich is given a very difficult task. The body of fellow prosecutor Carolyn Polhemus was discovered in her apartment and Sabich’s boss Raymond Horgan wants her murderer caught. Not only are there personal feelings involved, as Polhemus was a co-worker, but also, Horgan is up for re-election. He’s facing tough competition, and he’s afraid he’ll lose the election if Polhemus’ killer is not brought to justice. What makes this case difficult for Sabich is that he himself had been involved with Polhemus up until a few months before her death. Nevertheless, Sabich begins the work of looking through police files and trying to make sense of the evidence. As he looks into the case, he finds that Polhemus was a very complicated person on many different levels. So more than one person in her personal and professional lives could have had a motive for murder. When the truth about Sabich’s relationship with Polhemus comes out, he finds himself suspected of the crime. In fact, he’s arrested for it. Now, he’s on the other side of the case, so to speak, as he tries to clear his name. In the end, we do find out who killed Carolyn Polhemus. We also find out why. But there isn’t a cathartic scene in which the killer is led away in handcuffs.
The killer isn’t led away in handcuffs in Håkan Nesser’s Woman With Birthmark, either. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team are called to the home of Ryszard Malik, who’s been killed with two neat shots. It’s a very professional “hit” so there’s little evidence. The team is just beginning its investigation of that murder when there’s another, nearly identical one. And then another. As they look into the histories of the victims, Van Veeteren and the other team members realise that they’re going to have to work fast if they’re going to prevent another killing. In this novel, we know who the killer is from early in the novel. As the story goes on we learn the motive, too. Van Veeteren and the team learn those things, too, but in the end, the killer isn’t arrested or jailed. So you could say that justice isn’t served. Or perhaps it is…
In Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind, Detective Luton is assigned to investigate the murder of seventy-five-year-old Amanda O’Toole. As Luton looks into the case, she begins to suspect O’Toole’s neighbour, sixty-four-year-old orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Jennifer White. The two families have had a long relationship and have a real history together. What’s more, White and O’Toole were witnessed having a loud argument before O’Toole’s death. The clincher, though, is that O’Toole’s body has been mutilated in a very professional way that only a surgeon would be likely to know. The problem with Luton’s case is that Jennifer White has been diagnosed with dementia, and is slowly slipping away from what most of us think of as reality. So Luton can’t really get reliable answers from White. This novel is told from Jennifer White’s point of view, so readers don’t really know exactly what happened on the night of O’Toole’s murder. We do learn about the families’ history, and about O’Toole’s personality. We also learn how both of those things might have contributed to the murder. Still, because of the progression of White’s dementia, we don’t really know the details of the murder for quite a while. In the end, readers do learn what really happened and why. But the killer isn’t arrested and taken off in handcuffs.
For most crime fiction fans, it’s important to find out who the killer is and most fans want to know the “why” and “how,” too. But is it always important that the killer be brought to justice? There are some very well-written books in which that doesn’t happen. And it can be very authentic when something really believable prevents the killer from being arrested, tried and so on. After all, real life is often not particularly neat. What do you think about this question? Is it important to you as a reader that the killer pay the price? If you’re a writer, do you feel it’s important to have the “bad guy” arrested and pay the price for the crime?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Famous Last Words.