In most well-written crime fiction novels, we find out who the culprit is even if we don’t actually get to see her or him (or them) brought to justice. Readers want that sense of closure and readers who like to match wits with the author like to know whether they’ve won if I may put it that way. But the truth is, there are some things about criminal investigations that real-life detectives never learn. So a novel that tells every fact about a crime wouldn’t be realistic. Besides, a novel like that would probably get to a tedious length. So many crime fiction authors choose, for good reasons, not to tell every single detail about a crime. Not only does this give the story a focus and keep it realistic but also, the strategy can keep the reader wondering and make a book stay with a reader longer.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence asks Poirot to re-open the investigation into the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks she was killed by her lodger James Bentley; in fact, he’s been convicted of the crime and is awaiting execution. But Spence has begun to think that Bentley is innocent. Poirot agrees to look into the matter and travels to the village of Broadhinny. There he discovers that several of the villagers are keeping secrets, some relatively benign and some not. Mrs. McGinty found out more than it was safe for her to know and she made the tragic mistake of letting the killer know that she knew something. Poirot finds out who the killer is and what that person’s secret was. But we never do know what passed between the killer and Mrs. McGinty. Did she hint? Did she threaten to go to the media? Did she ask for a ‘present?’ Poirot speculates a little but we never do know. That detail isn’t necessary for the reader’s sense of closure and it can get one wondering.
In Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murder of former Oxford don Felix McClure, who is found stabbed in his home. The most likely suspect is McClure’s former scout Ted Brooks. McClure had found out that Brooks was supplying drugs to some of the students and was going to reveal what he knew. But then Brooks disappears and later turns up dead. Now Morse and Lewis have to re-think the case. One of the people involved in this case is a prostitute named Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Smith, who counted McClure among her clients. Morse and Smith find themselves attracted to each other despite the fact that Smith is mixed up in a murder that Morse is investigating. We do learn who the killer is and we learn what the motive for both murders is. But there is one important thing we don’t learn. Towards the end of the novel Ellie Smith disappears. We don’t really know where she’s gone or what becomes of her. Here’s how Dexter puts it:
‘And above all in Morse’s life there remains the searching out of Ellie Smith, since as a police officer that is his professional duty and, as a man, his necessary purpose.’
The question of whatever happened to Ellie Smith isn’t answered here but the reader still gets the sense of completion that makes a crime novel fulfilling.
In Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone, Venice Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello investigate the murder of a Senegalese immigrant. The victim was shot execution-style while laying out his wares in an open-air market and at first there are very few leads in the case. But eventually Brunetti and Vianello tie the murder to arms trafficking and ‘conflict diamonds’ – gems sold to raise money to support armed rebellions. We learn the truth about the murder but we are not even told the victim’s name. We’re also not given every bit of information about how, specifically, he got involved in the arms/jewel trafficking business. Leon doesn’t give a lot of detail about the shooting victim. And what’s interesting is that we don’t witness any conversations that he has, really. And yet the reader isn’t left in frustrating doubt as to what happened and why. It’s an interesting case of what is included in the novel and what isn’t.
In Peter Robinson’s A Dedicated Man, Inspector Alan Banks and his team investigate the murder of retired archaeologist Harry Steadman, who moves with his wife Emma to the Yorkshire Dales to pursue his dream of excavating Roman ruins in the area. When Steadman’s body is discovered, Banks and his team look among Steadman’s friends, colleagues and relations to see who would have had a motive for murder. Then there’s a disappearance and another death. It’s clear now that Banks’ original theory isn’t going to easily explain these events so he has to look at the case in another way. In the end he and his team learn who the killer is and what was behind the murders. But that doesn’t mean everything is detailed. For instance we don’t get to witness exactly what led up to the second murder. We know why it happened and who committed it, but we don’t really get to hear what passes between killer and victim. Still, the novel gives a sense of closure because the main questions are answered.
The same thing is true in Teresa Solana’s A Shortcut to Paradise. In that novel, famous novelist Marina Dolç is murdered on the night of a glittering banquet at which she received a major literary prize. The most likely suspect is her rival for the prize Amadeu Cabestany. However, he claims he was in another part of Barcelona, where the novel takes place, getting robbed. Cabestany’s literary agent hires Barcelona brothers Eduard and Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez to clear her client’s name and they agree to take the case. There isn’t much movement on the case for a time because very little evidence implicates anyone other than Cabestany. But finally the PI brothers find out who the killer is and why the murder was committed. So in that sense we do get answers. But the novel doesn’t answer every question. We don’t for instance know exactly what passed between the killer and the victim on the night of the murder. We know what the end result was but we don’t witness in detail the scene leading up to it. Still, the novel does give readers a look at what happens to the major characters after the murder is solved.
One of the more haunting examples of questions that don’t get answered – ‘blank spots’ that aren’t filled in – is in G.K. Chesterton’s short story The Invisible Man. In that story, Father Brown investigates what seems to be an impossible crime. Successful businessman Isadore Smythe tells an acquaintance John Angus that he is being harassed by a former romantic rival and that somehow, threatening letters have been left for him. Angus recommends that Smythe speak to a professional about the matter and makes a recommendation. Smythe agrees and they plan to meet up at Smythe’s home. Father Brown is a friend of the detective Angus recommends and he comes along when everyone goes to Smythe’s home to discuss the situation. But when they get there all they find is an empty home and evidence that Smythe was murdered. No-one was seen going into or leaving the building; certainly no-one was seen carrying a body out of the building. Father Brown deduces who the killer must be and how the crime was accomplished and is able to catch the killer. Here’s how the story ends:
‘But Father Brown walked those snow-covered hills under the stars for many hours with a murderer, and what they said to each other will never be known.’
We find out in this story who the killer is and how the crime was accomplished. But we don’t know what passed between the murderer and Father Brown. We also don’t know the murderer’s point of view – we don’t really hear from that person.
Deciding what to detail and what not to detail isn’t easy. Crime fiction readers want the major answers to their questions (e.g. Whodunnit; Whydunnit, Howdunnit), but most of us would agree that there’s such a thing as too much detail. What do you think? Do you like all of your questions to be answered? Do you like all of the pieces put together? If you’re a writer, how do you decide what to include and what to skim over or omit?
ps The ‘photos are of my (finally) completed home office. But not everything is there. For instance, see that empty space above the daybed? Something is going to be there. I haven’t put that detail in yet. See what I mean?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Against the Wind.