Until a case of murder is solved, those most affected by the death are left with uncertainty. Among other things, that means that they can’t get closure on what’s happened and pick their lives up as best they can. It seems to be a human need to get closure, and crime fiction shows us what a powerful force that need can be. It can spur people on and hold them back.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Carla Lemarchant seeks closure in the murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. One afternoon, Crale dies of poisoning by spotted hemlock while he’s in the middle of a painting session. The most likely suspect is his wife Caroline, who has a strong motive. Crale’s been unfaithful to her more than once and his latest entanglement has been particularly galling to Caroline; Crale’s mistress Elsa Greer is actually staying in the family home at Alderbury while Crale paints her portrait. Caroline Crale is arrested, tried and convicted and dies a year later in prison. Sixteen years later, Carla Lemarachant visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to investigate the case again. She’s convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants the truth about the case. Besides her belief in Caroline Crale’s innocence, Carla also feels that she can’t move on in her own life and her intended marriage until she knows what really happened. Poirot takes the case and interviews the five people who were “on the scene” on the day of the murder. He also gets from each of them a written account of what happened on the day of the murder. From those accounts, Poirot discovers who really killed Caroline Crale and is able to give her daughter the closure she needs.
Lauren Hill wants closure, too, in Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil. Her father Leander Hill has recently died of a heart attack, but Lauren is convinced that his heart attack was brought on deliberately. So she visits Queen, who’s staying in the area while he’s working on a new novel. Queen’s reluctant to get involved at first, but the case soon has him intrigued. It seems that just before Hill’s death, he received a series of macabre “presents” and cryptic warnings. His business partner Roger Priam’s been receiving them, too. Lauren Hill believes that the sender of those packages is the murderer, and slowly, Queen comes to agree with her. Once he figures out what the cryptic messages and packages mean, he’s able to find out who the killer is and give Lauren Hill the answers and the closure that she needs.
The need for closure plays a very important role in Colin Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are called to the Randolph Hotel to investigate a theft. A group of tourists is making a tour of historic English cities, and has stopped in Oxford. During this stop, tourists Laura Stratton and her husband Eddie are to make a public donation to the University’s Ashmolean Museum. The Strattons own The Wolvercote Tongue, part of an Anglo-Saxon belt buckle on display at the museum. Late in the afternoon on the day of their arrival at the Randolph, Laura Stratton suddenly dies and The Wolvercote Tongue disappears. Morse and Lewis are in the process of looking into the theft when the next day, Ashmolean curator Theodore Kemp is murdered. Morse and Lewis are convinced that the two cases are related, and so they are (although not in the way one might think). As it turns out, Kemp was murdered because his killer never got closure on a long-past incident.
Andrea Curtin, whom we meet in Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, wants closure, too. She and her husband lived for a number of years in Botswana, and their son Michael loved the place so much that he decided to stay behind when the Curtins returned to their native United States. Michael Curtin joined a small commune of people devoted to eco-friendly agriculture and all seemed well. Then he disappeared. The police did some investigating, but couldn’t get any definite answers, and it was presumed that he was killed by some wild animal. Now, ten years later, Andrea Curtin has returned to Botswana to try to get the truth about her son’s death. She visits Mma. Precious Ramotswe and asks her to investigate. Mma. Ramotswe agrees and travels to the commune where Michael Curtin was last known to have lived. She also visits some of the people who lived there with him. In the end, she finds out what really happened at the commune and is able to give her client some closure.
Sometimes, the lack of closure can damage people and hold them back for years. That’s what happens in the case of the Peters family in Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands. Eighteen years before the main events in the novel, Billy Peters had gone missing. He never returned and his body was never found. His family has never really been able to move on, in part because of the unanswered questions and lack of closure. Now, Billy Peters’ twelve-year-old nephew Steven wants to find out the truth about his uncle to try to get some closure for his family. It’s always been believed that Billy Peters was murdered by serial killer Arnold Avery, who’s now in prison. Steven wants to manipulate Avery into admitting that he killed Billy Peters and revealing where the body is, so he begins to write to Avery. For his part, Avery wants to manipulate the boy for his own purposes. So the two begin a high-stakes “game of chess,” and the closer each gets to his goal, the higher the stakes get.
One of the really powerful examples of what lack of closure can do is in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. Ten-year-old Kate Meaney is a fledgling detective and proud proprietor of her own agency, Falcon Investigations. Her greatest pleasure is finding out answers and tracking down suspects and she takes her work seriously. One of her favourite places to investigate is the newly-built Green Oaks Mall, where she observes and makes notes on just about everything. Then one day, Kate Meaney disappears. She’s last seen taking a bus with her friend twenty-one-year-old Adrian Palmer, who’s accompanying her to sit an entrance exam at the prestigious Redspoon School. There are no records that Kate took the exam, though, and she never returns home. At the time of her disappearance, everyone thinks that Palmer killed her. In fact, the press and the locals make his life so miserable that he leaves town. Twenty years later, Adrian Palmer’s sister Lisa is still in what you might call stasis. Thirteen years old when her brother left, she’s now in a dead-end relationship and a dead-end job as Assistant Manager at Green Oaks’ Your Music. One night, Lisa meets security guard Kurt, who’s also in stasis. The two become friends and Kurt confides to Lisa that he’s been seeing an odd thing on the security cameras he monitors: a young girl wandering the tunnels in the mall structure. Lisa doesn’t want to be reminded of how her life changed when Kate Meaney disappeared and her brother abruptly left. Still, she’s intrigued and each in a different way, they look for answers. In the end, the discovery of a piece of evidence re-opens the Meaney case and we find out what really happened to the missing girl. We also see how getting some closure makes a real difference in the lives of those involved in this case.
There are also many examples of novels where it’s the sleuth who’s not satisfied with a case and feels the need for closure and answers. I’m sure you can think of as many examples as I could of this sort of motivation. It’s realistic and it makes sense. Cases that are not solved leave gaping holes in people’s lives, so it’s natural to want to fill them. But what do you think of the need for closure? Which novels have you enjoyed that are based on that need?