What to Leave In, What to Leave Out*

Office1In 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.Office2

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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Donna Leon, G.K. Chesterton, Peter Robinson, Teresa Solana

18 responses to “What to Leave In, What to Leave Out*

  1. Almost every author has to make those decisions about what to leave out and what to put in. Sometimes, as you point out, Margot, what’s left out is done so deliberately to tantalize the reader – to me, the best example is the final line of Rex Stout’s “The Doorbell Rang,” the line which gives the book its title – and I’d bet that readers would give a great deal to know what happened next!

    • Les – Right you are indeed that authors can leave some things out to keep the reader guessing. That scene from The Doorbell Rang is a perfect example of that too. It takes a deft hand to do that well without leaving the reader too annoyed to care what the answer is, but Stout had that skill.

  2. Skywatcher

    John Le Carre’s TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY sort of falls under the auspices of mystery, and there is a lovely example of what you are talking about in that book. At the end of the book, the traitor is discovered and placed under interrogation. However, someone still manages to kill him. We are never shown the murder, or even told who did it, but we are given enough clues for us to guess exactly who it was. We see the effect that the murder had on the murderer, but not the murder itself.

    • Skywatcher – Thank you! I hadn’t thought of Tinker Tailor… for a while and you’re absolutely right about that scene. It’s a perfect example of what I’m getting at in this post. And in my opinion it’s better exactly as it is than it would have been if we were told all of the details.

  3. I have enjoyed novels that don’t wrap up 100% of the details but I’m not so fond of cliffhangers. When Lee Child left us without a full story resolution at the end of 61 Hours, I was not a happy camper.

    • Pat – You have a really good point. There’s a difference between a novel that doesn’t answer every question and a novel that leaves us with cliffhangers. I’m not fond of that either. Cliffhangers are fine during a novel, when we can presume they’ll be resolved by the end of the story. But at the end? I’m not so fond of that either.

  4. kathy d.

    What to leave in and what to take out: the crucial question in crime fiction and even in news stories. I do like details wrapped up in an ending, and can a bit of ambiguity but not too much.
    Mainly, I came here to congratulate you on a beautiful home office. If that were my work space, wild horses couldn’t drag me out of there. The sunlight and outside view help so much. (I see other brick buildings here and dried out tree branches, although a bit of sunlight gets in my living room window.) Also, your lamp is nice, too.
    Oh, well, I’d say all you need is some tea (or coffee) and snacks, preferably chocolate. Then, perfection.

    • Kathy – Thank you -I have to say I like it very much. It’s a good place to work and part of what I really like about it is the fact that it gets an awful lot of light. It’s funny you would mention the lamp (and thanks for the kind words). That was the first thing I got for the room. I had to have a good source of light for putting everything else in there. Oh, and believe me, coffee, tea and yes, chocolate do find there way in. Funny how that happens… 😉
      As to books, I like to know the answers to the major questions in the story. And if a detail matters for, say, a subplot I like to know that sort of detail too. But at the same time, I think too many details can be distracting and can add up to a lot of length without a lot of payoff.

  5. That is a lovely office you’ve created for yourself Margot – hope it inspires and comforts you for many years to come.

    On the issue of leaving things out I think a few authors could do with leaving a few more things out these days as I am a bit fed up with doorstop sized books – in general I don’t mind a few loose ends anyway – kind of like life really – and I usually fill in the gaps myself

    • Bernadette – Thank you 🙂
      I’m glad you brought up that point about using one’s imagination to fill in gaps. Of course it’s annoying if the author leaves out something important. But there’s something to be said for inviting the reader to use some imagination and get a little invested in the story. If readers are mentally filling in gaps, it means they’re engaged enough to care and that’s a good thing. And respecting the reader enough to invite imagination means that a book will be small enough to actually fit on a bookshelf.

  6. Your office is looking wonderful! And I love the poster on the wall. 🙂

    I either like *everything* to wrap up neatly (all subplots, all random mentions of things that seemed to be significant in the story) or else have a couple of things left as loose ends…meaningful loose ends. Not something the writer forgot to wrap up. Which sometimes happens. 🙂

    • Elizabeth – Thank you! And you noticed the poster! Hah! That’s great. Yes, that poster was destined for this room from the moment I started making plans for it – I mean really, how could it be otherwise? 😉
      And I know what you mean about leaving some purposeful loose ends. That can draw the reader in to a series and leave the reader both wondering and wanting more – good things if you want the reader to ‘come back for seconds.’ Other than that I agree with you that main plots and subplots are best wrapped up so the reader gets some closure.

  7. Margot I am very envious of that office chair. It looks so comfortable. We have Chesterton’s Father Brown on TV at the moment. They have moved him to the Cotswolds in the 1950s and the murder rate in a pretty village is much higher than that in Ciudad Juarez, or Chicago. 😉

    • Norman – Thanks – yes, the chair is pretty comfortable. And it’s funny isn’t it how small, peaceful and lovely villages can suddenly have skyrocketing murder rates. 😉 I’d be really interested to hear what you think of that Father Brown series. I have to wonder about that major change of time period and place. I know there were reasons for it, but I have to say that’s not the time and place I think of when I think of Father Brown. Well, it’s television…

  8. I’m a big fan of Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver books, and there’s a nice example in the first one – The Armistice Ball – of letting the reader work out for herself who is the father of a certain baby…
    In general of course, we like it when the author leaving something out makes us feel clever, and we hate it when we don’t understand! (Well that’s me anyway)

    • Moira – I don’t think it’s just you. I think readers do like to feel clever and working something out that the author hasn’t filled in gives that sense of satisfaction.
      And thanks for reminding me of Catriona McPherson’s work. I need to spotlight one of her books…

  9. I don’t need everything tied up. I read reviews sometimes which point out something that wasn’t resolved. I’m unlikely to have noticed this though as I don’t really read books for everything to completely resolved. In Mons Kallentoft’s books there is a decades old violent act that is mentioned but not (yet) solved.

    • Sarah – I know what you mean. So long as what’s not resolved isn’t central to the plot, I don’t need every single question to be answered. And thanks for mentioning the Kallentoft series, because that’s a good example. It’s got me in mind (in a way) of Arnaldur Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur series, in which we don’t know all the details of the disappearance of Erlendur’s brother although that deeply affects him.

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