Where Are You Now?*

Whatever Happened toSome fictional characters are interesting enough, or sympathetic enough, or in enough of a difficult situation that you wonder whatever happened to them after the events in the story. Those characters may or may not be main characters. They may appear in series or standalones. Either way, their stories aren’t complete by the end of a novel, so the reader isn’t told what, exactly, happened to them.

Each of us finds different characters interesting, so I’d imagine we’ll each have different lists of those ‘whatever happened to…’ characters. Here are a few I’ve wondered about, to show you what I mean. I still would like to know what happened to them.

In Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), Elspeth McGillicuddy is taking a train to visit her friend Miss Marple. When another train passes by, she happens to glance into its window. That’s when she sees someone strangling a woman. Very much upset, she contacts the conductor and when the train gets to the station, the conductor passes along her worry. But no bodies are discovered, and no-one has reported a missing person. So no-one really believes Mrs. McGillicuddy’s story – no-one, that is, except Miss Marple. She knows that her friend is neither fanciful nor given to lying, so she does a little of her own research and finds out where the body is probably located: on the grounds of Rutherford Hall, the property of the Crackenthorpe family. Knowing she can’t get away with poking about on the grounds, Miss Marple enlists her friend, professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow. Lucy gets a position in the household and, as soon as she is settled in, she begins to search. She discovers the body on the property, but everyone in the Crackenthorpe family claims they don’t know the dead woman. Miss Marple is quite certain that’s not the case, and she looks more deeply into the matter. In the end, we learn who the dead woman was, what her connection to the family was, and why and by whom she was killed. In the course of the story, a few members of the Crackenthorpe family show more than a passing interest in Lucy, and she’s in turn interested in two of them. I’ve always wondered which one she actually chose. Miss Marple seems to know…

C.J. Box is perhaps best known for his series featuring Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, but he’s done some standalones too. One of them is Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. In that novel, travel and tourism professional Jack McGuane and his wife Melissa face every adoptive parent’s worst nightmare: a court order to return their daughter to her biological father. They’ve loved their baby Angelina since they brought her home, and have proven themselves to be more than fit parents. But they learn to their shock that Angelina’s biological father Garrett Moreland never waived his parental rights. Now he wants to exercise them, and he’s supported by his father, powerful local judge John Moreland. At first, the Morelands try to persuade, then basically bribe, the McGuanes to give them Angelina. When that doesn’t work, Judge Moreland uses his authority to issue a court order giving the couple twenty-one days in which to relinquish custody. They vow to do whatever it takes to keep their child, and that leads to things neither had imagined. At the end of the story, we do get the answers to the main questions (e.g. why the Morelands are so desperate to get Angelina back). But the story doesn’t end neatly. I’d really like to know what happened to the McGuanes after everything they’ve gone through in the novel.

Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice introduces readers to former school principal Thea Farmer. She left her position and had a ‘dream home’ built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. Unfortunately, some poor financial planning has forced Thea to give up that lovely house and settle for the house next door – a house she calls ‘the hovel.’ As though that weren’t enough, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy the house Thea considers hers, and move in. She considers them intruders and wants nothing to do with them. And for Thea, things get even worse when Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim joins the Campbell/Carrington home. After a time though, Thea finds herself developing an awkward sort of friendship with Kim. And she sees that the girl has real promise as a writer. So when she comes to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim, Thea gets concerned. She can’t really take all of her fears to the police, because they can’t do anything without actual evidence of abuse, neglect, etc. So she decides to take her own measures to deal with the situation. I can say without spoiling the story that I’ve always wanted to know whatever happened to Kim. What sort of life did she make for herself?

In William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department, Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev and his partner Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka are assigned to investigate the murder of noted scientist Boris Azarov. Since his work is considered essential by the government, this case will have to be handled very carefully. The evidence suggests one suspect in particular, and it looks as though the investigation will be finished soon. But then, that person is also murdered. The NKVD (this series takes place just before World War II) has a particular theory of what happened, and both Korolev and Slivka know that it’s in their interests to ‘rubber stamp’ that theory. But at the same time, neither is satisfied; so, they dig deeper. They find that these deaths are related to something much bigger than either detective imagined. At the end of the novel, I was left wondering what would happen to some of the people caught up in this case. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoilers, but there is a group of people whose ultimate fate isn’t exactly spelled out. I’d like to know what happened to them.

David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight is the first of his historical (1970s) novels featuring Superintendent Frank Swann of the Perth Police. As the novel begins, Swann’s been out of Perth for a few years, but he returns when his friend Ruby Devine is murdered. There aren’t really any viable suspects except Ruby’s partner Jacky White. But Jacky claims that she’s innocent. And in fact, she herself is viciously attacked. Swann soon suspects that all of this is the work of the ‘purple circle,’ a group of corrupt police officers who use terror and blackmail to stay in power. Swann’s already on their ‘hit list’ because he called for a Royal Commission hearing into corruption in the police department. There are plenty of people who don’t want to talk to him either for that reason or because of their own fear of the ‘purple circle.’ But Swann persists and find out who really killed Ruby and why. Readers learn the answers to the important questions in this story. Still, I’ve always wondered what happened to Jacky. She left that sort of impression on me.

What about you? Are there fictional characters whose ultimate fate you’d like to know? If you’re a writer, do you deliberately leave readers wondering what happened to certain characters?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Edie Brickell & New Bohemians’ Air of December.


Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, David Whish-Wilson, Virginia Duigan, William Ryan

30 responses to “Where Are You Now?*

  1. Clarissa Draper

    I hate not knowing. It’s one reason I like to read series.

    Actually, I keep wondering about what happens to one character and she isn’t in a mystery novel. It’s Lucy Snowe from Villette. At the end of the book she’s waiting for her husband to come home and we never find out if he does or does not. And if he does not, what happens with her? I’ve always wanted to know.

    • Clarissa – That’s an absolutely perfect example of exactly what I had in mind with this post. It’s not that the main plot questions of the story don’t get answered, but there are those ‘whatever happened to…’ questions that sometimes don’t get answered.

  2. I do like the sound of Three Weeks to Say Goodbye and on the whole I prefer books without open endings for the characters but occasionally it works happens in Sarah Waters book The Paying Guests where I wondered how life would work out for the characters following all that had happened before. On the whole I find it more acceptable to have open endings in series as there is the hope that resolution may come, even if it is someway down the line.

    • Cleo – You’ve got a very good point I think about standalones v series. Those ‘whatever happened to…’ kinds of questions can work well in series because there’s a chance we’ll get an answer at some point. It’s’ different in standalones. And I think you would like Three Weeks…. It’s well-written and has some difficult and interesting characters and issues. Thanks too for mentioning The Paying Guests. I remember your fine review of that novel. It’s one I’d definitely like to read.

  3. I think I agree with Clarissa, I like to know how things pan out, or at least have the option of finding out in a later entry in a series. But just occasionally that kind of ending works out for me. I return yet again to Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes – what happened to all those characters once the book ended….? I’d love to know.

    • Moira – I know what you mean about Miss Pym…. It is one of those books where not knowing everything can work. I’d love to know what happened to everyone too…

  4. Of course, I can never think of any examples. And I do usually read series, although some series leave some characters dangling too. In the Ella Marconi series by Katherine Howell, each book features a paramedic in addition to Ella. In the first one, it is Sophie Phillips and her family. I regret that I don’t know more about what happened to them afterwards.

    • You have a well-taken point about the Katherine Howell series, Tracy. I wonder sometimes what happens to some of them, too. A few of them carry over from story to story, but many don’t. I wonder what happened to Holly from Silent Fear, for instance…

  5. Lucy Eyelesbarrow – now that’s a great name for a character and certainly makes me also wonder what happened to her. A name like that sticks.

  6. Margot, in Arthur W. Upfield’s Murder Must Wait, DI Napoleon Bonaparte – Bony – is dealing with the kidnapping of several babies. He is assisted by a policewoman, Alice McGorr. Without going into spoiler territory, at the end of the book, Alice is looking at what could be a major change in her life, and while Bony is trying to offer encouragement, the situation is left deliberately up-in-the-air by the closing page. I have often wondered what happened to Alice McGorr – a wonderful and memorable character in one of the best of the Bony books.

    • I like your example very much, Les. And I have to say that it’s such a good thing that the Bony books are getting a new lease on life. Those are great stories. Admittedly some are a bit better than others. But of those I’ve read, none has been a ‘clunker.’ Trust you, too, to find exactly the kind of character I had in mind when I planned this post.

  7. I really prefer things tied up fairly neatly, which I think used to happen more in older books. Though that Christie one always left me wondering too. I can’t think of any specific examples, but in general I always wonder about the victim who gets rescued from the evil sadist right at the end – it’s always left as if it’s a triumph to get to her in time (and it’s always a her, isn’t it?) but I’m always left imagining how on earth she’ll ever really recover. It’s one of the reasons I’m not so keen on evil sadist books really…

    • FictionFan – I don’t like them much really, myself. I’ve read a few books where the would-be victim (and yes, often a ‘she’) is rescued in the nick of time, and you do have to wonder about that. I just read one recently actually. In the follow-up to that one, it’s mentioned that the almost-victim was months before she could go back to work.
      You also make an interesting point about modern books v GA and older books. Hmmm…. I’ll have to check some data on that. I think you may be right. And I do know exactly what you mean about liking things tied up. I think it’s only natural that we want answers. I think Christie did leave a few loose ends here and there successfully, though…

  8. That William Ryan one sounds great; I’ve got one of his on the Kindle but it isn’t that one *scrolls through a ridiculous number of books to get to R* no, it’s The Holy Thief. I’m a sucker for anything Soviet/NKVD. I’m sure you’ve read James Lee Burke, Margot, it just occurred to me to ask if you’re a fan. I think he’s such a great writer he “transcends the genre”, as they say. Sorry for going off the point…Cleo mentioned The Paying Guests, well here’s another Sarah Waters – The Night Watch. Love to know what happened to the characters in that book.

    • Crimeworm – Oh, I think you’ll like The Holy Thief. I know how busy everyone is, and what TBRs can be like *deliberately does not look at own TBR list.* But it’s a good ‘un, and really conveys the pre-WWII Soviet era. Recommended. And yes, I think James Lee Burke is incredibly talented. His prose is sometimes almost poetic. And his characters are multi-dimensional, which I always respect. Oh, and never worry about ‘going off the point.’ If it’s about fiction, especially crime fiction, it’s on point. Thanks too for mentioning the Sarah Waters. I must read some of her work!

  9. Margot: Regular commenter to our blogs Kathy D. on my review of Grey Mountain hoped John Grisham would write a sequel so she could find out what happened to Samantha Kofer and the other characters, especially the women in the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic. That comment and this post made me think that I would like to know what happened in the futures of all the different lawyers Grisham has created. Jake Brigance made a second appearance but he was an exception. I hope Grisham works some of the lawyers he has already created into future books.

    • Bill – Oh, I think that’d be wonderful. I’d love to know what happened to Adam Hall (from Grisham’s The Chamber) and several others. Grisham makes his attorney characters real enough that one really does want to know what happened to them. I hope he’ll bring them back soon, too. And thank you for reminding me to put Gray Mountain on my ‘must read’ list. Your review has really gotten me interested in reading it.

  10. Sometimes an unanswered question keeps people talking about the book– always a good thing! In my writing I like to leave one unanswered question. Not anything major, just one curious little “Hmm…” that keeps them coming back for more.

    • Sue – I know just what you mean. If readers one or another question, they’ll very likely want to come back and find out of their question is answered in the next book. Especially if one writes a series, that makes sense.

  11. Col

    Not knowing does niggle, where certain characters outcomes are over-looked.
    I think sometimes a little bit of ambiguity at the end of a book where things aren’t actually implicitly stated and are open to reader interpretation annoy me more. It’s the author’s tale and I’m along for the ride, so finish it properly.
    Looking forward to reading DW-W, Ryan and CJB when time allows!

    • Col – I understand your point. If you’re taking people along for a fictional ride, don’t have them get out of the car before they get to the destination. For major characters and story events I agree with you. I like to know the big answers, myself. Real life of course doesn’t always work that way. So I think it can be realistic if we’re not told some things. That said though, I agree completely that it’s best when the main things are settled.

  12. I tend to like series for that very reason, as I know I’ll find out more in another installment.

    • That’s a well-taken point, Rebecca. Series give authors the opportunity to let readers in on ‘what happened next.’ And for readers, they offer the chance to find out those answers.

  13. Patti Abbott

    Tana French certainly mines this idea well. And I am looking forward to the new Kate Atkinson where she tells the story of the brother. With most standalones, I rarely remember a secondary well enough to wonder.

  14. Lucy Eyelesbarrow. I think the two televised versions have her end up with Bryan, the charming but impractical brother-in-law to the family. (The Margaret Rutherford version dispenses with her entirely.) However, I seem to recall in reading Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, the editor, John Curran, reveals that Christie herself determined that Lucy ended up with Cedric, the artist.

    Personally, I don’t see why she had to take either of them (and I have to add here that I’ve always found her romantic couplings at the end of the books less than satisfactory…. see Taken at the Flood as an example. But I digress). My preference would have been for Lucy to continue being an in-demand expert housekeeper and life manager and private detective. She could well have been a continuing Christie tec in her own right.

    • Susan – You know, I’d heard both endings, too, and it’s interesting to know what Christie thought of it all. You make an interesting point too about some of the love matches Christie makes. Some work, but others are more improbable. She was a product of her times, so perhaps the idea of a young woman who wanted a professional career and really didn’t choose a partner was harder for her. I know the topic comes up in Evil Under the Sun in an interesting debate between Rosamund Darnley and Poirot. Hmm….Lucy as a ‘tec… yes, I can see it.

  15. Did Agatha ever tell us what happened to the Countess Vera Rossakoff? Was eventually caught, or perhaps went back to Mother Russia? I always liked here as a character because she was a rare romantic interest for Poirot.

    • Good question, Bryan. As far as I know (someone please put me right if I’m wrong), we don’t know exactly what happens to the countess. There are some possibilities suggested in The Big Four , but we aren’t, as far as I know, told for sure. I’d like to know, myself…

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