This is a Showdown*

Confrontations and ShowdownsIn many (certainly not all!) crime novels, there’s an element of suspense that comes from that final confrontation between the sleuth and the criminal. It can be a very cathartic moment; after all, the sleuth has probably worked long and hard to catch the criminal. It can also add tension to the story (i.e. Is the criminal going to admit everything?). And there can be a real poignancy to this confrontation, especially if the sleuth has a sort of sympathy for the killer.

These confrontations vary of course, depending on the characters and the style of the story. And they need to be done thoughtfully, or there’s a risk of melodrama. But when they are done well, they can add much to a story.

Some confrontations are quiet and even moving. That’s what we see at the end of G.K. Chesterton’s The Invisible Man. In that story, Father Brown and his friend Hercule Flambeau investigate the mysterious murder of Isidore Smythe. One strange thing about this case is that the murderer seems to have got into Smythe’s home and killed him without anyone seeing a person go in or out. After Father Brown works out how and by whom the crime was committed, he has a confrontation – well, an interaction – with the killer:

‘But Father Brown walked these snow-covered hills under the stars for many hours with a murderer, and what they said to each other will never be known.’

When we know the truth behind the murder, it’s logical that Father Brown wouldn’t force a loud, public sort of confrontation. And he’s not that sort of person, anyway.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has had his moments of very public, even dramatic, unmasking of murderers (there’s one, for instance, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead). And even he will admit that he likes being the focus of everyone’s attention as he points out the guilty person. But he also has some quieter, poignant confrontations with killers. Everyone’s different, but for my money, the interaction between Poirot and the killer in Death on the Nile is a good example of this. Poirot is taking what’s supposed to be a relaxing cruise of the Nile when he gets drawn into the shooting death of fellow passenger Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. Poirot and Colonel Race, who’s also on the cruise, investigate, and Poirot discovers who’s behind that murder and two others. At one point, after revealing the killer’s identity, Poirot has a quiet conversation with that person:

‘‘Don’t mind so much, Monsieur Poirot! About me, I mean. You do mind, don’t you?’
‘But it wouldn’t have occurred to you to let me off?’
Hercule Poirot said quietly, ‘No.’’

In this case, Poirot admits that he has sympathy for the murderer, and that comes through in this conversation.

We know from the beginning of L.R. Wright’s The Suspect that eighty-year-old George Wilcox kills eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. When the murder is reported, RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg takes the case. There is more than one possible explanation for the killing, so Alberg doesn’t immediately focus on Wilcox. But it’s not long before he does. As the story goes on, he has some interesting confrontations with Wilcox. Little by little, we learn the history behind the murder and the motive for it. It adds to the suspense of the story to follow the two men’s interactions as the novel goes on.

Sometimes, there are more dramatic confrontations between sleuths and criminals. When they’re done well, they can certainly add to the story. For instance, in Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat, National Park Service ranger Anna Pigeon has been assigned to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. One day, she discovers the body of fellow ranger Sheila Drury. At first, all signs point to a mountain lion as the killer. Pigeon is hoping this isn’t true, because she’s afraid that there will be a wholesale slaughter of these endangered animals if word gets out that a lion killed Drury. There are little signs, too, that suggest that this death is the work of a human. So Pigeon starts to ask some questions. The more she digs into the matter, the more possibilities she finds. She also discovers that someone wants very much to keep her from finding out the truth. Eventually, though, Pigeon learns who killed Sheila Drury and why. When she does, there is a dramatic confrontation between her and the murderer.

In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets involved in investigating the murder of a colleague, Reed Gallagher. It turns out that more than one person could have wanted him dead, and the investigation isn’t easy. But after some time (and another death), Kilbourn finds out who the murderer is. After she’s made it clear who the person is, she has a very suspenseful confrontation with that person during an elevator ride. It’s a tense scene in part because Kilbourn is in danger. But it’s also tense because of the history behind the deaths.

There’s another interesting, and more dramatic, confrontation between Inspector Salvo Montalbano and a very highly-placed criminal in Dance of the Seagull. In that novel, Montalbano’s teammate Giuseppe Fazio is investigating a dangerous smuggling ring when he goes missing. Montalbano and the rest of the team know that the longer it takes them to find Fazio, the more danger there will be for him. So they follow the trail that Fazio has left, hoping it will help them find him. They’re up against a particularly ruthless group of people, so Montalbano knows that he and his team have to work quickly. In the end, and after the murder of their primary witness, they do catch the criminal. And there’s a very public (and for the culprit, a very embarrassing) scene when Montalbano faces this enemy.

There are, of course, plenty of crime novels in which there really is no confrontation between sleuth and criminal (that’s the stuff of another post). But confrontations that are done well can add layers of suspense and tension to a story. Which confrontations have you thought particularly well done? If you’re a writer, how do you handle this aspect of your crime stories?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Rocky Raccoon.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, G.K. Chesterton, Gail Bowen, L.R. Wright, Nevada Barr

28 responses to “This is a Showdown*

  1. I must admit I have a weakness for the drawing room reveal a la Poirot! There is something very satisfying about Poirot having his moment and the other suspects being let off the hook at the same time as the culprit is confronted!

    • I know what you mean, Cleo. That moment when the sleuth names the killer is cathartic, isn’t it? And it’s quite satisfying to see the culprit faced with the crime.

  2. I’m with Cleo – I like that kind of reveal too! I’m always less keen on the big dramatic action finale between sleuth and murderer, especially when it ends with the murderer’s death. There’s something much more satisfying at the thought of a trial and justice taking its course, even if we don’t get to see it. It also means the sleuth needs to be able to prove the case rather than just know whodunit…

    • There’s definitely something to be said for that, FictionFan. Even if we know, and the sleuth knows, who committed the crime, it’s more realistic when the sleuth will also have to come up with the evidence. I think this works both for cops and PI sleuths. It just keeps the story more authentic, if that makes sense. I’ve read a few crime novels where there’s a confrontation that ends in the murder’s death; rarely does that seem credible, even though I know it happens in real life. Perhaps it’s just because it can so easily become melodramatic. Without spoiling, I can say that it’s worked for me in a few cases; in general, though, I’m not quite as fond of that scenario. And there is definitely something about that ‘drawing room reveal,’ isn’t there?

  3. I always like a proper showdown. There are a few Golden Age books which I remember horrifying me, where the guilty party descends into insanity during the confrontation. I found that quite terrifying, though I’m not really sure it’s a very authentic idea. Allingham’s Death of a Ghost and Christie’s Towards Zero have this trope.

    • Yes, they do, Moira. And it can be creepy indeed! Even if it doesn’t happen that way in real life, there is something compelling about it when it’s written well. And there is something cathartic about the showdown, isn’t there?

  4. Expertly written post, Margot. No mean fear to write about confrontation with killers without spoilers – bravo!

  5. Fab topic, Margot! I agree with the general consensus that you did a great job in exploring the subject without spoilers, and we trad/classic mystery buffs enjoy a good showdown! Nicely done.

  6. Margot: I thought of all those gatherings in Nero Wolfe’s office with the suspects, Archie and Sgt. Cramer all assembled. As Wolfe focuses in on the killer Archie and the good Sargeant ready themselves for action. I never tired of reading those dramatic climaxes.

  7. Margot, Poirot’s final revelation or showdown comes to mind. I also like the way Perry Mason springs a mean surprise on nemesis Hamilton Burger in the courtroom, which is more interesting than him nailing the real culprit. I remember James Hadley Chase novels for some engaging confrontations. In western fiction, it’s fascinating to read about encounters between a sheriff and an outlaw and more so between a bounty hunter and his prey.

    • You know, Prashant, I was thinking of Westerns when I was putting this post together. Many of them have that classic confrontation between the sheriff and outlaw, or as the bounty hunter catches the fugitive, and they can be very dramatic. Thanks also for mentioning the Perry Mason courtroom showdown. That’s an important sort of confrontation that, when it’s done well, can be very, very suspenseful.

  8. Who doesn’t like a good old classic showdown and knowing just how things stand? Although it is a little funny that the villain feels a sudden compulsion to ‘explain’ him or herself in such confrontations.
    Even in noir novels you get some of that: I am thinking of Manchette’s Fatale, where Aimee the contract killer confronts the real thugs of the tale, those who paid her to kill the Baron. Except that, this being noir, they don’t just sit politely and listen to the unravelling of their plan and their accuser. Like a Western, it leads to a very deadly and prolonged shoot-out.

    • You have a good point, Marina Sofia. It’s cathartic and can be very satisfying. And of course, there’s the ‘drama’ effect too. Interesting that it happens not just in the more traditional story, but in noir too. Fatale is a good example of that; and now you’ve got me thinking of some of Highsmith’s work, too, that uses that trope.

  9. Personally, I enjoy a big climatic moment at the end between protagonist and antagonist, where the protagonist through experiencing the quest is now able to thwart the antagonist. After all, most of the books I read climb toward this satisfied ending, but I also like an unanswered questions lingering that leaves me wondering what happened.

    • Oh, I think both certainly have their advantages, Sue. That climactic showdown can be very satisfying. At the same time, I think it can also engage the mind when there are unanswered questions.

  10. I am with Bill. I love the gatherings that Nero Wolfe engineers to reveal the villain, and that Inspector Cramer usually goes along with it.

  11. I always loved those scenes at the end of classic mysteries where Poirot (or other sleuth) gathered the suspects together and revealed the clues and the culprit. Some of Perry Mason’s stories were done that way too. It’s fun….although a very dangerous way to deal with a dangerous killer.

    • You’re right about the Perry Mason stories, Pat. There are some great confrontation scenes there and of course in other classic mysteries. They can add a lot of tension to a story, too. But as you say, it is dangerous to do that – I’d guess a lot more dangerous than people sometimes think.

  12. Col

    You’ve made me want to blow the dust off my copy of The Suspect now!

  13. Cleo pre-empted me, but I’ll add that I also like the Poirot-esque gathering of the suspects, which is a kind of showdown, and the suspense it generates.
    Another kind of showdown, usually earlier in the story, is the classic interrogation between suspect/murderer and the investigator as they face each other across a table, evenly matched intellectually and standing their ground.

    • Oh, yes, indeed, Bryan. That sort of showdown can add quite a lot of tension to a story. Now you’ve put me in mind of some of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse stories. Morse often finds himself across the table from a suspect (or the actual culprit), and those interviews can be quite suspenseful.

  14. I just finished reading Eileen Goudge’s “Bones and Roses” — it’s an excellent amateur sleuth mystery with a head-on collision between the sleuth and the killer near the end (no spoilers here). I think Eileen did a great job with this, her first book in the Cypress Bay mystery series.

    • Oh, that does sound good, Pat. And an excellent example of the sort of thing I had in mind with this post. Sometimes those sorts of showdowns can be highly suspenseful.

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