This is the End*

Books with Great EndingsNot long ago, Moira at Clothes in Books did a terrific post on crime books that she felt had the best endings. And that got me to thinking about which crime novel endings I’ve liked best. It’s actually not easy to write a good ending to a book. On the one hand, most readers want an ending that falls out logically from the story. ‘Out of the blue’ endings, or endings that are too far-fetched, are annoying. And readers want a sense that the important plot points (in the case of crime fiction, that’s usually the solution to the mystery) have been resolved.

On the other hand, an ending that is too ‘pat,’ where everything is tied up in a neat little ‘package,’ is annoying as well, and isn’t realistic. Life is usually messier than that. And an ending that’s too anticlimactic leaves the reader wondering, ‘Is this all there is?’

Nonetheless, there are some crime novels that have very powerful, memorable endings. They stay with the reader, and they encourage the reader to think about the book long after it’s finished. Of course, your idea of what sort of ending falls into that category is going to differ from mine. But, keeping in mind that this is just my opinion, here, in roughly chronological order of publication, are…

 

Margot’s Choices For Crime Novels With the Best Endings

 

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie

In this story, Hercule Poirot is asked to solve the murder of retired magnate Roger Ackroyd, who’s been found stabbed in his study. In some ways, the novel is reflective of the Golden Age style. There’s a wealthy dead man, several likely suspects in the household, the ne’er-do-well most likely suspect whom the police have targeted, the young lovers, and so on. It’s clear that Christie had mastered the art of the Golden Age whodunit. But then she turned it on its head and broke the rules with this novel. It’s got one of the most famous dénouements in crime-fictional history.

 

Presumed Innocent – Scott Turow

This novel introduces Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich, who at this point is a Kindle County prosecuting attorney. When one of his colleagues, Carolyn Polhemus, is murdered, Sabich is assigned to the case. His boss has made it clear that that case must be handled both delicately and openly, with no hint of cover-up. Sabich gets started on the investigation, but there’s something he hasn’t told his boss: up until a few months before her death, he was involved with the victim. When that fact comes out, Sabich is removed from the case and replaced by a rival. That’s only the beginning of his trouble, though. Soon, evidence is found that suggests Sabich is the killer. In fact, the evidence is so compelling that he is arrested for the crime. Now on the other side of the table, so to speak, Sabich asks his friend and colleague Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern to defend him, and Stern agrees. This ending is particularly powerful for me because not only does Turow provide a strong ending to the court case, but also, the truth about Carolyn Polhemus’ death is, in my opinion, brilliantly done.

 

Gone, Baby, Gone – Dennis Lehane

If you’ve read this novel, then you’ll probably already guess why I chose it. For those not familiar with the story, the real action in it begins when Dorchester, Massachusetts PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro get a visit from Lionel McCready and his wife Beatrice. They want Kenzie and Gennaro to investigate the heartbreaking disappearance of their four-year-old niece Amanda. Both PIs are familiar with the case, as the media has made much of it. After all, it’s a missing child. And that publicity is part of why Kenzie and Gennaro are reluctant to take the case at first. They don’t see what they can do that dozens of police and all sorts of media outlets can’t do. But Beatrice McCready is insistent and determined, so the PIs agree to at least speak to Amanda’s mother Helene. Before they know it, they’re drawn into a gut-wrenching case of a missing child, and are faced with several difficult choices as they investigate. The ending to this story is, for me, one of the more powerful endings in crime fiction. It raises some important and fascinating topics for debate and discussion, and is surprising without being so completely impossible that it’s not credible. I can’t say more without spoiling it, but if you’ve read it…you know what I mean.

 

What Was Lost – Catherine O’Flynn

This novel begins in 1984, when ten-year-old Kate Meaney is a fledgling detective. In fact, she’s even started her own detective agency, Falcon Investigations. She doesn’t have much of a life otherwise; she lives in a rather grim English Midlands town with an ageing High Street and more struggling families than people of means. But she is content planning and operating her new company. She spends a lot of time at the newly-constructed Green Oaks Shopping Center, where she is sure she’ll find plenty of crime to investigate. Everything changes when her grandmother Ivy decides that Kate should go away to school. Kate refuses, but Ivy is convinced she’ll have a better chance for a ‘real’ life if she goes. Finally, Kate’s friend, twenty-two-year-old Adrian Palmer, agrees to go with her to the exclusive Redspoon School to sit the entrance exams. Only Adrian returns, and then the alarm is given, there’s a massive search. But no trace of Kate is found – not even a body. Everyone thinks Adrian is responsible, although he flatly denies it. In fact, he is harassed so badly that he leaves town, vowing not to return. Twenty years later, his sister Lisa is Assistant Manager at Your Music, one of the stores at Green Oaks. One night, she meets Kurt, one of the mall security guards. Kurt’s been seeing some strange things on his CCTV cameras lately: a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. Each in a different way, Kurt and Lisa go back to the past, if you will, and we learn what really happened to Kate Meaney. The answer to that question, and the way it has impacted everyone, makes the ending to this book one of the more emotionally powerful endings I’ve read.

 

Confessions – Kanae Minato

This novel, which shows the ugly side of middle school, begins as Yūko Moriguchi addresses her class. It’s her last day at the school, and she has a powerful message for her students. Her four-year-old daughter Manami died not long ago, and she is convinced that it wasn’t the accident the police thought it was. In fact, she knows Manami was murdered, and she knows by whom: two of her students. What’s more, she knows exactly which students are responsible, and she makes that clear in her speech. Then, she duly resigns. She’s not convinced that the justice system will mete out an appropriate punishment, because the killers are juveniles. So she’s made her own plans. Still, a new teacher is assigned to the class, and life seems to go on. But it’s soon clear that things are not at all ‘normal.’ Before long, life begins to spin out of control for three students in particular. As matters get worse, we see exactly what Yūko Moriguchi planned to do, and we learn the truth about Manami’s death. The tension that’s built in this novel comes to a head at the end, and as the final pieces fall into place, Minato provides a powerful dénouement that raises questions and invites debate.

 

Traces of Red – Paddy Richardson

Connor Bligh has been incarcerated for several years in Rimutaka Prison for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan, and their son Sam. Only their daughter Katy survived, and that was because she wasn’t home at the time of the tragedy. Now there are new little pieces of evidence that suggest that Bligh may not be guilty. When Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne hears of this, she thinks that the Bligh story may be just the story she needs to ensure her place at the top of New Zealand television journalism. So she decides to investigate the case more deeply. In the process, she finds herself more deeply and dangerously drawn in, and closer to the case, than she ought to be. The end of this novel is particularly memorable to me because it shows not just the truth about who killed the Dickson family, but also what the consequences are of the choices that journalists make. And Richardson does so in a way that is unexpected, but still credible. It’s a very powerful ending, for my money.

 

Other Books With Great Endings

Exit Music – Ian Rankin – A terrific end-of-book scene regarding a story arc.

The Half Child – Angela Savage – OK, not as much related to the mystery at hand, but one of the most lovely scenes between two characters that I’ve read. It’s just…great.

Lord Edgware Dies – Agatha Christie – One of the most telling, and unsettling, final lines from a killer:  Do you think they will put me in Madame Tussaud’s? Love it!

What about you? Which crime books have the best endings you’ve ever read?  Now, do please visit Moira’s excellent blog, and check out her fine choices.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doors’ The End.

40 Comments

Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Catherine O'Flynn, Dennis Lehane, Kanae Minato, Paddy Richardson, Scott Turow

40 responses to “This is the End*

  1. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is my favorite, too! Also noteworthy in terms of a reaction at the time of its publication is Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem.”

    • Oh, absolutely, Kathy! I’m glad you mentioned that, because it absolutely did have a tremendous impact in its day. Even now, knowing what we know as modern readers, it still packs a punch, and it’s easy to see why Holmes fans got as upset as they got about it. And as for …Roger Ackroyd? It is a fantastic ending.

  2. If I had to pick a single mystery with what I think is an absolutely perfect ending, it would be Margery Allingham’s Flowers for the Judge. Much of the mystery in that book has been cleared away before the final chapter, but that closing chapter reveals the true answer to a couple of mysterious disappearances. And it does so in a way, and with language, that is so absolutely right that it takes the reader’s breath away – culminating in one of the best and most moving closing sentences in any book I have ever read. I can’t be more specific without getting into spoiler territory, but if you have read the book, you’ll know what I mean. And if you haven’t read it, go out and do so (yes, it’s in print)!

    • Can’t argue you with you there, Les. I must admit; it’s been a while since I read it (time for a re-read). You’re right that Allingham does write beautifully in that chapter… Oh, and Les is right, folks. It’s in print and on Kindle for those of you who prefer that format.

  3. Some great ones there, Margot – especially ‘Roger Ackroyd’ and ‘Presumed Innocent’. I’ll add Gillian White’s ‘Copycat’ – one of the most audacious endings I’ve read but it works brilliantly. And I always found the end of Reginald Hill’s ‘Bones and Silence’ shocking and unexpected, and yet right somehow. One of the books that elevates him above the pack.

    • Ah, another one I’ve not read lately (Bones and Silence)! And it is a brilliant ending, isn’t it, FictionFan? Honestly, I wish I had the time for re-reads. But there are some weeks when I’m happy to keep up with my current reading *sigh.* I’ll admit I’ve not read Copycat, although I’ve heard it’s good. Sometimes, audacious and unusual endings, in the right hands, are the perfect choice. Thanks for those ideas. 🙂

  4. I never thought much about the ending of a novel, only when I don’t like it. I tend to enjoy an open ending but now Moira and you, Margot, have given me another perspective to my readings. Thank you.

    • You make an interesting point, José Ignacio. Endings can also stay with us when we don’t like them, when they are jarring, or something else like that. Thanks for bringing that perspective.

  5. Margot, your post made my day! As usual, I thought it was a great topic for a post. But your comments about The Half-Child really blew me away. I took a risk with that book, asking readers to stay with me for another chapter after the case was all wrapped up, and it remains (to my mind) the most romantic scene I’ve ever written.

    Sadly, The Half-Child is the least read of my three books — I’m not sure why. It’s probably my favourite of the three, to be honest. As it happens, Apple are having a special on the ebooks, starting mid-next week. I’ll forward the details when I have them.

    • Oh, I hope you will, Angela. I’ll be looking forward to it. In the meantime, you’re right that it is a risk to have a chapter (other than a short epilogue) after the case is finished. But you did make it work beautifully. Such a lovely scene, and it fit in beautifully, too. Trust me, it was my pleasure to mention it.
       
      I do hope more people read The Half Child. Besides ‘that scene,’ it has a solid and serious discussion of foreign adoption and the ethics and choices around it, among other things. Folks, do try it.

  6. Love this list, Margot. Thanks for sharing. It amazes me how much you manage to read. I just can’t seem to read enough these days. Thank you for mentioning, The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, one of my personal favourites. I’m rather embarrassed to say that I haven’t read any of the others so they re going on my ever increasing, to be read, list! Such a huge genre to explore and never enough time,

    • You have the most important job anyone ever has, D.S. – parenthood. And no-one has a moment of extra time when there’s a little one about. I actually wish I had a lot more time for reading, myself. I never seem to get through what I would like to read *sigh.* As to …Roger Ackroyd, I think it’s an absolutely classic ending. Christie knew ‘the rules,’ and turned everything on its head brilliantly.

  7. There’s been so many! Off the top of my head, I loved the ending to Pressure Points by Larry Brooks. Like all his books, the ending was unexpected but totally believable. I love when stories make you think, “Damn. I should have seen that coming.”

    • I know just what you mean, Sue! When you have a story ending that’s credible, but at the same time powerful, you know you’ve got a good book. And thanks for mentioning Pressure Points. I have to read some Larry Brooks…

  8. It’s interesting that I couldn’t think of especially satisfying endings, but immediately thought of mystery/suspense/thrillers that had horrid endings. I won’t mention any names because I know this judgement is subjective and based on my own tastes. I would not care to deny an author a reader who might feel differently.

    In general terms,rushed endings that don’t fit the pacing of the rest of the book disappoint me. Cliffhangers (especially when you don’t expect the next novel to be published for at least a year) make me mad. And endings where the villain/antagonist gets away with his crimes annoy me. I always want justice to prevail.

    • I agree, Pat. Endings that seem ‘tacked on’ and too rushed do take away from the book. And cliffhangers really are irritating, especially, as you say, when the next book in a series won’t be out for a while. You make an interesting point about endings where the criminal gets away with it. A lot of people agree with you completely that in the best endings, ‘bad guys’ get what’s coming to them. There’s a certain sense of closure there that I think appeals to many people. There has to be, I think, a very good reason the criminal gets away with it if the ending is going to include that plot point.

  9. Kathy D.

    I agree about the endings in the Lehane, Turow, O’Flynn, Richardson and Savage books. Also, classic Hercule Poirots stories portray the Belgian detective round up all the suspects in one room and then reveal their secrets and the killer(s). Nero Wolfe does something similar in his study. And Perry Mason announced, with great drama, at the end of every courtroom drama, who was the real killer.
    Additionally, in a book which I didn’t like, Gillian Flynn’s first book Sharp Objects, there is a surprise ending. “Dysfunctional family” doesn’t begin to cover it.
    To one degree or another, most mysteries do have surprise endings, although if the writer does her/his work,the reader knows who the killer is by the end.

    • That’s quite true, Kathy. A lot of crime novels do have surprises at the end. As you say, though, if the author does her or his job well, the ending is credible. I’m glad you mentioned the way Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason stories end. In several of them, we have the dramatic courtroom scene, and some of those really are memorable. So are some of the Rex Stout endings, too.

  10. Margot- the endings of Pierre Lemaitre’s Verhœven series are original, sometimes shocking…

    • That’s what I’ve heard, Carol; glad you brought those up. To be honest, the violence level in the books has kept me (thus far) from reading them. But that said, I’ve heard that the endings are well-done, and I’m glad you’ve enjoyed them.

      • Margot I agree with you on the level of violence – but I think the first in the series is the most shocking, the others are not quite as graphic but still very violent ) He does writer a great story though. The test would be could they be successful without that level of violence?

        • Now, that’s a good question, Carol. I’m glad you thought the stories themselves are good, though. That, more than anything else, is the key. Well, that and the characters. I never say never, as the saying goes, but I think I would have to really brace myself to see what I think of the books myself.

        • I had to brace myself Margot and almost didn’t continue with the series.. I don’t know if I would continue reading something of such such violence in the future…I think I experienced enough of the violence here to last a life time.

        • I can well imagine, Carol….

  11. The only one of these books I have read is The Murder of Roger Aykroyd, and that was a long time ago.

    I have The Half Child and hope to read it soon (relatively). Also What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn.

    • Oh, both of those books are fantastic, Tracy. I know what you mean about having books you haven’t gotten to yet. I have so many of those! But those two are well worth reading.

  12. Margot, I liked “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” and plan to reread it. I don’t see the end of a book in spite of being more than halfway into it and this Christie classic was no better. It took me by surprise. One book ending that’ll always stay with me is “The Second Lady,” the Cold War thriller by Irving Wallace.

    • Thanks for that suggestion of The Second Lady, Prashant. It’s one I’ve not (yet) read. As I think of it, I really haven’t read as many Cold War espionage/thrillers as I have other sub-genres. I like your reminder that I could learn more. And you’re quite right about Christie: her endings can take anyone by surprise.

  13. so glad you gave us your list Margot – I was hoping you would. And I agree with you so much about the ones I HAVE read that I now want to try the ones I haven’t, because I’m guessing I’ll like them as much as you do.

    • Oh, I’m grateful to you, Moira, for this inspiration. It really got me thinking about what makes a memorable end to a story, and which ones have stayed with me. If you do sample from my list, I hope you like what you taste.

  14. Once again I invoke a Chandler reference: I’m fond of the ending to The Big Sleep, not pat at all but very poetic. Also I like the ending to Parker’s first novel, The Godwulf Manuscript, light and just the right touch.
    Also, somewhat off-topic, but the title of your post, ‘This is the End,’ as I recall is the last line of the film Beat the Devil, penned by Truman Capote.

    • Oh, that’s interesting, Bryan – I didn’t know that about the ending to Beat the Devil. You’re right too about the ending of The Big Sleep; Chandler certainly showed his way with words there. I’m glad you reminded me of The Godwulf Manuscript. I think Parker was very skilled at exactly that: a solid balance and a light, but not too light, touch.

  15. Great piece Margot! I agree re: the Christie (such a classic), and Paddy’s book has a great ending too. I’m trying to think of other crime novels which had endings that dazzled me. Might have to come back to this later. Some crime films that did it included Just Cause, Frailty, Identity (which seemed like a modern take on Christies And Then There Were None), and Primal Fear. Really interesting topic.

    • Thanks, Craig – glad you enjoyed the piece. I’m glad you mentioned film endings, too. It’s very easy with a film to do an ending that’s far too ‘over the top’ or pushes credibility too far. On the other hand, an ending that doesn’t pack a punch can be disappointing. I need to check out a few of the titles you suggested.

  16. Col

    I don’t like too much ambiguity at the end of my reads. Also I don’t like it where the author closes with a hook for their next book.
    Best endings…..hmm – William Hjortsberg – Falling Angel – jaw-dropping. Struggling to recall other stand-outs I’m afraid.

    • I’m not keen on those ‘cliffhanger’ or ‘hook’ endings either, Col. A certain amount of ambiguity is all right if the author is setting the reader up for the next in a series. But I agree: not very much, and not about major plot points. And now you’re getting me interested in Falling Angel

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