Most well-written crime novels give answers to the main questions in a plot. If it’s a whodunit, then usually the criminal is revealed, even if that person isn’t brought to justice. If it’s a whydunit or a howdunit, we learn the answers to those questions as well. That’s part of creating a good reading experience for the reader.
And yet, there are some questions that go unanswered through most, if not all, of a series. It’s not always easy to dodge those questions and still have an engaging series, but some authors manage it. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll have others to suggest.
One of Agatha Christie’s sleuths (and, so it is said, one of the characters she liked best) is Mr. Harley Quin. He usually works with another Christie character, Mr. Satterthwaite. Satterthwaite is a socialite who is often on the ‘also present’ lists when parties and other social events are written up in newspapers. So he has all sorts of encounters with members of the ‘upper crust.’ People tend to trust him and talk to him, which is often how he gets involved in mysteries. The real mystery, though, is Mr. Quin, who always seems to appear at key points in a story, and then disappear just as unexpectedly. We really know almost nothing about him; in fact, you could debate the question of whether he actually exists. But he certainly has conversations with Satterthwaite. He is a sort of catalyst for his friend, and frequently points him in the right investigative direction. Yet, we never see Mr. Quin interact with others. He’s an intriguing and very enigmatic character whom we never really get to know; still, the mysteries in which he gets involved are solved.
For quite some time, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels presented readers with an ongoing riddle: Morse’s given name. At more than one point, when people ask his given name, Morse says that it’s Inspector. It’s not until the twelfth novel (of thirteen), Death is Now My Neighbour, that Morse’s full name is revealed. For many readers, not knowing Morse’s given name adds to the mystery around him. At the same time, it doesn’t take away from the plots of the different novels. And, since we know Morse’s surname, it was easy enough for Dexter to negotiate the details of writing the stories smoothly.
It’s not so easy to do that when the main character is not given a name at all. Yet, that’s what Bill Pronzini decided to do with his sleuth. Beginning with The Snatch, Pronzini has written more than forty novels featuring the San Francisco detective that most of us think of as Nameless. In fact, ‘though fans now know his name (it’s revealed in Savages, in case you’re interested), I’d guess a lot of people still refer to him as Nameless; I know I do. And, interestingly enough, it took Pronzini more than thirty novels to give readers what you’d think would be a vital piece of information about his sleuth. In part, of course, Pronzini’s been able to do that because of the stories’ focus on the mysteries at hand. But it’s also taken some skillful writing. The novels are written in the first person, from Nameless’ point of view, and that’s made it a bit easier to avoid giving away the name. But there are also some sections written from other characters’ perspectives. And that’s where Pronzini’s writing talent has come in. Most Pronzini fans I know don’t mind not being given the name of the main character for so long. Pronzini has, if you will, written his way around that question very successfully.
Sarah Caudwell created a four-novel series featuring a group of young London lawyers: Timothy Shepherd, Selena Jardine, Michael Cantrip, Desmond Ragwort, and Julia Larwood. Acting as a sort of mentor to these budding attorneys is Shepherd’s Oxford mentor, law professor Hilary Tamar. Each novel features at least one murder and the mystery surrounding it. The cases are solved, and the murderer revealed. But one mystery that is never solved is Hilary Tamar’s sex. Caudwell wrote these novels in first person, from Tamar’s perspective. So in that sense, it was a fairly straightforward matter not to reveal whether Tamar is male or female. But that doesn’t prevent every potential awkwardness in writing. Still, Caudwell managed to keep her writing style smooth, and the focus on the mysteries. So fans will tell you that not knowing Tamar’s sex doesn’t take away from the stories.
And then there’s Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa series, which takes place mostly in the Copacabana section of Rio de Janeiro. Espinosa isn’t what you’d call overly mysterious. The stories are told in part from his point of view, so we learn a bit about his personal life (he’s a divorced father who has very little contact with his children). We know that he’s a book lover with quite a collection and with dreams of owning a bookshop. He’s an essentially good guy who has to operate in an often-corrupt system. But what we never learn about him is his given name. It’s hinted at in A Window in Copacabana, when he has a conversation with a woman he’s trying to protect from a murderer:
‘‘When I want to talk to you, I’ll use the name Benedito. Don’t answer calls from anybody else. Remember: I’ll never use the name Espinosa. I’ll only be Benedito.’
‘Is that your first name?’
Still, it’s not revealed. Since Gracia-Roza does use Espinosa’s surname, it’s a straightforward matter to tell these stories without any ‘clunkiness.’ But it’s still a bit of a riddle.
What do you think about all of this? Do you find it annoying, for instance, not to know a sleuth’s name (or part of it?). Do you notice those little mysteries within the mysteries you read? If you’re a writer, do you include those sorts of riddles?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Sausage.