Let Me Make My Final Stand*

good-guy-bad-guyEven if you’re not thoroughly familiar with the story, you may very well have heard of the famous gunfight at the OK Corral, in Tombstone, Arizona. It’s a classic story of the famous 1881 showdown between Sheriff Wyatt Earp and his friend, Doc Holliday on one side, and Ike Clanton and his gang on the other. And it’s a legendary story of ‘good guys’ versus ‘bad guys.’

Of course, that particular gunfight isn’t the only showdown between the ‘hero’ and the ‘villain,’ either in fiction or in real life. But it highlights the tension that builds up with that sort of confrontation. That suspense can add a great deal to a crime novel, too, so it’s little wonder we see so many examples of this plot point in the genre. There are far too many for me to mention here; I’m sure you could think of more than I could, anyway. But here are just a few.

One of the most famous crime-fictional confrontations comes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Final Problem. In that story, Sherlock Holmes is up against his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Holmes is, of course, formidable, but Moriarty has plenty of his own resources. In fact, things get so dangerous for Holmes that he and Watson temporarily leave their London lodgings and end up in Switzerland. As Holmes fans can tell you, he and Moriarty have a dramatic confrontation at the Reichenbach Falls. Conan Doyle had intended this to be his last Holmes story; but fans wouldn’t hear of it. Still, it’s a ‘power-packed’ story with plenty of buildup.

There are a few tense final showdowns in Agatha Christie’s stories and novels. We see one of them in The Murder on the Links. Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to France at the request of Canadian émigré Paul Renauld. He wrote to Poirot, claiming that his life was in danger because of a secret that he possessed. Poirot doesn’t usually take kindly to being summoned, but somehow, this letter is different. By the time he and Hastings get to France, though, it’s too late. Renauld has been murdered. Poirot and Hastings slowly find out the truth about who the murderer is, and it all comes to a head one night in a dramatic way. It’s one of those times when Poirot doesn’t announce the solution to a drawing room full of suspects. I know, Christie fans, there are lots of other great examples of this sort of drama in her work.

In Tony Hillerman’s The Blessing Way, readers are introduced to Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police. In the story, Leaphorn works with ethnologist Bergen McKee, who’s worried about the disappearance of his friend, Luis Horseman. It seems that Horseman went missing after getting into a drunken quarrel, and hasn’t returned. Later, his body is found in Many Ruins Canyon; and at first, it looks as though his death is the result of Navajo witchcraft. But Leaphorn isn’t superstitious, nor does he follow Navajo spiritual traditions. So he looks for a more prosaic solution, and that’s what he finds. In the novel, there’s a dramatic scene as Leaphorn and the killer face off in a place that’s very much ‘in the middle of nowhere.’ That geographical setting adds to the suspense of the confrontation, too, as it’s got its own very real dangers.

You could say the same thing about the confrontation between National Park Service ranger Anna Pigeon and a killer in Nevada Bar’s Track of the Cat. Pigeon has been assigned to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, in the Chihuahuan Desert of western Texas. One day, she comes upon the body of another ranger, Sheila Drury. At first, it looks as though Drury was killed by a mountain lion, and that’s the explanation the authorities want. But Pigeon isn’t sure it’s true. Besides, she’s afraid that, if word gets out that a mountain lion killed a person, then all of the park’s mountain lions could be in danger. So Pigeon starts looking into the matter more closely. As she does, she finds that there are other possibilities, and several people who could have had a motive to murder Drury. Finally, Pigeon finds out who the killer is, and one night, she has a final confrontation with that person. It’s very dramatic, and not least because of the physical setting.

A final confrontation doesn’t have to take place in a remote area to be dramatic, though. For instance, in Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets involved in investigating the murder of a colleague, Reed Gallagher. His body is discovered in a cheap rooming house, and it looks as though he was living some sort of double life that got him killed. But it’s not as simple, or as complex, as that. As Kilbourne starts looking into the matter a little more, she finds that more than one person might have had a motive for murder. And when she finally discovers who the real killer is, she confronts that person. Then, there’s a very tense final scene between them in an elevator. It’s a small, enclosed space, and that adds to the suspense.

Some dramatic fictional final showdowns take place in lonely, outdoors spots. Others can be as close as the sleuth’s front door (I’m thinking, for instance, of Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic). There are many other settings, too, including some very famous film scenes. Whichever way it’s done, that ‘good guy’-against-‘bad guy’ final scene can add a strong layer of tension to a story. Little wonder the story of the gunfight at the OK Corral has become iconic. These are just a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jon Bon Jovi’s Blaze of Glory.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christine Poulson, Gail Bowen, Nevada Barr, Tony Hillerman

20 responses to “Let Me Make My Final Stand*

  1. Happy you found my reblog of Stephen King’s wisdom on the author-craft…

  2. George Smiley faces off with his nemesis in _Call for the Dead_, but after he crosses that bridge to his future — no spoilers here — rarely will Smiley ever engage in such physical encounters again.

    • True, Tim. And I think that’s one of the reasons that particular confrontation is so powerful. And that’s a great example of exactly the sort of confrontation I had in mind, so I’m glad you mentioned it.

  3. Writer Craig Johnson often has his protagonist, Walt Longmire, involved in do or die showdowns with villains. These usually happen deep in the wilderness in horrific weather conditions. Very interesting post, Margot!

    • That’s absolutely true, Michael. And those weather conditions can be isolating, which leads to even more tension. Even when they’re not, Craig certainly builds the suspense effectively with those showdowns. I’m glad you mentioned his work; that was a gap I’d left. Thanks for the kind words, too.

  4. SteveHL

    In Fredric Brown’s The Screaming Mimi, the person solving the case has a confrontation with the murderer near the end of the book. He realizes that the deranged murderer will not kill him as long as he keeps talking. It doesn’t matter what he says, just as long as he doesn’t stop speaking. He expects that if he talks long enough, the police may show up.

    “…Beneath a spreading chestnut tree,” said Sweeney hoarsely, “the village smithy stands. The smith, a mighty man is he, beneath the spreading chestnut tree. A rose by any other name would waste it’s fragrance on the desert air, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. And when the pie was opened, they all began to sing…”

    He needs to keep this up all night long, hoping for rescue.

    • Now, that, SteveHL, is an unusual showdown! I’ve read Frederic Brown before, but not this one (yet), and I’m so glad you added it in. It sounds at the same time both absurd and suspenseful, since he has to keep talking to stay alive. What a great example of what I had in mind.

  5. On the whole, I prefer the suspects in the drawing room style of dénouement, or the arrest and interview in police procedurals. But dramatic showdowns can be great if they arise naturally out of the story and don’t go too far over the top. The most recent one I’ve enjoyed is in Gil North’s The Methods of Sergeant Cluff where, rather originally, the showdown happens between two of the suspects, with Sergeant Cluff standing on the sidelines, just letting the thing play out. Morally dubious, but it worked well with the darkish tone of these books…

    • And sometimes, that’s the what makes that sort of confrontation work, FictionFan: it matches the tone of the book. As you say, dramatic showdowns can be too over the top, especially if the rest of novel is otherwise not that way. But when it falls out naturally from the story, that’s a different case. And I’m glad you reminded me of how North has done it. I really need to spotlight one of his Cluff novels one of these times! I have to admit, too, that I have a sneaking fondness for the drawing room scene or the well-done arrest/interview. They just…fit, if that makes sense.

  6. I can’t help but think of a scene from a movie while reading this – the final scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I’d have to say that was a dramatic showdown. It also reminds me of a scene in Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta. The bad guys and the good guy facing off in the forest with a raging fire surrounding them. Great post, Margot!

    Thoughts in Progress
    and MC Book Tours

    • Thank you, Mason. And yes, that final scene of Butch Cassidy and the SUndance Kid is powerful, isn’t it? And it is a perfect example of that sort of final showdown. I’m glad you mentioned it, and I’m glad you mentioned the Koryta. That’s another really dramatic final confrontation.

  7. I love the ending of Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero, with the suspects all collected in a boat, and you know someone is going overboard. I would think the Sainted Agatha was having a joke with us – parodying everyone’s perception that the suspects gather in the library – except that this one is dead serious, and incredibly tense.

    • It is, indeed, Moira, and I’m glad you mentioned it. Christie did that final scene quite effectively in that one. And that suspense does keep you from seeing it as Christie’s way of having a bit of fun. Quite clever of her, I think, to have that scene sort of mirror the drawing room scene – but with the added danger.

  8. I also thought first of the Longmire series. Craig Johnson is very good at building the tension and giving us a big confrontation.

  9. kathyd

    I have read so many books with the protagonist and perpetrator in a confrontation at the end. Anna Pigeon’s books very often have an ending like that. The most recent Nevada Barr book, “Boar Island,” about the forest ranger is set on Mount Desert Island, Maine, one of the most beautiful places in the U.S. Anna is in dangerous situations a few times in this book, but there is a confrontation with the killer in the end.
    Sara Paretsky’s alter ego, V.I. Warshawski, also ends up in confrontations with her nemesis. This happened three times in the most recent book.
    It happens, too, on TV detective shows. Take “Hinterland,” a Welsh police show, but the main character, a brooding loner, always ends up in fights with the killers at the end of the mysteries.

    • That’s true, he does, Kathy. That’s actually a very good show, I think, And I’m hoping that there’ll be more. And thanks for mentioning your other examples, too. They show all sorts of different kinds of confrontation.

  10. Col

    Time to dust off a Hillerman!

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