The thing about a crime fiction novel is that usually, it includes at least one murder. And in real life, a murder wreaks havoc on the lives of those involved. Loved ones grieve, and nothing’s ever really the same afterwards. So, if a crime novel is to be realistic, there can’t be a perfectly happy ending. And crime fiction fans like their novels to have some realism, for the most part.
Is it possible, then, for a crime novel to have a happy ending? Can things work out well for the characters, without the novel calling for too much disbelief? It isn’t easy to do, and not all crime fiction fans want things to end well. But there are authors who manage to make things all right again, so to speak, without too much that’s not credible.
Agatha Christie used an interesting strategy to accomplish this (and she’s not the only one). If the victim is unpleasant or dangerous enough, readers aren’t too distressed at that person’s death. There are plenty of examples of this; here’s just one. In Appointment With Death, the Boynton family travels to the Middle East for a sightseeing trip. As we soon learn, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is tyrannical and malicious. She has her family members so cowed that none of them dares go against her wishes. During the family’s travels, they visit the famous ancient city of Petra. On the second afternoon of their stay, Mrs. Boynton is killed by what turns out to be poison. Hercule Poirot is also in the Middle East, and he is persuaded to look into the death. Readers find out who the killer was, which has its own satisfaction. And I can say without spoiling the story that things do work out well for the rest of the characters. In that sense, the story really does have a happy ending.
Some authors make the criminal nasty enough that readers are pleased when she or he is caught, and there’s a real satisfaction that comes from that. It doesn’t take away the sadness from the fact that at least one person has been killed. But there’s a sense that things will be all right again. That’s what happens in Andrea Camilleri’s Dance of the Seagull. In that novel, Vigàta Inspector Salvo Montalbano and his team face a desperate situation when one of their colleagues, Giuseppe Fazio, goes missing during his investigation of smuggling activity. Montalbano believes that the best chance for finding Fazio will come from following the same leads Fazio followed, so the team picks up the threads of that investigation. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Fazio is found, wounded, but alive, and is spirited away to recuperate under an assumed name. During Fazio’s hospital stay, Montalbano and his team continue following leads. Then, their principal witness is murdered. And the people behind the killing are highly-placed and ruthless. In the end, though, Montalbano tracks down the killer. And there’s a real satisfaction as that person is brought to justice.
Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus might, on the surface, seem as though it ought to have a very sad ending. A disgraced doctor, Duca Lamberti, has recently been released from prison, where he served time for euthanasia. He’s hired by a wealthy engineer, Pietro Auseri, who wants Lamberti’s help with a family problem. Auseri’s son, Davide, has been drinking heavily, despite treatment. He’s also been depressed and withdrawn. He won’t say why, either. Auseri wants Lamberti to work as a sort of private rehabilitation expert. Lamberti isn’t sure exactly how he’ll help, but he agrees. As he gets to know Davide, he learns the young man’s story. Davide blames himself for the death a year earlier of Alberta Radelli, whose body was found in a field outside Milan. Apparently, they’d met by accident, enjoyed each other’s company, and spent the day in Florence. When she begged him to take her with him, and not to Milan (where they met) he refused. On the surface, it seems as though Alberta committed suicide, as she threatened. But Lamberti doesn’t think that’s so. He believes that the only way to free Davide from his demons is to find out what really happened to Alberta, so he begins to ask questions, and insists that Davide take part, too. And in the end, they find out the truth. This is, in many ways, a noir novel. There’s some real ugliness behind this death and another that’s connected. But things do turn out. And, without spoiling the story, I can say that Davide is freed of his guilt.
As Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks begins, fourteen-year-old Adam Vander has finally summoned up the courage to flee his abusive father, Joe. The problem for Adam is that he has been kept locked away, more or less, for most of his life, and doesn’t have much in the way of real-world coping skills. Fortunately, for Adam, he meets Billy Benson, a young man who visits the house just as he, Adam, is leaving. The two leave the house and spend the next week together. Billy provides much in the way of ‘street sense,’ which means that Adam gets enough food, shelter, and safety. But that doesn’t mean all is safe. In fact, Billy and Adam get into some real danger. As the week goes on, we learn more about these two characters, and they learn about each other. It turns out that they are connected in ways that neither one is entirely comfortable with, but that are lasting. And both are connected with the disappearance ten years earlier of Nathan Fisher, who went missing during a trip to Market Day with his parents. This story includes some truly unhappy events. But the threads of the story come together in ways that make for a happy ending. It’s realistic, but we can see that things will be all right.
And then there’s Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom. In that novel, Christine Arvisais hires Toronto PI Sasha Jackson to find out who killed her ex-fiancé, Gordon Hanes. The two had broken off their engagement; then, Hanes was shot on what was to have been their wedding day. Now, she wants to clear her own name, because many people insist that she is guilty. Arvisais is, to say the least, not a pleasant person. But she is a client, and a fee is a fee. So, Jackson takes the case. She slowly discovers that this murder is quite likely related to other, similar murders. And, in the end, she finds out who’s behind the killings. In some ways, this isn’t a happy story. And at one point, Jackson gets into real danger. But in the end, she catches the person responsible, and some other plot threads in the story are ‘straightened out,’ too.
You’ll notice here that I haven’t mentioned what most people think of as ‘cosy mysteries.’ Lots of readers expect that things will work out in that sort of book. But it’s possible to have an optimistic ending, even in a book that’s not a cosy. What do you think? Do you like positive, or at least optimistic, endings?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charles Strouse and Martin Charmin’s I Don’t Need Anything But You.