Good Times Are Coming Now*

optimistic-endingsThe 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Honey Brown, Jill Edmondson

21 responses to “Good Times Are Coming Now*

  1. It’s really hard, isn’t it, to balance a happy ending (or at least peace of sorts) with a rather dark story. I am impressed you found some good examples, as I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

  2. Tim

    Some classic murder tales give us peculiar endings. Consider the first murder mystery: Cain and Abel in Genesis. Cain pretty much gets away with murder (fratricide); his crime is discovered, but his punishment is limited to a “mark” and exile. So much for an eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth retribution. But Jewish scholars might want to correct my skewed view of the story.

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  4. Of course there are always exceptions but in general I definitely prefer when the victim kinda deserves it, so I don’t have to get too involved in grief. I think that’s also why I prefer the police procedural to the domestic noir kind of novel – it puts the reader at one step further from the grieving relatives, and there can be a happy outcome for the police officers, even if the families are still left to cope with the longterm effects…

    • You’ve got a well-taken point there, FictionFan. I think it’s very hard to be inside the heads of those who are grieving. Even if it’s done very well, it’s difficult. And if you’re reading a police procedural, you do get that one step away that makes that sadness just a little easier to take. And if the victim turns out to be a baddie, well, so much the easier…

  5. For the most part, I like an optimistic ending. It does make the ending better if the victim sort of deserved what he/she got. I guess as long as the family gets a bit of closure it works for me. Great examples, Margot.

    • Thank you, Mason. I think you put your finger on what really makes an optimistic ending so appealing. It offers closure. And yes, if the victim isn’t appealing, it is easier to feel that s/he got what was coming…

  6. Interesting post 🙂 I remember that when I first read Appointment with Death, I was incredulous that a character like Mrs Boynton could exist. But after a few chapters into the book, the psychological insight Christie gave totally convinced me. I guess that’s the beauty in Agatha Christie’s writing. 🙂

    • That’s the thing, Regulus98, isn’t it? Christie was such a skilled writer that she made a character like Mrs. Boynton quite credible, and I always liked that about her stories. Thanks very much for the kind words. 🙂

  7. Margot: I think of the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear in which Maisie, at the end of each case, strives to ensure “those affected by my work are at peace with the outcome”. It is a worthy unique quest.

    • I like that very much about her, Bill. She is concerned with finding out the truth; at the same, time, though, she has those affected by that truth as a top priority. Thanks for mentioning her.

  8. I do like Agatha Christie’s tried and tested method in that the victim deserves what’s coming to them… that way we don’t need to invest too much sadness for their demise and we also get satisfaction in unravelling the mystery! The Jill McGown book (Redemption) I read earlier this month used the same device, the victim was a wife-beater so it was all about unravelling whodunit rather than worrying too much about the man who had his head bashed in with a poker!

    • Christie did that quite well, didn’t she, Cleo? And one thing I like about McGown series is that it’s traditional in that sense. She, too, created mysteries where the reader isn’t asked to feel an inordinate amount of sympathy for the dead victim. I thank that’s a great series, so I’m glad you mentioned it. Folks, do check out Cleo’s fine review of Redemption.

  9. Hmmm…tough question. I guess it depends on the book. That said, I do like to see the characters in their “new world” no matter what that world looks like. As a writer, I do both. In one series, I end the book on a high note, but always leaving one lingering question that hints at danger to come. In the other, I end it with a bit more menacing resolution. As a reader, as long as it makes sense I’m happy and satisfied.

    • I think you hit on the most important thing, Sue: does it makes sense? Whatever sort of ending the author chooses, I think it does have to be credible and fit with the tone of the book. And I’m not surprised you take different approaches: you have different sorts of series.

  10. Margot, as far as I recall, the crime novels I have read so far have had reasonably positive endings, and definitely a closure, which sort of puts a lid on the fictional past; although, sadly, the same can’t be said about real-life crime and its aftermath. Closure is so often elusive for the families of the victims.

    • It really is, Prashant. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why people so often want some sort of closure in their crime fiction. We want things to make sense, and to be, well, complete, if I can put it that way. That doesn’t often happen in real life, so we look for it in our reading.

  11. When I blogged on Appointment with Death recently, I discussed the malevolence of Mrs Boynton, and said I hadn’t come across such nastiness in real life. Several commenters told me shocking stories, I was surprised at how many people had come across characters like that. It would be hard to mourn them…

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