Not 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 McReady 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 McReady 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!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doors’ The End.