The thing about crime stories is that they involve, well, crime. Often (not always) that crime is murder. So, crime fiction fans don’t expect things to go smoothly and happily in the books they read. And, in many ways, if a story is too smooth and happy, it’s not realistic. Stories like that are often not as absorbing, either (if there is no conflict – nothing that’s a problem – what’s the point of suspense going to be?).
At the same time, many crime fiction fans want their stories to be optimistic. The ‘bad guy’ is led away to face justice. Or, the murder victim was a cruel, mean character whom no-one much will miss. And, even when the story is a lot more complex than that, readers often want there to be a sense of positivity (i.e. life will go on, and things will be all right, even good). And there are many crime novels where we see that sort of optimism.
In several (certainly not all) of Agatha Christie’s stories, for instance, there’s a sense that things will be all right, even as there’s an acknowledgement that a death has caused a lot of pain. For instance, in Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot investigates the strangling murder of famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall. She and her family were staying at the Jolly Roger Hotel, on Leathercombe Bay when she was killed, and several people who are staying at the same hotel are potential suspects. Poirot works with the police to find out who the real killer is. At the end, the killer is brought to justice, and we get the sense that all will be well in the lives of those who were mixed up in the investigation.
Jill McGown’s A Perfect Match introduces Detective Inspector David Lloyd, and Detective Sergeant Judy Hill of Stansfield CID. They’re called in to investigate when the body of Julia Mitchell is discovered in Thorpe Wood, near the town. Soon enough, the evidence rules out a rape or robbery gone wrong, so the police begin to look for a more personal motive. At first, they think they have their man in Chris Wade, who had an argument with the victim not long before she was killed, and who has gone missing. But the case proves to be more complicated than that, and will involve untangling a network of relationships, and uncovering several lies people have told. In the end, Lloyd and Hill discover who the real killer is, and that person is led off to face justice. It’s not that this is a ‘jolly, happy murder.’ But there is a sense of things being made right again, if I may put it that way.
Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie introduces his sleuth, 11-year-old Flavia De Luce. In the novel, Flavia overhears her father having a loud argument with a visitor one evening. She doesn’t know who the other man is, but he certainly seems to know her father. The next morning, she finds the man’s body in a cucumber patch. Inspector Hewitt happens to like Colonel De Luce and takes no pleasure in arresting him. But the evidence points directly to him as the killer. So, Hewitt has no choice in the matter. Still, Flavia is convinced her father is innocent, and is determined to prove it. So, she starts asking questions. In the end, and after more than one dangerous situation, Flavia finds out the truth. Bradley doesn’t make light of the danger, nor of how scary it is to have one’s parent accused of murder. But the ending is optimistic, and we get the sense that things will be all right.
Of course. not everyone wants an optimistic ending to a crime story. Some readers prefer very bleak outcomes. And many novels have that sort of pessimism. James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity is like that, for instance. Insurance representative Walter Huff goes to visit one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger, hoping to get a policy renewal. Nirdlinger isn’t at home when Huff stops by, but his wife, Phyllis is. Huff finds himself attracted to her right away, and the feeling seems to be mutual. They soon start an affair, and before long, Phyllis tells him of her plan to kill her husband. By this time, Huff is so besotted that he goes along with the plan, even to the point of writing the double-indemnity life insurance policy she has in mind. The murder is duly committed, but that’s just the beginning of Huff’s troubles. This isn’t a story that ends well, or that makes anything all right again. In fact, it’s a bleak ending.
So is the ending to Beryl Bainbridge’s Harriet Said. That novel’s focus is a small Lancashire town and an unnamed thirteen-year-old narrator who lives there. As the story begins, she’s waiting for her fourteen-year-old friend, Harriet, to return from a trip to Wales. In the meantime, she meets middle-aged-and-unhappily-married Peter Biggs. She feels an attraction to him but is unwilling to do anything about it until her friend comes back. What Harriet does return, she wants the narrator to avoid any emotional involvement, but rather, to see this as a sort of observation experience. Then the two girls hatch a plan to, as Harriet puts it, humble Biggs. The girls begin to carry out their plan, but everything falls apart when they see something they weren’t meant to see. Things soon spin out of control, and it all ends in horrible tragedy. This one certainly doesn’t have an optimistic ending.
And neither does Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger. Fabien Delorme learns that his wife, Sylvie, has died in a car crash. The marriage wasn’t really a happy one, so although Delorme will miss her, he’s not torn apart the way he might have been if they’d been a loving couple. The thing that does truly upset him is that Sylvie wasn’t alone in the car. She’d been having an affair with a man named Martial Arnoult, who was also killed in the crash. When Delorme learns that Arnoult left a widow, Martine, he becomes obsessed with her. He even follows her when she takes a trip to Majorca. The two begin a relationship, but it soon spins very, very badly out of control. And the end solves nothing and makes nothing all right again.
And that’s how some people like their crime fiction. Others prefer crime fiction to be more optimistic, and to suggest that the world will come back together. Where do you stand on this question? Do you like optimism in your crime novels? Pessimism? If you’re a writer, what sort of novel do you prefer to write?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from A.R. Rahman and Don Black’s Happy Endings.