In many (certainly not all!) crime novels, there’s an element of suspense that comes from that final confrontation between the sleuth and the criminal. It can be a very cathartic moment; after all, the sleuth has probably worked long and hard to catch the criminal. It can also add tension to the story (i.e. Is the criminal going to admit everything?). And there can be a real poignancy to this confrontation, especially if the sleuth has a sort of sympathy for the killer.
These confrontations vary of course, depending on the characters and the style of the story. And they need to be done thoughtfully, or there’s a risk of melodrama. But when they are done well, they can add much to a story.
Some confrontations are quiet and even moving. That’s what we see at the end of G.K. Chesterton’s The Invisible Man. In that story, Father Brown and his friend Hercule Flambeau investigate the mysterious murder of Isidore Smythe. One strange thing about this case is that the murderer seems to have got into Smythe’s home and killed him without anyone seeing a person go in or out. After Father Brown works out how and by whom the crime was committed, he has a confrontation – well, an interaction – with the killer:
‘But Father Brown walked these snow-covered hills under the stars for many hours with a murderer, and what they said to each other will never be known.’
When we know the truth behind the murder, it’s logical that Father Brown wouldn’t force a loud, public sort of confrontation. And he’s not that sort of person, anyway.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has had his moments of very public, even dramatic, unmasking of murderers (there’s one, for instance, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead). And even he will admit that he likes being the focus of everyone’s attention as he points out the guilty person. But he also has some quieter, poignant confrontations with killers. Everyone’s different, but for my money, the interaction between Poirot and the killer in Death on the Nile is a good example of this. Poirot is taking what’s supposed to be a relaxing cruise of the Nile when he gets drawn into the shooting death of fellow passenger Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. Poirot and Colonel Race, who’s also on the cruise, investigate, and Poirot discovers who’s behind that murder and two others. At one point, after revealing the killer’s identity, Poirot has a quiet conversation with that person:
‘‘Don’t mind so much, Monsieur Poirot! About me, I mean. You do mind, don’t you?’
‘But it wouldn’t have occurred to you to let me off?’
Hercule Poirot said quietly, ‘No.’’
In this case, Poirot admits that he has sympathy for the murderer, and that comes through in this conversation.
We know from the beginning of L.R. Wright’s The Suspect that eighty-year-old George Wilcox kills eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. When the murder is reported, RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg takes the case. There is more than one possible explanation for the killing, so Alberg doesn’t immediately focus on Wilcox. But it’s not long before he does. As the story goes on, he has some interesting confrontations with Wilcox. Little by little, we learn the history behind the murder and the motive for it. It adds to the suspense of the story to follow the two men’s interactions as the novel goes on.
Sometimes, there are more dramatic confrontations between sleuths and criminals. When they’re done well, they can certainly add to the story. For instance, in Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat, National Park Service ranger Anna Pigeon has been assigned to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. One day, she discovers the body of fellow ranger Sheila Drury. At first, all signs point to a mountain lion as the killer. Pigeon is hoping this isn’t true, because she’s afraid that there will be a wholesale slaughter of these endangered animals if word gets out that a lion killed Drury. There are little signs, too, that suggest that this death is the work of a human. So Pigeon starts to ask some questions. The more she digs into the matter, the more possibilities she finds. She also discovers that someone wants very much to keep her from finding out the truth. Eventually, though, Pigeon learns who killed Sheila Drury and why. When she does, there is a dramatic confrontation between her and the murderer.
In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets involved in investigating the murder of a colleague, Reed Gallagher. It turns out that more than one person could have wanted him dead, and the investigation isn’t easy. But after some time (and another death), Kilbourn finds out who the murderer is. After she’s made it clear who the person is, she has a very suspenseful confrontation with that person during an elevator ride. It’s a tense scene in part because Kilbourn is in danger. But it’s also tense because of the history behind the deaths.
There’s another interesting, and more dramatic, confrontation between Inspector Salvo Montalbano and a very highly-placed criminal in Dance of the Seagull. In that novel, Montalbano’s teammate Giuseppe Fazio is investigating a dangerous smuggling ring when he goes missing. Montalbano and the rest of the team know that the longer it takes them to find Fazio, the more danger there will be for him. So they follow the trail that Fazio has left, hoping it will help them find him. They’re up against a particularly ruthless group of people, so Montalbano knows that he and his team have to work quickly. In the end, and after the murder of their primary witness, they do catch the criminal. And there’s a very public (and for the culprit, a very embarrassing) scene when Montalbano faces this enemy.
There are, of course, plenty of crime novels in which there really is no confrontation between sleuth and criminal (that’s the stuff of another post). But confrontations that are done well can add layers of suspense and tension to a story. Which confrontations have you thought particularly well done? If you’re a writer, how do you handle this aspect of your crime stories?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Rocky Raccoon.