Even if you’re not thoroughly familiar with the story, you may very well have heard of the famous gunfight at the OK Corral, in Tombstone, Arizona. It’s a classic story of the famous 1881 showdown between Sheriff Wyatt Earp and his friend, Doc Holliday on one side, and Ike Clanton and his gang on the other. And it’s a legendary story of ‘good guys’ versus ‘bad guys.’
Of course, that particular gunfight isn’t the only showdown between the ‘hero’ and the ‘villain,’ either in fiction or in real life. But it highlights the tension that builds up with that sort of confrontation. That suspense can add a great deal to a crime novel, too, so it’s little wonder we see so many examples of this plot point in the genre. There are far too many for me to mention here; I’m sure you could think of more than I could, anyway. But here are just a few.
One of the most famous crime-fictional confrontations comes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Final Problem. In that story, Sherlock Holmes is up against his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Holmes is, of course, formidable, but Moriarty has plenty of his own resources. In fact, things get so dangerous for Holmes that he and Watson temporarily leave their London lodgings and end up in Switzerland. As Holmes fans can tell you, he and Moriarty have a dramatic confrontation at the Reichenbach Falls. Conan Doyle had intended this to be his last Holmes story; but fans wouldn’t hear of it. Still, it’s a ‘power-packed’ story with plenty of buildup.
There are a few tense final showdowns in Agatha Christie’s stories and novels. We see one of them in The Murder on the Links. Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to France at the request of Canadian émigré Paul Renauld. He wrote to Poirot, claiming that his life was in danger because of a secret that he possessed. Poirot doesn’t usually take kindly to being summoned, but somehow, this letter is different. By the time he and Hastings get to France, though, it’s too late. Renauld has been murdered. Poirot and Hastings slowly find out the truth about who the murderer is, and it all comes to a head one night in a dramatic way. It’s one of those times when Poirot doesn’t announce the solution to a drawing room full of suspects. I know, Christie fans, there are lots of other great examples of this sort of drama in her work.
In Tony Hillerman’s The Blessing Way, readers are introduced to Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police. In the story, Leaphorn works with ethnologist Bergen McKee, who’s worried about the disappearance of his friend, Luis Horseman. It seems that Horseman went missing after getting into a drunken quarrel, and hasn’t returned. Later, his body is found in Many Ruins Canyon; and at first, it looks as though his death is the result of Navajo witchcraft. But Leaphorn isn’t superstitious, nor does he follow Navajo spiritual traditions. So he looks for a more prosaic solution, and that’s what he finds. In the novel, there’s a dramatic scene as Leaphorn and the killer face off in a place that’s very much ‘in the middle of nowhere.’ That geographical setting adds to the suspense of the confrontation, too, as it’s got its own very real dangers.
You could say the same thing about the confrontation between National Park Service ranger Anna Pigeon and a killer in Nevada Bar’s Track of the Cat. Pigeon has been assigned to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, in the Chihuahuan Desert of western Texas. One day, she comes upon the body of another ranger, Sheila Drury. At first, it looks as though Drury was killed by a mountain lion, and that’s the explanation the authorities want. But Pigeon isn’t sure it’s true. Besides, she’s afraid that, if word gets out that a mountain lion killed a person, then all of the park’s mountain lions could be in danger. So Pigeon starts looking into the matter more closely. As she does, she finds that there are other possibilities, and several people who could have had a motive to murder Drury. Finally, Pigeon finds out who the killer is, and one night, she has a final confrontation with that person. It’s very dramatic, and not least because of the physical setting.
A final confrontation doesn’t have to take place in a remote area to be dramatic, though. For instance, in Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets involved in investigating the murder of a colleague, Reed Gallagher. His body is discovered in a cheap rooming house, and it looks as though he was living some sort of double life that got him killed. But it’s not as simple, or as complex, as that. As Kilbourne starts looking into the matter a little more, she finds that more than one person might have had a motive for murder. And when she finally discovers who the real killer is, she confronts that person. Then, there’s a very tense final scene between them in an elevator. It’s a small, enclosed space, and that adds to the suspense.
Some dramatic fictional final showdowns take place in lonely, outdoors spots. Others can be as close as the sleuth’s front door (I’m thinking, for instance, of Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic). There are many other settings, too, including some very famous film scenes. Whichever way it’s done, that ‘good guy’-against-‘bad guy’ final scene can add a strong layer of tension to a story. Little wonder the story of the gunfight at the OK Corral has become iconic. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jon Bon Jovi’s Blaze of Glory.