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All Tied Up with a Bow: Sulari Gentill On Endings

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“Can’t say I’ve ever been too fond of beginnings, myself. Messy little things. Give me a good ending anytime. You know where you are with an ending.”
― Neil Gaiman, 
The Kindly Ones

A great deal of consideration, deliberation and attention is afforded to the opening lines of a novel. The killer hook which lures the passing reader into the story, ensnares the casual book browser and makes the sale. Sales are after all desirable, and generally secured by that part of a book a reader can consume for free without annoying the bookseller. We can all quote our favorite opening lines: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” (The Tale of Two Cities: Dickens). It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen) You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed. (Appointment with Death: Agatha Christie) Or even the much malignedIt was a dark and stormy night” (Paul Clifford: Sir Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton). Beginnings are exciting in and of themselves. They hold the promise of the novel—adventure, suspense, insight—they are a journey’s beginning. But what of the ending. What does it offer? What must it deliver?

For a mystery novel the answer is simple—the mystery must be solved. But what exactly does that entail?

Golden Age writers like Christie and Sayers penned final reveals that were an exercise in eloquent intellectual prowess and artifice. Suspects gathered and sat patiently and politely as the likes of Poirot and Miss Marple discussed each of their motives and opportunities at length, and eventually explained which of them had “dunnit”, at which point the authorities stepped in to arrest the perpetrator and the novel was closed in a mutual recognition of the of the detective’s genius. It was quite civilised. Loose ends addressed, red herrings identified as such, questions answered. It was all tied up with a bow and presented to the reader on a silver platter by the butler… unless of course he did it, in which case the maid would step in. There was nothing left for the reader to do but close the book and be satisfied with the clever neatness of it all.

On the other end of the spectrum are novels which might sound like a crime fiction but, in fact, resolve nothing at all. We call those novels, literary fiction. First to mind—the iconic Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay, in which the final chapter was excised, to make absolutely sure that there was no resolution of any kind. Lindsay got away with this mostly because, though the novel concerned the disappearance of three schoolgirls, it was a literary novel and not a “mystery” within the genre definition of the term. When the final chapter was published several years later, the supernatural explanations Lindsay employed only took the novel further from any categorization as a mystery novel or crime fiction.

Some sort of solution to the mystery posed seems to be a non-negotiable part of the crime writer’s contract with the reader. The unsolvable questions of life and death are best left to those who wish to write esoteric or experimental fiction—their readers are looking for something else, they have not been promised a puzzle with a solution and neither are they looking for it.

That is not to say that there aren’t mystery novels which leave some questions unanswered. Crime fiction has long been used to hold a mirror to contemporary society, its prejudices, its conflicts and its uncertainties. It is no wonder then that, as modern society becomes increasingly more complicated, we have seen the evolution of the mystery-novel-ending into one that is less neat, one in which the occasional uncertainty is part of the solution.

Crime writers, having mastered the traditional structure of the puzzle-based novel, are naturally pushing the edges of the envelope, expanding and challenging the genre by degrees, whilst still delivering on the promise of a solution.

Perpetrators, or at least one of the perpetrators, may escape justice although they are revealed as such to the reader, (The Port Fairy Murders: Robert Gott and Thomas Harris’s Hannibal books), narrators are unreliable, (Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl), and there are now the meta books (The Magpie Murders: Anthony Horowitz, Everybody In My Family Has Killed Someone: Benjamin Stevenson, etc) which do not shy away from an awareness of the structure of the crime novel and indeed use that as a kind of in-joke between writer and reader to play with the concept a neat solution.

For me this less neat, less controlled solution offers the reader something which the completely tied off ending cannot. It gifts the reader with that “but what if” feeling that for writers is often the delicious beginning of a novel, it trusts them to decide what they think based on the story they’ve been told. It is a wonderful instance in which the writer’s and the reader’s imaginations meet and dance—the writer leads but the reader must move for the waltz to work and every sequence of steps and turns is just a little different. It is that moment of: “I saw what you did there.”

There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story. – Frank Herbert

The ambiguous close of Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, for example, only intensifies the novel’s haunting quality. The reader is left to decide if Rachel was a murderess or merely a tragic heroine and it is that unresolved mystery, that wondering, which lingers past the final page. More recently, Sarah Vaughan’s Anatomy of a Murder (the book not the Netflix Series) resolves the mystery of who did what, but leaves the fate of the characters to the readers imagination, allowing the outrage of an acquittal to resonate into uncertainty as the novel ends.

From the other side of the equation, an ending that doesn’t tie off every little thing, that leaves the reader satisfied but with something to think about, allows writer-me to feel like this thing I’ve created, still lives—that it has not been expended. I want to leave readers with questions, not about the plot or the mystery (those need to be answered) but about their own assumptions, and perhaps about what might happen next or what could have happened before, or how things may have been different. I hope that they will care enough about the characters to linger in the lives I’ve conjured. While the central puzzle must be solved by the end, remnant possibility is not a bad thing. It speaks to the writer’s trust in their readers, their confidence that there are some things the reader can and should work out for themselves. The differences in how individual readers “saw it” is, for me, part of the unique power of the novel.



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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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