Resolution, justice and happy endings

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

This weekend I attended Booktown the annual book festival held in the small Victorian town of Clunes, where I heard Peter Corris, Jean Bedford, and Michael Wilding speak on the topic of the long arm of crime fiction. One issue which prompted some discussion was the issue of whether readers still look for good to triumph over evil in a mystery novel. The panelist seem to think that far more ambiguity is now allowed. They noted that writers such as James Ellroy have already upended the traditional mystery form and felt that it was possible now to end on a note in which evil, while not triumphant, certainly hasn’t been bested by the forces of good.

This got me thinking about the need for a satisfying ending and how, in many books, I have been more disappointed by a trite or glib happy ending than I ever have by books in which evil doers get away (at least in part) with their misdeeds.

Nevertheless, I do think resolution is critical in any kind of novel, and by that I mean that all the critical plot elements have been explained and resolved. I wonder though if I don’t secretly yearn for justice at the end of a mystery or thriller. Would I be satisfied with a conclusion that allowed the crime to go totally unpunished? Would I feel let down if the protagonist failed to succeed in bringing the perpetrator to justice? To be honest I’m not sure.

What about you? What kind of resolution are you looking for in a crime novel? Do you need to see justice done?


16 thoughts on “Resolution, justice and happy endings

  1. I think it is part of our being to recognize the need for justice. I don’t know that a crime novel must bring a person to justice, but the promise of justice should be there.

  2. I’d like to see justice done, but not if extraordinary levels of disbelief suspension are required. Also, if the tone of the book is that justice is going to be hard to come by, don;t bend over backward to give me some. An ending can be satisfying and frustrating at the same time.

  3. I like that expression Tim- the promise of justice. Nicely put and Dana, I agree that I would rather have it make sense in the context and tone of the book than be a stretch. I am willing to tolerate much more ambiguity from a writer who handles the issue of resolution well so that I trust the ending is the only plausible way it could have happened.

  4. Well for any book, not just this genre, I expect the story to be carried out, and, in the case of this example, justice served. I think I would be more tolerant but we live in a world where a lot of times, because publishing is obsessed with series of books, things aren’t wrapped up by the end of a book–and often times it’s done in such a blatant “Ha ha ha, you gotta get the next book” way that it annoys me instead of making me want to get the next book.

    But aside from that, when it comes to justice, I view it the same way as I do cop shows. I don’t watch a TV show because I want to see how close to real life crime fighting they are–in real life, a case can drag on for months and years and sometimes the person is never brought to justice. I want that “fixed” in fiction. Otherwise, there’s not much point in reading fiction. But that’s just me.

  5. BK, I think many of us want to escape the messy, drawn out world that is real life crime and get satisfaction in a fictional world where justice is served.

  6. I don’t really care if justice is served. Sometimes evil wins, good people die, or the wrongly-accused are imprisoned. Like Dana, I’d rather finish a book feeling partially satisfied than try to read an author’s forced resolution to an arc. Stories like that bring my New York out and I end up saying, “Getdafuckouttaear!” in the middle of a quiet library or coffee shop.

  7. I think justice is best served cold, with a splash of balsamic vinegar and a few kalamata olives and feta crumbles. Oh, and roasted garlic cloves (for both the anti-vampire and aphrodisiac qualities).

    For myself, I don’t always need resolution as much as I need the ending to make sense, even if it leaves us hanging. Life after all leaves us hanging quite often.

    A good example of different senses of this is the 1986 movie Brazil. The original has a rather bleak ending with the protagonist hanging just beyond sanity. But US producers thought it was too dark and ending and insisted on an American Hollywood style happy ending with the good guys winning. While it could go either way, I rather preferred the original.

    By the way, any TKZers in Atlanta? I’m going to be at the Atlanta Writer’s Conference this week, Friday & Saturday.

  8. Personally, I hate, hate, hate seeing a truly villainous individual win out (e.g. No Country for Old Men) unless it’s part of a series and there is the promise of justice in the future.

    What I always hear in writing circles is leave the reader some sense of ‘hope’. I think it must be the same concept as Timothy’s promise of justice. Human nature is fickle that way. We must never leave a reader frustrated that justice was thwarted. After all, the ending to one book can sell the next.

    We want to see a truly evil person eliminated or incarcerated. (Pick an Action Movie) However, a lesser villain with redeemable qualities – and especially one with justifiable reasons – we like to see get away. (e.g. Flawless with Demi Moore and Michael Caine)

  9. Speaking of good guys/bad guys winning or not my book Karl’s Last Flight has apparently drawn the attention of the Iranian government. I found the title and my name mentioned on an Iranian Farsi language blog.

    The book resolves with the good guys (USA/UK) winning, barely. After having the page translated it seems that someone over there was less than impressed with the concept.

    Well, I guess we’ll see whether the good guys get to win for real or not, eh?

  10. For me, mostly I want to see all plot elements resolved and/or explained. I want to see everything tied together. I agree with what Timothy Fish said–I need at least the promise of justice. From personal experience, while justice gives you a measure of peace, it certainly provides no closure and it doesn’t change your newly shattered world. And yes, it takes forever. So in a book, I don’t mind if justice is not delivered all nice and neat with a giant bow on it. But if I find myself really rooting for a protagonist, then I will want justice more than I might in a different book. I was very satisfied with the end of John Hart’s The Last Child–in its very morbid and disturbing way, “justice” was served but the book still left you with an overwhelming sense of loss which is how it is in real life. I can say that a book where the “bad guy” gets away free and clear and is able to continue wreaking havoc is not a book I will be satisfied with. So for me there has to be something although I also agree with Dana King that it’s no good if “extraordinary levels of disbelief suspension are required.”

  11. Daniel – I confess to feeling less than satisfied with the ending for No Country for Old Men but it was a resolution – just not the one I was expecting!

  12. Basil, resolutions cold and pickled are obviously your thing. Sorry I won’t be in Atlanta – a tad far to fly!

  13. I agree that I want justice served at the conclusion of any book I invest in. In real life everything isn’t tied up, but reading is an escape and to be entertained things have to be balanced to be a satisfactory read.

  14. I want justice generally or I feel just as robbed as the victims and characters. Does it have to be a happy ending- not necessarily as long as it is complete and well wrapped up. I think it is normal to want to see justice served. We want to root for the underdog and the good guy, we want them to succeed against long odds and evil doers and sometimes the only justice and satisfaction we get comes from a good book.. vicarious justice- hmmmm, interesting.

  15. I gotta balance things out by saying I have zero problem with an unresolved ending. It leaves me a little unsettled and keeps the book in my mind and my heart well beyond “The End.” One thing I loathe is a big foot and/or car chase that ends up with the bad guy crashing or shot and the good guy with a little scratch on his forehead. Michelle Gagnon ended “The Gatekeeper” brilliantly. She took a real gamble with a main character and it paid off. I was stunned. I still haven’t forgiven Stephen King for a character he killed in “Black House” and one of my favortie historicals of all times ends simply with “And perhaps they found what they were looking for.” It takes guts to have an unsettling ending and I applaud writers who do it well. Even if I don’t agree with you, I never forget it.

  16. Oh, and I forgot. I hate, hate, hate it when the top cop and the witness/victim/plucky heroine celebrate the bringing down of the bad guy with a romp. Blech!

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