Despite (or maybe because of) a rather distracting week, I managed to finish the latest mystery by one of my all time favorite writers (I’m not going to disclose the book or author or I’ll have to give spoiler alerts!). However, instead of the usual feeling of contentment that comes from finishing a well-written, masterly plotted mystery, I felt…let down…and it took me a few days to figure out that the major reason for my nagging sense of disappointment was that the novel never really gave me the ending I wanted. Sure there was resolution but there was no justice…and I was surprised at how much that altered the whole reading experience for me.
Don’t get me wrong, the novel had great characterization and a well-paced investigation, it was beautifully written and often poignant, but in the end the perpetrators of the crime never really faced any real consequences, and certainly no punishment. This got me thinking about reader expectations when it comes to the whole mystery/crime genre and also whether, given how much the genre has changed over the years, writers still need to end their novels with a sense that justice (whatever that might mean) has been served.
Like many other readers, part of the reason I read mysteries is to get the satisfaction that comes from seeing justice served (something that all too often does not occur in real life). There is something very affirming about ‘good’ winning out in the end – even if that ending is messy or morally compromising. Once I begin to read a mystery novel I place my trust in the writer that the crime/mystery will ultimately be solved and that the person(s) responsible will be brought to account – but how do I (as both a reader and writer) feel about a resolution that omits ‘justice’ and ‘punishment’? I’m still not sure.
When it comes to this particular book at least, it was about managing reader expectations. I was expecting a murder mystery and though I got one, I didn’t get the ending I was expecting, and as a result, I felt the whole book tainted by a lack of a satisfying resolution. I think this disappointment says a lot about how writers need to manage reader expectations and also, perhaps, the strengths and limitations of the genre itself (for instance if I had considered this literary fiction I might not have expected the same kind of ending as I would with a mystery).
So TKZers what do you think -do you still expect or demand to see justice served in a mystery novel? How much leverage do you give when it comes to endings/resolutions in a mystery/crime genre novel? Am I just being old fashioned or is justice and/or punishment even needed anymore?