Searching for Justice

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?


38 thoughts on “Searching for Justice

  1. Clare, you’re not being old fashioned at all. You’re being human. I believe (with C. S. Lewis, et al.) that our moral sense is an objective reality. The great myths and stories attend to this, and mysteries/suspense specifically operate to give us hope and courage.

    Earlier this year I wrote about thrillers “bringing the light.” I quoted a lit prof: “In the final analysis, it seems that we can tolerate only so much experimentation and frustration. Perhaps the ultimate secret to great mystery and suspense fiction is that, in one way or another, it satisfies a deep-seated desire we all have for the world around us to make sense.”

    Yes, justice is needed now. It is always needed. A great mystery or thriller, IMO, satisfies our desire to know that justice can prevail.

  2. I, for one, want to see the bad guys get their just desserts. In genre fiction, reader expectation is real. Of course, JSB said it much more eloquently.

    Likewise, romance readers want that HEA, and what if Luke hadn’t dropped the bomb in exactly the right spot in the Death Star? (Although sometimes I wonder if anyone ever found the crate containing the Ark in that warehouse.)

  3. Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever read a mystery where the author didn’t deliver justice in the end. And honestly, if they DID write one where justice wasn’t served, I’m pretty certain I’d not read any more of their books. For me, that’s a pretty major gaff. Not to mention I’d come away feeling I wasted all that time reading the book.

    Now there could be different forms of justice–maybe instead of the person being arrested someone takes them out before they can be arrested, or in some circumstances, the guilty party might off themselves. But at least it gives the reader some sense of completion & justice.

  4. I agree withe the previous posts. It seems to me that the point of a murder mystery, beyond its entertainment value, is its ability to let the reader feel that justice prevails in the world. I think this is an absolute requirement because so often in the real world justice can be elusive.

    In a literary piece, escaping or avoiding justice might work.

    I’m not traditionally published, so please take that for what it’s worth.

    Thank you.

    • I think I should have approached the book as literary and then I wouldn’t have felt as cheated but it was depressing as it felt like it was just a shrug at the end – that why bother to even have justice served:(

  5. Clare, I agree with JSB and others above. Our sense of moral fabric, the desire for justice, for right to prevail, is not old fashioned. It is a part of our inborn compass that gives us direction. And you are not old fashioned.

    Endings do need to “resonate” or, as BK wrote, the author will decrease their chances of the reader buying another of the writer’s books.

    I believe this is crucial in the editing process. My wife is my first reader of my rough drafts. She is my “endings expert.” If it doesn’t resonate with her, it’s back to the drawing board.

    • Your comment on an ending resonating really hit home as I was so disappointed. I felt as though the whole book’s moral fabric had unravelled and I no longer cared about the characters or the book’s plot arc as it really seemed to all count for nothing.

  6. Great question, Claire. I don’t think that you are old-fashioned at all. If you are, I am in the boat with you. No justice = no civilization.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post to start the week!

  7. What about series where the antagonist can be heard laughing off stage as the curtain falls, and then reappears in the next installment? Prof. Moriarty. Murdoch Foyle in the Miss Fisher TV series. (Is Foyle intentionally meant to remind one of Hannibal Lector?). It seems to me there are others, but none come to mind right now.

    Anyway, the reader/viewer of any one volume in these series is left without justice being rendered.

    • Eric – you make a great point. This book appears to be a standalone so I think I judge it in that light – if it was in a series, then I would have felt quite differently – hoping that justice would prevail in another book (Thinking of a Star Wars trilogy metaphor – viewing the particular book as The Empire Strikes Back, and hoping for Return of the Jedi to follow:))

  8. Yes. My example of breaking that faith is the movie Seven. I hated it! It broke that contract between creator and viewer that justice would be served.
    I wrote about it last summer, when I finally realized why I’d stopped writing and why I had to begin again. I’d lost faith that there was hope. That the arc does bend toward justice. And if I couldn’t offer hope for justice to my readers I couldn’t write at all.
    And I felt ashamed. Still do. I stopped contributing to a belief that justice will prevail when readers needed it the most.
    I’m writing & publishing again, because offering a belief that justice will prevail (in some form or another, I’m no Pollyanna) is what we do for our readers.

  9. I’m with you, Clare, on a justified ending to a murder mystery novel. It goes with the genre, and I think the vast number of readers would be disappointed if there wasn’t a just ending. It’s a novel, after all, and not like the real world where it’s a “legal” system, not a “justice” system. Often, true-to-life murder investigations don’t end with justice being served at all.

  10. Hi, Clare

    Add my voice to the chorus of comments above agreeing with you that we need justice at the end in a mystery or a thriller novel. Restoration of order is part of the emotional reason we read mysteries, and we need and want to see that order restored at the end. I don’t see that impulse as old-fashioned at all, it’s central to the genre. Justice is the end point of the arc of finding out why the crime was committed and who committed it.

    • The hardest thing was that I love this author! I was so disappointed by his/her (trying not to disclose who it is – again hate to spoil the book for anyone else!) unwillingness to give me any restoration or order and justice.

  11. I agree with all the comments above. As humans, we all long for justice in the world and certainly in our mystery novels! Personally, I believe even a book in a series should be wrapped up as if it were a standalone.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the Hebrew word for “justice” is the same word used for “righteousness.”

  12. Popular genre is at its heart moral. Good versus evil. Justice versus anarchy. Good people receiving their just rewards. Happily ever after for lovers. Etc., etc. This means that the reader has certain expectations that must be met like Good winning and crimes being solved with justice achieved, and, if not, you have a very p*ssed off former reader. A writer who doesn’t understand this is a writer who will never reach much of an audience, or he needs to write mainstream or literary novels which don’t have those expectations.

    Years ago, horror exploded with popularity for a very short time then disappeared with the exception of Stephen King and a few others when publishers decided that horror wasn’t about Good versus Evil. It was about poor, doomed fools with no back up like God or any type of belief who stood against the monsters and died. Way to read the room, New York.

    Good versus Evil is why SUPERNATURAL is ending after 15 years because the actors chose to finish the series, not because the audience is tired of the series. (Yeah, the actors being so cute and adorkable helped, too.)

    So, Happily-ever-afters and society saved one solved murder at a time for the win.

  13. Hi Clare…this is a great discussion. I have kind of a different take on it. I read, not too long ago, a similar novel with an ending that left me with a What the heck! moment.

    While I do have a desire to see justice served, be it in real life, novels, or movies, I think that our definition of justice in our culture, like so many other concepts, is suffering from drift. In so many arenas, absolutes have been replaced with conditionals. Meaning that justice doesn’t mean what it used to.

    Don’t get me wrong…justice in my world is an absolute, as are right and wrong. But not everybody thinks that way these days.

    Perhaps, as with Seven, it’s the author’s attempt to work this out in his/her own mind. Down the road, we may see more and more of these unsatisfying endings to stories. I don’t like it, but there’re many things not to like these days. I wish words would not be redefined according to the whims of culture, but there we are.

    Maybe I’ll start reading the last few pages of novels before I buy…shiver!

    • Excellent point – because I do feel like the concept of ‘justice’ is more clear-cut for me than it is in the real world – and I love authors grappling with these big issues in their novels. In this case though I felt it was more of a cop-out… I wouldn’t rule out being satisfied with an ending that did grapple with the concept of justice, even if it didn’t resolve it.

  14. Clare, obviously you’ve hit a resonating note with your great post.

    Justice is the reason I write in the crime genre. What’s denied in real life can be attained in fiction.

    Garry said the same thing I was told by a wise lawyer many years ago: “There isn’t a justice system. There’s only a legal system.”

  15. I want the good guy (or gal) to wear the white hat and triumph over the bad guy. Most of the mysteries I read end that way although sometimes the jail cell isn’t enough. As an addition, I want my good guys to be good guys. I am tired of washed up semi drunk ex-cops trying to do some good to make up for whatever got them fired.

    Maybe this is the best way to say it. If I wanted to see the bad guy not get the full measure of what was coming, I would tune in CNN.

  16. Yes, I need justice in a crime story. Like you, I recently discovered this by surprise through reading a book where no justice was served. The great Lawrence Block’s latest book features a main character who not only avoids legal punishment for his unspeakable crime but his own wife and kids are pretty ho-hum when they learn of his evil. I never realized how important justice was to me until I finished that book.

    I love noir stories that feature sinful characters but a great noir always ends with the main character paying heavily for their sins (usually lust and greed).

  17. I read that Agatha Christie said there were only two resolutions to a murder mystery. She said that there absolutely must be a sense of justice being fulfilled at the end of the story and it could only end in one of two ways, the murderer was arrested and imprisoned for life or executed, or s/he commits suicide or is killed before the story ends. One of my favorite of her books is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. If you have never read it, I highly recommend it.

  18. May I offer a different view? For your consideration, I recommend Ragnar Jonasson’s
    The Darkness. I read this book in Iceland. The setting and mood are perfect.
    I like noir novels with their cynicism, fatalism and moral ambiguity. He is a master craftsman, and close observation of his style is rewarded.
    (Confession- I read this in translation by Victoria Cribb)

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