The final chapter is usually short.
It serves to bring readers back into the fold, reassuring them that the journey they have made in your company is over, and that they are now safely back in their own familiar world. Often, the hero is a survivor that the reader has been rooting for. The final chapter promises us that there will be other adventures, and that the scarred but resistant protagonist will survive again and again until some heartless publisher decides that the world has had enough of whoever the hero happens to be. Quite often, this final reassuring addendum is what your editor or publisher wants, while you – the author – would prefer to leave the bitter tale writhing away to its bitter end, and leave the readers squirming in their seats.
However, not all final chapters are short.
Not all stories come back conveniently to a happy halting point where the editor feels happy and the publisher can morally justify to his own commercial soul that by publishing your book he has really not harmed or endangered the allegiance of the reading public that trusted him and laid down its $15 or £10 to read a harrowing account of crime and punishment.
Sometimes, the writer has written himself into such a deep hole that he really has to work very hard to set the editor’s, publisher’s and readers’ minds at rest. In a word, he still has a lot of explaining to do. We know, because this was a problem that we faced with our first novel, Critique of Criminal Reason. There was just so much back story and so many alternative possible endings that we made the most of them, laying them all out, and letting the reader decide which was the most probable.
Well, let’s get to it!
I went blindly to my book shelf the other night and came up with William Landay’s Defending Jacob (Orion, 2012). I took it to bed, read a few chapters to remind myself of the story, then I turned to the last chapter, which is long. Good, I thought – now he’ll tell us the back story of how we got here...
And that is what William Landay does. He adds a clever twist and brings the tale to a surprise conclusion. But then... then, he adds an addendum entitled The Story Behind Defending Jacob, which makes interesting reading. First he explains his own background – a public prosecutor, he left the D.A’s office after his fiction writing took off – and we see that he and Andy Barber, the central character, have a great deal in common. Then Landay talks about his own children. While insisting that Jacob, the young boy accused of murder in the novel, has nothing to do with his own two sons, he poses a question which is central to the argument and mystery in the story: “Andy Barber is haunted by the idea that he has passed a ‘murder gene’ to his own son. Is it possible?”
That is, he leaves the reader dangling yet again.
I really like that.
Indeed, the idea that the story is never fully rationalised, explained or ‘worked out’ is an essential part of any great story. We should have enough information to understand what has happened, but there should always be uncertainty about why it happened...
This fine novel will be going back onto my shelf for future re-reading!
Have you ever been lost inside a book?
I don’t mean ‘absorbed’ by a book, I mean, literally, ‘lost.’
Totally, totally lost.
It happened to me with Ross Macdonald’s The Chill (1963, but Penguin Classics, 2012).
I loved the cover, fell for the blurb, then I read the book. It was like wandering into a deep, dark forest that got deeper and darker the deeper I went into the trees as darkest night came on.
So, where did I get lost?
Well, the story begins as a simple tale of a missing wife. Lew Archer (Ross Macdonald’s private investigator) gets involved in the search, and he finds the girl. Then – somehow – he discovers that there are undiscovered murders concealed behind the opening thread. They involve two generations and lead back to a murder which had been committed decades earlier, and from which other killings had followed on.
I won’t even try to tell you what happened, because I don’t know what happened.
Maybe I was distracted. Maybe I wasn’t. Maybe the story was just too damned complicated...
Having said that, I persisted all the way to the end. If I buy a book with 343 pages, my aim is to get to page 343 before I put it down. And now, having reached that fatal page, I can talk about the end. The last line, in fact.
No more anything, Letitia.
Well, I closed the book, put it down, and thought Who the fuck was Letitia?
Now, that is what I call ‘lost’!
Was I alone? That’s what I asked myself. Was I the only reader in the whole wide world who could make neither head nor tale of a Lew Archer novel?
I have read other novels by Ross Macdonald, most recently The Galton Case, which I found to be flat and uninspiring and The Drowning Pool, which wasn’t so awfully bad, I suppose, but I have to say that the Penguin book blurb of The Chill did a great job of selling something which, in my humble opinion, would not have got past the first draft stage with my editor. Perhaps, any contemporary editor.
So, here’s what was written on the Penguin cover: “The American private eye, immortalised by Hammett, refind by Chandler, brought to its zenith by Macdonald.”
This gem of a comment was taken from a review in The New York Times.
Did you spot the mistake?
Refind not refined...
I guess the guy from The New York Times was lost, as well.
As a rule, I go into my study, close my eyes, pick a book, then check it out.
Not this time.
This time my eyes are wide open.
While taking time to re-read older crime books, I also try to keep up with new novels and new writers in the genre. They may not be so new to you, of course, but they happen to be writers who have only recently fallen inside my radar.
So, eyes wide open, let’s have a look at The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter by Malcolm Mackay which I have just finished reading
I’d heard a lot of good things about this writer, so I picked up the first in The Glasgow Trilogy, not really knowing what I would find, but hoping that it would be good. I’m a great fan of Tartan Noir – Ian Rankin obviously, Craig Russell, too. I also read a couple of other Scottish crime novels over the summer – The Hanging Shed by Gordon Ferris, which I enjoyed a lot, and Denise Mina’s The Red Road, which left me feeling a bit disappointed. I thought it could have done with more editing, and the elimination of (at least) one of the characters...
The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is my kind of read. It’s taut, fast, the language spare and precise. The story rips along and the thing I really like about Malcolm Mackay – yes, I like his work a lot! – is the way that each situation he creates opens windows on possibilities which any intuitive reader will enjoy pondering on. Too many writers seem to think that suspense is built by drawing it out at great length; Malcolm Mackay has grasped the magical key. All that’s needed is an adequate background against which the story is set. If A kills B, how does that shake up the state of play? And even more important, how does the situation look from the different points-of-view of other major players?
Eyes Wide Open would have made a reasonable sub-title, I think, as each of the central characters has a measured sense of the risks that his life in the dangerous Glasgow underworld involves. They live with their eyes wide open, yet blunder on regardless. Glasgow, did I say? It could be anywhere, and this is another strength. Topography (the naming of places) is kept down to a minimum, as is Glaswegian, thank God! This novel is written in plain English.
So, how does it end?
It ends predictably enough as the story unfolds to its logical conclusion, but then it doesn’t really end, because there is an EPILOGUE...
Epilogues can either fill in the gaps in the storytelling (which is not a great thing, as it means too many holes have been left in the narrative), or they can hint at more, suggesting that the story is a part of a larger social fabric of many interrelated stories, a single tessera or piece in a far broader mosaic. And the broader mosaic here is that this novel is part one of a trilogy. Our ‘hero’ comes out of it knowing that his role and his life have been dramatically affected. We know that he must, can and will change. And that is great, especially for the reader.
We know that book two will explore a different dimension of an intriguing character.
And so... yes, I am already champing at the bit to read How a Gunman Says Goodbye.
Congratulations, Malcolm Mackay, an absorbing read!
The thing I like about Elmore Leonard: he never shrinks from intimacy.
Now, that may sound strange, because sex does not play a large part in his novels, though it always plays at least a hand or two. What I meant was intimacy of a different sort, and ‘City Primeval – High Noon in Detroit’ is an intriguing example.
Indeed, the blurb sums it up nicely:
‘Clement Mansell figures the cops can’t nail him for his latest murder spree. The only evidence he left were the bodies of a judge and a girl. What Clement didn’t figure on is a cop who believes in old-fashioned justice.
Homicide cop Raymond Cruz would rather play by the book. But if the choice is upholding the law or bringing down a killer, his trigger finger will do the deciding...’
It’s one of the oldest tropes in the crime genre, and Leonard used it often: cops and criminals walk the same fine line, though they’re on opposite sides of the legal fence. In this instance, there is also a strong reminder of the fact that Elmore Leonard began his career as a writer of westerns – goodies against baddies, the sheriff standing up to the bullies, High Noon, The Magnificent Seven, and the final shoot-out. We’ve read it in a hundred books, seen the confrontation in as many films: Frank Sinatra as Detective Edward Delany in the terrific 1980 film version of Lawrence Sander’s 1973 novel, ‘The First Deadly Sin,’ is a marvellous example. What happens if a cop knows for certain who committed the crime, but can’t provide sufficient evidence to arrest the killer?
As we follow the murderous doings of Clement Mansell, the ‘Oklahoma Wildman’, and detective Raymond Cruz’s unavailing attempts to pin him down on a single murder charge, the novel ends with a scene that Elmore Leonard had already set up on page 90, when the cop and the criminal have an informal chat. Strictly off the record, Clement tells Cruz how many men (and women) he has killed, while Cruz admits that he has killed two people in the line of duty.
Then the game of shared intimacy begins:
“What it comes down to,” Raymond said, “what it’s all about, I mean, is just you and me, huh?”
“That’s it, partner.”
“Some other time – I mean a long time ago – we might have settled this between us. I mean if we each took the situation personally.”
“Or if we thought it’d be fun,” Clement said.
We’re building up to the final Gunfight at the OK Corral.
In the last chapter, Chapter 31, the two come face to face, and the killer is holding the murder gun that will send him to the gas chamber. There’s only one way out – guns blasting.
“You said, why don’t we have a shooting match. Okay we’re doing it,” says Raymond.
Only one man can walk away.
So, who’s your money on?
Last spring I spent an enjoyable four months digging into my crime library and analysing (hm, that does sound pretentious!) the multifarious ways that crime novels begin.
This autumn and winter, I intend to do something similar, but looking at the way that crime novels end.
Moving on from Incipit (Introduction) to Excipit (Conclusion), I need to lay down the basic rules.
Please note that while Incipit is a well-known literary term derived from Latin for how books of any sort begin, Excipit is a neologism invented by some quirky soul like me who believes that a book is only as good as its beginning, its end, and all the pages that pad out the space between the moment of opening the story and putting it to sleep for Eternity.
Start date: 1st September.
First book: ‘City Primeval – High Noon in Detroit’ by Elmore Leonard.
As I mentioned last February, I only keep paperbacks which I intend to read again for some reason or other. So if a book doesn’t live up to my expectations, it won’t be going back into my crime library.
Here are some of the new entries to my bookshelves after a summer of reading:
Swear Down – Russ Litten (Tindal Street Press) – it’s tough handling parallel accounts.
The Dying Hours – Mark Billingham (Sphere) – a wife/partner weighs the tale down...
The Red Road – Denise Mina (Orion) – one character too many.
I Am Pilgrim – Terry Hayes (Bantam Press) – press on, people will believe anything.
The Gods of Guilt – Michael Connelly (Orion) – “Correct?” an over-used word.
Eeny Meeny – M. J. Arlidge (Penguin) – pop crime for pop people.
The Galton Case – Ross Macdonald (Penguin) – a dull tale well told.
The Cocktail Waitress – James M. Cain (Hard Case Crime) – the writer as first-person female narrator.
Plus others which I’ll probably mention in the coming months.