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Ambivalence and the murder mystery

Posted: October 6th, 2010, 11:46 pm
by airball
Hi All,

I'm in the closing stages draft one of a historical mystery. Our heroines have just figured out whodunit, and I find myself with an unusual problem. In the story there are two unrelated murders with two (obviously) unrelated culprits. All along I knew that one of the murderers would escape unpunished - he's wealthy and powerful and that's the way things often went in the period I'm writing about. (It also sets him up as an antagonist for the sequel if we get that far.)

Until tonight I had assumed that Murderer #2 (a woman) would be caught and executed. But now I'm not so sure. It is entirely conceivable that Murderer #2 escapes, and if she does, an innocent woman will be executed (burnt to death, even) in her place.

My question is this - how much important is it for the Bad Guys to get what's coming to them? The readers will hate Muderer #1, and loath to see him escape, but I think they'll understand. In what is otherwise a pretty conventional mystery, will readers tolerate it if nobody gets theirs?

I kind of like the idea, but I'm also a pessimist and kind of depressed.

Thanks in advance!


Re: Ambivalence and the murder mystery

Posted: October 7th, 2010, 6:39 am
by poptart
I'd say it depends on how dreadful the character is. If we're talking really evil with no redeeming features then readers will feel cheated if they get off scott free. On the other hand you do have to take risks with your fiction or you'll end up with something generic and predictable. The first time I read Cujo by Stephen King I was horrified by the death of the boy - I felt really angry and cheated that he'd set up his wayward mother for a horrible death then sprung a cruel twist at the end. But he did at least confound my expectations. Maybe you should try writing both endings then put it aside before choosing which one plays best.

Re: Ambivalence and the murder mystery

Posted: October 7th, 2010, 10:01 am
by polymath
A debut novelist has a tough row to how. Stepping into tragedy territory not having the protagonist catch the bad guys might cause an uphill battle for a novel at publishers. It's a who-done-it mystery, so some favorable outcome of the main dramatic complication occurs if the murderers are known at the ending.

On the other hand, general readers favor poetic justice endings to mysteries, where good is rewarded and evil punished and all is set right with the world. That's the emotional payoff of mystery novels. A murderer who escapes to another installment might come across as a forced cliff hanger.

Installment novels where an overarching main dramatic complication isn't finalized in an outcome tend to have a seemingly completed scenario for a central predominating complication. Sherlock Holmes' Dr. Moriarty is a classic example. Holmes and Moriarty don't come into immediate contention until the final installment of the milieu. Moriarty is the mastermind running the criminal enterprise behind each crime Holmes solves in an installment. Holmes increasingly becomes aware of Moriarty's involvement. The Potter saga follows a similar strategy with Voldemort, who increasingly regains his human form.

One thing, being from a historical period, if the period is one far enough removed from present-day mores and values, when aristocracy's privileges trumped lower stations' right to justice, one of the lesser known parameters of predetermination might come into play. The higher born a person was, the more he or she was considered above reproach regardless of behavior. High born persons could do no wrong because they were blessed by God by being well-born, ordained to serve the greater good from their station and by their actions, not for the low born to question what's right and wrong. And it's not all that far pastward when such was the case, pre middle Nineteenth century throughout most of the Western world. The ideologies of predetermination are not entirely erradicated either, less so in much of the rest of the present day world, and, sadly, gaining renewed vigor in the West. Oh Free Will, where art thou?

Re: Ambivalence and the murder mystery

Posted: October 7th, 2010, 11:39 am
by GabbyP
Does he have to get off completely in every way/shape/form? Maybe he doesn't get prosecuted by the law, but it would be satisfying if he was punished in some other poetic way: like he gets a deep cut during the murder (or as he is getting away...and stops on a rusty dirty nail), and the cut gets infected, and at a time when they didn't have antibiotics he gets a terrible fever and the reader is left suspecting that he maybe got away from legal punishment..but he didn't get away with murder after all.

Just a thought..

Re: Ambivalence and the murder mystery

Posted: October 7th, 2010, 2:01 pm
by Down the well
There was a similar/related thread a while back that talked about the bad guy getting away with murder.


From what you've described, I think I could live with the first guy getting away with it. The reasoning would make sense. But, yeah, as a reader it's hard to get to the end sometimes and not see the guilty get punished. As always, do whatever makes the story work. You might need to get some beta readers to look at a couple of versions and see which one they like best. Twice the work, but that might be the way to go. Good luck.

Re: Ambivalence and the murder mystery

Posted: October 7th, 2010, 11:47 pm
by Claudie
Going from what you describe, I could live with the first guy getting away. When something is the inevitable conclusion from the given circumstances of the plot, I would rather see it happen than to see a contrived device that'd serve to get him caught. Plus, I love the rich bad guys.

Now, as for the two murderers escaping, I'm not so sure. You have to be doubly convincing, because as a reader in a mystery novel, I'd want to know who did it, and I'd want some measure of reassurance that it's not so easy to get away with this stuff. If you can imagine a reasonable way for the second murderer to get caught (and it sounds like you can), I'd be more tempted to go that way.

As poptart said, if you can't pick before you write the ending, you might want to try and write down both. At the end of the day, maybe one of the options will seem better executed, and you can go with that. :)

Re: Ambivalence and the murder mystery

Posted: October 8th, 2010, 12:21 pm
by paravil
Personally, I'd much rather be slightly annoyed by an ending that I didn't see coming than bored to death by one that I'd seen coming for 50 pages. As long as the ending is logically consistent with the rest of the story (no "it was all a dream" BS), I think it's perfectly fine for it to end in a way that the reader may not "like." The advice given above is good. Write it both ways--one of them will feel forced and one won't. Go with what works best.

Re: Ambivalence and the murder mystery

Posted: October 8th, 2010, 10:44 pm
by airball
Thanks, everyone, I really appreciate the feedback, advice and links!

I think Murderer #1's escape works, and while nemesis-ness is in the cards, it's not obvious to the reader. (So closer to Moriarity than Voldemort.) Actually, if anyone's read the Matthew Shardlake mysteries, think Sir Richard Rich.

I really like popart's suggestion, so I'll see where each ending takes me.

Thanks again,