Re: RARA-AVIS: Surprise Endings (was "Unreliable narrator")

Date: 11 Nov 2005

For the purposes of this thread I'm going to interpret
"surprise ending," in the context of a list devoted to mysteries, as meaning the concealment of the villain's identity until the end, while, nevertheless, giving the reader the clues necessary to figure out that identity is s/he is only alert enough to spot them, and sharp enough to figure them out. In other words, a classic whodunit plot. There are, of course, other kidns of surprise endings, but that seemed to be what Vicki was talking about when this thread first began.

There is a general sense, not altogether undeserved, that the whodunit plot can only come at the expense of character, motivation, action, etc. That certainly seemed to be the point of view Vicki espoused.

Nevertheless, as Kerry suggested, the qualities of a good novel, and the qualities of a fair-play whodunit need not be mutually exclusive. And I'm surprised no one's suggested the example that should most immediately occur to a member of this list. Perhaps it's because the "surprise" ending is so well-known, none of us thinks of it as a surprise.

Consider, though, our response if we didn't already know that Brigid O'Shaugnessy murdered Miles Archer, and if, as a result of that, there weren't so many other hard-boiled crime novels using the "wenchdunit" twist at the end. I submit that, in such a case, the penultimate chapter of Dashiell Hammett's THE MALTESE FALCON would come as a major surprise to most of us. I think it probably WAS a major surprise to anyone reading the book when it first came out.

Nevertheless, Hammett is able to keep us focused on character, and action, and dialog, by an expert piece of misdirection. First of all, he makes us think, by making it appear that this is what Spade thinks, that Thursby killed Archer, and, since Thursby's already dead at the hands of Gutman and his gang, Archer'sw murder is now a closed issue.

The main plot point we all focus on from that point is where the Falcon is, and we're so focused on that, so focused on the interactions between the characters contending for its possession, and so surprised when, after all the moves and counter-moves, it turns out to be a fake, that Spade's immediate revelation, once he and Brigid are alone, that he knows Brigid is Archer's murderer would come as a complete shock if we weren't already so familiar with the story that it's part of the collective DNA of the hard-boiled fraternity.

Significantly, the main clue by which Spade figures out the killer's identity is one that's available to readers from the start. It's a clue Hammett used before, in his Continental Op short story "Who Killed Bob Teal?," and he recycles it expertly in the novel. I mention this, because the presence of the clue
("Archer had too much experience to go down a blind alley with his gun holstered unless he knew, and trusted, the person he was going with") fulfills all the requirements for regarding TMF as a formal, fair-play puzzle.

Though the miieu and atmosphere are very different, the story mechanics of TMF are not much different then those of an Agatha Christie novel. However, unlike Christie (at least in my view), Hammett keeps our interest focused on character and story, NOT on the formal puzzle. And thus makes the puzzle that much more effective.

So, not only are surprise endings NOT inimical to more novelistic ambitions but, in the right hands, those very novelistic ambitions can make the surprise ending that much more surprising.


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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 11 Nov 2005 EST