Most readers want the big questions in a story to be answered (e.g., whodunit, whydunit, howdunit, etc..). Those answers give a story a sense of completion, and readers a sense of closure. But do all questions have to be answered? If everything is settled, it can make a story seem too pat and unrealistic. And lingering questions can keep a story in the reader’s mind and can invite the reader to really think. Besides, there are larger questions that really can’t be answered in just one story. So, some authors leave issues unresolved, or at least a little ambiguous.
In G.K. Chesterton’s short story The Invisible Man, for instance, Father Brown solves the mystery of the murder of Isadore Smythe. The victim was found dead in his rooms, but several witnesses swear that no-one came in or out of the place. So Father Brown has to work out how the murder was committed and by whom. He figures out how it was done, and that leads him to the person responsible. At the end of the story, Father Brown has a long conversation with the killer:
‘But Father Brown walked those snow-covered hills under the stars for many hours with a murderer, and what they said to each other will never be known.’
We don’t know what they discuss, so the reader is invited to think about it and figure out what went on. The story stays in the mind, because not everything is laid out neatly.
That’s also true in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death). In that novel, Hercule Poirot goes on a routine visit to his dentist, Mr. Henry Morley. Later that day, he learns that Morley has been shot in his surgery. Chief Inspector Japp asks for Poirot’s input, since Poirot was at the dentist not very long before the murder. The two have just started investigating when one of Mr. Morley’s patients goes missing. And another dies of an overdose of anaesthetic. The answer may have to do with the fact that Morley was also dentist for wealthy and influential banker Alistair Blunt. He’s made his share of enemies because of his rather conservative politics, and it’s possible that he was the actual target. The solution, though, is more complex – and simpler – than that. Throughout the novel, there’s an interesting discussion of which political direction England should take, and it’s not really resolved. It’s not a simple matter, and it’s left for the reader to reflect on the question.
In Vera Caspary’s Laura, New York police detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson is assigned to investigate when the body of successful advertising executive Laura Hunt is discovered in her apartment. There are a few suspects, including the victim’s fiancé Shelby Carpenter, as well as her friend and former lover Waldo Lydecker. Then comes the shocking news that the body in the apartment isn’t Laura Hunt; it’s an acquaintance of hers named Diane Redfern. Laura herself was away for a few days and allowed Diane to use her apartment. Now, McPherson has to completely re-think the case. It doesn’t help matters that he’s become obsessed with Laura. As he gets to the truth about what happened, there’s a real question about Laura’s character. Is she a victim (or intended victim)? Is she an instigator, or even the killer? Or is she simply an independent woman who’s been drawn into a case? Caspary doesn’t give a neat answer to that question, so readers are invited to think about it and come to their own conclusions.
There’s a very difficult and complex set of questions raised in Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone. Boston area private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro are approached by Lionel and Beatrice McCready. Their four-year-old niece, Amanda, has gone missing. She disappeared from her home one night, and hasn’t been seen since. Kenzie and Gennaro aren’t sure what they can do that the police haven’t been able to do. And Amanda’s case has featured in all of the local news, so citizens have been out looking for her, too. Still, the McCreadys insist, and finally Kenzie and Gennaro agree to see what they can do. The closer they get to the truth about the case, the more they see that nothing is really as it appears, and no-one is really transparent. Slowly, they peel back the layers, so to speak, and they find out what happened to Amanda. That truth raises some very important moral and ethical questions. They aren’t settled, and Lehane doesn’t gloss over them. It’s the sort of novel that invites the reader to ponder, ‘What would I have done?’ And that helps to keep the book in mind even after it’s finished.
Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar also raises some challenging questions. Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney goes to visit her friend, Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. During her visit, Didi’s partner Nou is murdered. It’s not long before the police settle on Didi as a suspect and go to his home. During their encounter, Didi is killed. The police maintain that he posed a danger and was resisting arrest. Keeney doesn’t believe it, though, and decides to look into the matter herself. The case is connected to the Thai child-trafficking and sex trades, and we learn just how complex they are. On the one hand, this sort of traffic is appalling and needs to be stopped; I don’t think any of us would disagree with that. On the other, there are families who truly see no other option for their children. They see it as choosing between involving their child in the sex trade or dying of starvation. The solution isn’t a simple one, and Savage doesn’t pretend that it is. The novel offers the reader a lot to think about, and that adds to its appeal.
And that’s thing about those sorts of questions. They have no easy answers, so they invite the reader to think it over, reflect, and engage in the story. And that means the book stays in the mind. Which examples have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Grateful Dead’s Easy Answers.
10 thoughts on “Ain’t No Easy Answers*”
I like when a book raises some kind of moral question and leaves it up to the reader to decide. Spy novels do this quite often – The Spy Who Came In from the Cold raised the age-old question of whether the end justifies the means, and Le Carré, I felt, didn’t force an answer on the reader. And by leaving it unanswered, it provoked more thought than if he’d tried to tell us what to think…
That’s exactly the sort of question I had in mind, FictionFan! And le Carré addressed those issues quite well. As you say, he didn’t force an answer on the reader, so the reader is invited to reflect on it. I think there are some questions – like that one – that don’t have pat answers, so it makes sense to leave them open, or at least ambiguous.
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I love when novels challenge me as a reader. As you mentioned, Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone did that in spades. Mike Omer’s A Killer’s Mind also stayed with me due to his portrayal of the psychology behind the killer’s choices. The story is wrapped up, but there’s some lingering doubt about the “Why?” Love that.
I really like the word you use, Sue: challenge. When we’re challenged to think about things, we tend to remember a book longer, and get more out of that book. Things that are too easy don’t stay with us as long. Thanks for mentioning the Omer; that’s not one I’ve read, but it raises an interesting question about who people take lives. The answer to that question is complicated, and thinking about it keeps the reader engaged. I like that engagement a lot, too!
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I like FictionFan’s answer and maybe that is why I like spy fiction so much. That genre leaves you wondering about truthfulness, trust, and whether any group can be consided all bad or all good.
That is one of the great things about spy fiction, Tracy. It really does explore the complexity of people’s characters, and as you say, it reminds us that nobody is really all good or all bad. And trust isn’t as easy as it may seem.
I also like when an author poses questions and leaves things a little ambiguous (not everything but something just to ponder over). Graham Greene’s THE HUMAN FACTOR, Somerset Maugham’s UP AT THE VILLA, Eric Ambler’s A COFFIN FOR DIMITRIOS spring to mind. Thanks Margot for an interesting post.
Thanks for the kind words, Neeru. I also like it when an author leaves readers with some questions to consider. I think it adds to the ‘draw’ of a book, and keeps that book in the reader’s memory. I also think such questions can challenge the reader intellectually, and to me, that’s a sign of respect. You’ve given some terrific examples, too.
Struggling for examples. Lehane’s is the biggie, but you’ve mentioned it. Time I read something else by him I think
I think it’s always worth reading something by Lehane, Col. He’s got some great books out there.