There Was Not Much More For Us to Talk About*

In many crime novels, the plot is resolved in the sense that readers learn the truth about the mystery at hand. The who/how/whydunit is revealed, and that can bring a sense of closure to a story. Sometimes, though, there’s more to be said. So, some authors provide an epilogue to fill a story out. Epilogues sometimes tell what happened next (say, after the culprit’s arrested). Sometimes they tell what became of the characters. They give other information, too, and they can add a sense of wholeness to a novel.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, for example, we are introduced to the Boyntons. They’re an American family on a sightseeing tour of the Middle East. Part of their journey includes a trip to Petra, and the family sets out for a tour of that area. On the second day of their visit, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton dies of what seems at first to be heart failure. But Colonel Carbury isn’t completely sure of that, and he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s traveling in the area, to look into the matter. Poirot soon learns that the Boyntons are a dysfunctional family, and that’s mostly because Mrs. Boynton was a tyrannical mental sadist. So, as you can imagine, all of the family members have motives for murder. Poirot gets to know all of them, and puts the pieces of the puzzle together. The story itself ends with the identification of the murderer and motive. There’s also an epilogue in which we learned what happened to the members of the family in the five years after Mrs. Boynton’s death. The epilogue offers some closure to the stories as it sheds more light on the characters.

Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt is the story of Edward Powell and his Aunt Mildred, who live in a small Welsh town. Powell very much dislikes his aunt and would love to leave. But his aunt holds the proverbial purse strings, and she has determined that he should live with her. That doesn’t mean she’s overly fond of him, though, and the two are almost always at odds. One day, Aunt Mildred pushes things too far, and Edward decides to kill her. He starts to work out how, when, and where he’ll do the dead, and is looking forward to what he sees as freedom. But Aunt Mildred is no mental slouch. The question becomes: will Edward succeed? The story includes an unusual Postscript that adds much to it. It’s an innovative approach to ending a book.

Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead features forensic specialist Dr. David Hunter. He decides he needs a change of scene from his native London, and travels to Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory, also known as the Body Farm. There, he’s hoping to spend time with his mentor, and get some research done. Instead, he is drawn into a series of murders, beginning with a decomposed body that’s discovered near a local cabin. It’s a difficult and exhausting case, and it takes its toll on Hunter. Still, we learn who the killer is and what the motive is. At the end, Beckett provides an epilogue that follows Hunter back to London. Part of the epilogue gives the reader further information about killer; part of it re-orients both Hunter and the reader to London. In the end, we see how Hunter begins the process of moving on from what happened in Tennessee.

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy is the first of his Department Q series. In it, we are introduced to Copenhagen police detective Carl Mørck. He’s been tapped to lead a newly-created department to be devoted to looking into cases of ‘special interest’ – cold cases. One of the first that he investigates is the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard. It was commonly believed that she went overboard in a terrible ferry accident, but there are now suggestions that she may still be alive. So, Mørck and his assistant, Assad, re-open the case. The truth about Merete Lynggaard has far-reaching consequences, and Adler-Olsen uses an epilogue to discuss them. The epilogue also follows up on Mørck’s coming to terms with what happened during the line-of-fire shooting.

Jen Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club takes place in 1950’s Auckland. Istvan Ziegler arrives as an immigrant from Hungary, who’s eager to build his life in New Zealand. He meets sixteen-year-old Judith Curran, who’s come to Auckland to get an abortion. Their lives soon intersect with that of Rita Saunders, who runs a local brothel. All three of them are, in a way, outsiders, and you might say that’s part of what draws them together. They’re soon enmeshed in a dark mystery having to do with a local orphans’ home run by Lindsay Pitcaithly. Working out the truth about the orphans’ home will be dangerous, because PIthcaihly is a powerful man. But in the end, we learn what happened. And in an epilogue, Shieff also tells us what happened to the main characters.

There’s also Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing. Inspector Singh is based in Singapore, but is sent to Beijing when Susan Tan, First Secretary at the Singapore Embassy in China, requests his help. Her son, Justin, was recently killed in what looks like a robbery gone wrong. Singh isn’t sure what he can do to help, but Susan Tan is convinced that her son was murdered, and she wants Singh to look into the case With his Chinese counterpart, Singh finds out what really happened to Justin and why. It’s a difficult and delicate case, and since politics are involved, it’s got some far-reaching implications. And Flint uses an epilogue to share those implications. She also follows up with some of the characters, giving them (and readers) some closure.

Many other crime novels have epilogues. They can add richness to characters and can help put the story into a larger perspective. They can also offer closure. What’s your thinking? Do you like epilogues? If you’re a writer, do you use them?

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Harry Chapin’s Taxi.


14 thoughts on “There Was Not Much More For Us to Talk About*

  1. As a reader, I enjoying knowing what happens to the character afterwards. That can be very satisfying, and I have used an epilogue now and then myself. I have invested a lot in my characters and I like to know myself something of what will become of them.

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    1. Thanks for your insight, Christine. I like to know what happens to characters, too. It just completes the picture, if I can put it that way. And as a writer, it is interesting to think about what might have happened to your characters, and ask them what happened later. Sometimes, they can even surprise you!

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  2. Margot: I would rather not have epilogues. The story is done. The plot is resolved. Should it be a continuing series the unresolved for the future should have already been set out in the book. Unless it is stand alone the author has potentially limited themselves. I prefer to think about where the characters might go. Sharon Bala in The Boat People had an ambiguous ending inviting readers to resolve the conclusion. I took up the challenge and wrote the ending that I saw. For Bala that ending proved very successful as evidenced by the 700,000 readers who inquired of the ending.

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    1. You make an interesting point, Bill. A well-written story tells, well, the whole story, even if the ending is ambiguous. And an epilogue can, as you say, limit the author. Some readers say they like finding out what happened to the characters afterwards, but there are other ways to do that. It just shows that all readers are different, and they have different perspectives on what does and doesn’t work in a story. And thanks for mentioning The Boat People. It’s a good example of how readers can really engage themselves in a story that’s well-crafted.

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  3. Interesting that the author bookends Whispers in the Dark with the epilogue. I like that approach. I’ve never used in my work, but I can see the benefits for a standalone.

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    1. I thought that was interesting, too, Sue. Like you, I haven’t done epilogues for my books, but it might be workable in a standalone, as you say.

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  4. I like epilogues when they fill in more information on the story. In the three that I have read above ( The Murder of My Aunt, Appointment with Death, and Mercy), I thought they worked well.

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    1. I actually thought they worked well in those novels, too, Tracy. I’m not sure they work in every novel, and not everyone likes them. But I think they can be effective.

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  5. This post has really made me think, Margot. And now I find that I am perhaps divided on the issue. In some books, an epilogue works out well but in others, I am not so sure. One thing is sure though, the next time I read a book and it has an epilogue, I’ll pay spl attention to my reaction to it:)

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    1. I think you make an interesting point, Neeru. Perhaps epilogues work better in some books or kinds of books than in others. That would make sense, since each book is a little different. I’ll be interested in your reaction to the next epilogue you read!

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  6. One epilogue that I distinctly disliked was the one in J.K. Rowling’s Deathly Hallows. The book was no great shakes but the epilogue was even worse. It was as though everything had already been plotted out for the characters in Hogwarts itself with no scope for growth or branching out.

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    1. Epilogues like that seal things off, if I can put it that way, Neeru. It’s too neat and, therefore, unrealistic. I can see why you felt that way about that epilogue.

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  7. I’m probably indifferent really. If the author includes one great, if not fine. What I don’t like is an extra chapter setting up a hook for the next book.

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    1. I know what you mean about that extra chapter, Col. It’s a bit too much like a book-ending cliffhanger, which I don’t much care for, if I’m being honest. I’d rather have the book end when it ends, if I can put it that way.

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