Happy Endings in Mysteries

Happy Endings in Mysteries

I recently rewatched Stranger Than Fiction, which I remembered being more of a depressing drama than a comedy (which in many ways was an accurate remembrance), and was nervous right up to the end because I couldn’t recall if it had a happy ending.

It made me consider why I prefer what is generally referred to as “cozy mysteries” instead of your average mystery. A cozy mystery always has a happy ending. It’s one of the reasons why I’m not currently in love with the latest film adaptations of Agatha Christie’s novels. The screenwriters, producers, directors, etc. have decided to try to give her stories an edgier, darker twist, which I don’t think is in keeping with her original work. Yes, she pushed boundaries and asked questions of society and culture at that time, especially women’s role, but they are not dark, tortured stories like the most recent version of ABC Murders.

I know, it seems odd that I’m questioning this when, let’s face it, murder in real life is never pretty. But for some reason we love mysteries. Agatha Christie’s novels (and her contemporaries like Dorothy L. Sayers) began the cozy mystery sub-genre by writing stories written in her current time period (not historical because the story doesn’t take place in the past) and always having a happy ending. The bad guy gets caught, the detective wins, and the victim is avenged. There is turmoil and questioning and doubts all along the way, but in the end, you know it’ll end “cozy.”

When my agent and I first began pitching my historical mystery set in Spokane in 1901, we pitched it as a “cozy historical mystery” because it ends happily. Apparently that’s not enough for most publishers, so eventually we switched to just calling it an “historical mystery.”

I just finished rereading The Leavenworth Case, by Anna Katharine Green (published 1878), and The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins (published 1868) and was reminded that the detective genre began with the ingredient of always having a happy ending. I believe that’s part of why people like to read mysteries, specifically murder mysteries. You know when you sit down to read that in the end, there will be a happy ending: the murderer will get caught and the romance that has inevitably bloomed somewhere along the way will end in happily ever after.

Anna Katharine Green once wrote:

“I think it is very rare for a murderer to escape detection. No matter how carefully a crime may be planned, or covered up, the criminal almost invariably forgets some significant detail. Curiously enough, Nature herself seems to be in league with circumstances to convict him. She puts a little muddy spot in his path so that he leaves a footprint. Or she blows a curtain aside at the very instant that a passer-by can catch a glimpse of his face. Or she twists the current of a stream so that some evidence of his guilt floats to the surface. Crime is contrary to Nature. And Nature often seems bent on punishing it.” — Anna Katharine Green, “Why Human Beings Are Interested in Crime,” 1919

Good will conquer evil in the end.

I feel like this is something that is missing from our stories—whether on the screen or in fiction—in general these days.

My books will always end happy. That’s what I want to read, and so that’s what I promise to my readers (because I’ve always heard “write what you want to read”).

And just to put your heart at ease: Stranger Than Fiction does have a happy ending. 😉

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