I recently finished reading a novel by Tana French, her debut effort, In the Woods. It was good, different than the murder mysteries I’m used to reading. Part of the difference is that Ms. French is an Irish writer writing about an Irish murder investigation and I’m used to the American version. I couldn’t help but think to myself that, had this been an American novel, surely someone would have taken a shot at the police by now, or killed a witness, or something. Instead, this was strictly a study of the police officer’s personalities under the stress of an intense investigation. A study in psychology, if you will.
But that is not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the choices Ms. French made in describing one of the major issues in the novel, and how she decided to handle it at the novel’s end.
WARNING, if you want to read the novel, stop here because there are spoilers ahead.
Now that that’s out of the way, what interests me is the situation Ms. French created for her main character. Twenty years before the time of the story, three ten-year-old friends playing in a local forest disappear. Several days later, one boy is found, bloody, scratched up, but with no memory of what happened to him or the others. The other two are never found.
Flash forward to the present and the surviving boy has grown up to be a detective on the Murder Squad and is called to investigate the murder of a young girl in almost exactly the same place. No one, except his partner, knows who he really is, or his connection to the area. He does not tell them because he does not want to be taken off the case.
What follows is a brilliant study of the man’s psychology as he deals with the pressures of the new murder investigation and his inability to remember anything meaningful about the day his friends disappeared.
In the end, he can’t handle the stress and though a killer is found, his state allows a conspirator to escape justice.
Most important to me, Ms. French never establishes what happened to the detective’s childhood friends all those years ago. She never even really tries to explain it. As of the end of the novel, no one has still never seen the missing children, or found their bodies. It remains a mystery.
And that’s where she left it, a mystery.
When I first finished the novel, I objected to leaving this mystery intact. It was such a large part of the psychological landscape of the story, it felt like unfinished business, like she failed to end the story. It was a loose end.
As writers, readers, and consumers of storytelling, we—especially, I believe, in the U.S.—we have come to expect that all narrative paths in a story will be resolved by the end of the story. All the threads of the narrative must be tied into a neat little bow by the end. We’re used to the scene at the end where the detective gathers everyone and explains every single aspect of the case. The killer is arrested and everyone lives happily ever after.
Perhaps this idea comes as a kind of warping of Chekov’s Law: that anything in a narrative has to serve a function for the narrative. His famous statement was that if a shotgun hangs above the fireplace in Scene I, it had better be fired by the end of Act III. But, what Chekov was arguing wasn’t to tie up all loose ends; he was arguing against misleading the audience with false evidence. If the disappearance of the detective two childhood friends had exerted no influence on the story as it unfolded, then it would have broken Chekov’s Law. If it had no influence, the reader could rightfully ask: why mention it?
That was not the case here. The mysterious disappearance of the two children had a major influence on how the story progressed. I could argue that the story would not exist without those disappearances and how they affected the detective. It just was never solved.
But as I thought about Ms. French’s story more and more, I felt less and less that her decision to not solve the mystery of the missing children was a mistake, or cheating the reader. In fact, I have now come to the belief that leaving this mystery intact was a brilliant decision on Ms. French’s part.
Part of my reasoning lies in my dedication to realism. I like to write stories that mirror reality, as much as I possibly can. My reading tastes are similar. I want stories that strike me as real. Even if the story involves elves, goblins, and dragons the writing must be presented in such a way that I can accept it as real. (A six-year-old child, without some sort of magical help, is not going to defeat a knight in a swordfight. The knight would just knock the kid down and then stomp him to death).
In the light of realism, the mystery remaining unsolved rings perfectly true. Mysteries go unsolved all the time, big ones like Amelia Earhart and Jimmy Hoffa, as well as smaller ones few even here about. People disappear; crimes go unsolved; strange objects appear in the sky.
The fact that these children had never been found struck a sad note of realism.
Structurally, the mystery remaining heightened the effect it had on the detective. The pressure of not knowing, coupled with the stress of the new murder investigation was nearly too much for his personality to handle. The fact that at the end of the story the new murder had been solved, but the old mystery remained speaks to the fact that in reality there are usually no easy answers. Yes, it would have been neat to have them discover, once and for all, just what had happened that afternoon so long ago, but the reality is that after twenty years, if they were going to be found they probably already would have. The reality was that his demons were not going to be exorcised, not that easily.
That too is realism at work. And it makes his struggle all the more painful because we understand that it won’t be ended and packaged in a neat little bow.
So, in short, I think we writers need to resist the urge to wrap up all our subplots and themes by the end of the story in pretty little bows. It is not very realistic and, done wrong, can seem artificial and forced to the reader. It is perfectly okay to leave some mysteries mysteries.
Sometimes, the package is better without a bow.