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All detective novel ends with the killer caught, right?

Is it possible to write a completely bad ending detective novel? Imagine the Titanic of Sherlock Holmes, or is it done yet?

By Titanic I mean specifically sad. Not the cliche mixed ending where the killer got caught, but he killed the detective's daughter first.

My imagination is the detective pointed the wrong killer, jailed ,and after the innocent is hanged, the killer kidnapped the detective where he confront him with his deduction error before he ends him.

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Is it POSSIBLE? Of course. You just write the story with that ending.

"Is it a good idea?" is a more realistic question.

Most fiction stories have a neat, happy ending: The lovers get married and live happily ever after. The adventurer finds the lost treasure. The criminal is caught. Etc. But not necessarily. Romeo and Juliet do not live happily ever after. The Sheriff of Nottingham kills Robin Hood. Irene Adler escapes from Sherlock Holmes without him recovering the photograph his client wanted. (Hope those weren't spoilers for anybody.)

There are many catches to NOT having the "normal", "happy" ending.

Readers generally want a happy ending. If the story doesn't end happily, there has to be a good reason. Either you're making a point about fate or futility or the horrors of evil, or it's a surprise twist ending.

Readers normally want an ending that wraps everything up. They don't want an ending that leaves them wondering, "So what happened next? How did this end?" A friend of mine once said, "Some stories don't end. They just stop." Most readers find this very frustrating. Like, I've read all 300 pages of your book, and then you don't tell me how everything ended up.

In the case of a detective story, normally you are building up the hero as a brilliant solver of mysteries. If he fails to catch the criminal, then apparently he wasn't so brilliant after all. The whole premise is undermined.

If you kill off the hero in the middle of a story, then you need a new hero to replace him, and you have to begin the process of introducing a character and getting the reader interested in him all over.

In your case you say you're killing the hero at the end of the story, so you avoid that problem. But it does mean that you've caught yourself off from a sequel. Detective stories are often written in a series: In each story the detective solves a new crime. Presumably once the detective is dead he's not solving more crimes.

But can you do it? Sure. I can see the ending that you're describing working.

  • wait, Nottingham kills Robin Hood?! I never heard that version. To which story are you referring? – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Mar 30 '16 at 14:48
  • Off topic, when writing, do I have to write the novel so it can have a sequel? I thought it's impossible to have speculative sequel (with the context of traditional publisher--not indie one)? – Realdeo Mar 30 '16 at 14:55
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    @LaurenIpsum This version -- gutenberg.org/files/10148/10148-h/10148-h.htm --, which I was under the impression is the "canonical version", but I don't claim to be an authority on the subject. Skip down to the epilogue. Technically he was killed by the Prioress of Kirklees. I have apparently mis-remembered the story after all these years. I was thinking she was acting at the direction of the Sheriff. Actually he was already dead. She acted on her own, but with intent to please Prince John. – Jay Mar 30 '16 at 19:37
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    @Realdeo Do you have to write a novel so it can have a sequel? Of course not. Most novels don't have sequels. But you might want to consider whether you want to leave room open for a sequel. – Jay Mar 30 '16 at 19:43
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I can think of a few detective stories where the protagonist is fooled by the real criminal, who ends up escaping at the end.

Having the protagonist be killed by the murderer is more unheard of, however. This is mostly because it leaves the story with no other option than being open ended; there is no closure or fulfillment at the end of the story.

Even in stories where the killer gets away, the majority of the time the investigator ends up realizing who the killer was a second too late, so the murderer gets away with it whilst the reader feels like the detective achieved the discovery. This provides fulfillment, whilst leaving the option open for a sequel so the protagonist can continue their hunt for the perpetrator.

There are also probably also detective novels where the lead investigator who isn't the protagonist gets killed, and then the main character will take up the role in order to get revenge.

There are also examples of the protagonist dying alongside the antagonist, usually by sacrificing themselves in order to trade their own life for justice, which would also provide a satisfying end for the reader.

The problem with having the killer kill the protagonist is that to continue the story, the writer needs to have a new, unfamiliar character continue the story. As detective novels go, they usually revolve around a strong protagonist figure who has a complex background, and just inventing another that is equally as popular to the reader would be unnecessarily difficult.

There may be examples of what you're looking for, however there is a reason they would be a rare occurrence in the genre. The only way that a story like that can end is with no closure for the reader, as the entire investigation would have been in vain if the killer gets away and some other Joe Stranger continues the investigation.

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    Great insight. If the closure isn't coming from "case solved," it should be coming from some other direction. Lots of options, but you need to know what you're aiming for; where you expect reader satisfaction to be coming from. – Standback Mar 31 '16 at 5:42
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If you haven't already read it, I recommend the last book in Agatha Christie's Poirot series: Curtain. The plot definitely has the pathos and irony of a "Titanic" ending.

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When I first read the title of the question, I had a double answer sprung to my mind immediately: yes, it can be done and to great effect, even!

I saw it in two different ways:

a) the main point of the story is not the mystery in itself but the main character

In this situation, the main plot concerns a problem the detective has and which they are trying to solve while, at the same time, trying to discover the criminal.

In an extreme situation, the crime could be left completely unsolved! The subplot could either hinder the MC in solving his true problem, thus having to be set aside, or the attempt at solving it could help the MC find the solution he needs.

b) the main point of the story is discovering the criminal, not necessarily bring him to justice

Well, the heading says it all, I'm afraid. For as long as it's clear that the only thing the story owes the reader is unveiling the criminal, it should still make for a rewarding read.


Then, I read the rest of the question.

My imagination is the detective pointed the wrong killer, jailed ,and after the innocent is hanged, the killer kidnapped the detective where he confront him with his deduction error before he ends him.

A different scenario from my impulsive two, but maybe not so different. It fits nicely with option b): the author must make sure that unveiling the criminal is rewarding enough.

This also makes me think that the main point of the story is not finding the culprit per se, but dealing with the fact that sometimes one's errors have quite grave implications. In this case, it reads as a tragedy: the MC may be led to his downfall by his pride and, in the end, has his eyes opened to both tragic outcomes of his folly: he caused the death of an innocent man... and his own.

Again, there's some affinity with my first secenario: the main point is not so much to discover the criminal but to focus on the MC's character. Balancing his good qualities to almost hide their pride and high self-esteem, even though those two flaws mean he won't be humble enough to have the doubts that might allow him to dig deeper and completely ascertain the identity of the criminal.

I'd actually be quite interested in reading such a tale!

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I don't see anything wrong with your idea. There are, after all, no rules to writing. Just things that work for some authors, and things that don't for others.

As for whether it has already been done, well, just write the book you want to write, and if something similar was written before then so what?

If the book is good enough people will read it, as we like familiar stories by nature. How many readers do you know that never reread their favorite books? Not many in my case.

And if you want to make it your own, and have originality to it, then explore different cultures and time periods, or flip the stereotypical detective upside down. Change the roles. Make your original villain the detective, and the detective character the villain, or something.

You're an author, make something up. Cheers.

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There were several stories I noted that ended like this. The ending of the first season of Netflix's Luke Cage had Cage going to jail and one Villain of the season walking away free. I also thought of several episodes of CSI where they never caught the serial killer, who had recently become active again, but they did learn the meaning behind a piece of evidence that had perplexed the original investigation. One CSI started with a murder, only to discover the murder was a ruse for a theft, only to discover the theft wasn't a theft but insurance fraud... maybe... Most of the early CSI episodes, being focused on the crime scene evidence, were left on the evidence lead, which may or may not be enough to convict. Another one featured a pre-teen genius and her older brother who was not bright even by his own age's standers both claiming to be the killer in a murder (and denied the other had any part in the matter). The younger girl had motive and knowledge of the crime, but the older brother had the physical strength to move the body from the murder scene to the dump sight. They were at a loss and the episode cut both loose because they couldn't prove conclusively who could do it.

  • I can think of a few Law&Order episodes like this as well. – Totumus Maximus Oct 3 '18 at 8:39

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