In this post, B. K. Stevens offers insights and reflections on the bittersweet prospect of wrapping up a long-running series. Stevens has long been adept at juggling multiple series, and several of her recurring characters have appeared in AHMM, including P.I. Iphigenia Woodhouse and academic amateur sleuth Leah Abrams. Those tales, like the Walt Johnson/Gordon Bolt stories she discusses here, are notable for their humor and fraught relationships among characters. Stevens introduced a new series in our pages with “Interpretation of Murder” (December 2010), which featured American Sign Language Interpreter Jane Ciardi. The story won a Derringer Award, and Stevens has now written the first Ciardi novel, also titled Interpretation of Murder, forthcoming from Black Opal Books winter 2015. Meanwhile, her martial-arts YA novel Fighting Chance is also due out winter 2015 from Poisoned Pencil, an imprint of Poisoned Pen Press. Look for her next story, “A Joy Forever,” in our March 2015 issue.
Happy endings are hard. At least, they’re hard to write well.
Not everyone would agree. Years ago, a well-regarded author addressed a writers’ group to which I belonged. At one point, he said he’d never write a novel or story with a happy ending, and a member of the group asked him why.
“Because it’s taking the easy way out,” he said, and went on to argue that happy endings are both inartistic and unrealistic. Slapping a happy ending onto a story is a lazy way of avoiding the real challenges literature and life present. Anyone who writes a story with a happy ending, he said, can’t have genuine insights into life, into its inevitable hardships and sorrows. Such writers are pandering to readers, reassuring them by tying everything up neatly. Real life is seldom that reassuring, never that neat. So unhappy endings are far more honest than happy ones, and inconclusive endings are far more sophisticated.
He had a point. We’ve all read stories with happy endings that feel forced and false—implausible last-minute rescues, overly convenient coincidences, deep animosities easily resolved in the final paragraph. We have a right to feel cheated by such endings, to see them as clumsy attempts to escape from the conflicts that have driven the story.
But there are other sorts of happy endings. Long, long ago, at Kenyon College, I took a course in the English novel from John Ward—I want to mention his name, because something he said in class one day had a profound, lasting effect on the way I read and the way I write. The class was discussing the ending of a truly great novel. I won’t say which novel, because if you haven’t read it, I don’t want to spoil it for you; if you have read it, you may recognize the scene I’m about to describe. Two admirable characters are locked in a seemingly impossible situation. They love each other, but it looks as if honor will force them to part. The man starts to leave. Then the woman says the perfect thing, the man turns back to her, and they spend the rest of their lives together.
Mr. Ward—in those days, at Kenyon, we called all our professors “Mr.” or “Ms.” regardless of the degrees they’d earned or the positions they held—commented that in this novel, an unhappy ending would have been hard on the reader but easy for the writer. In any delicate situation, he said, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ways for things to go wrong. In this scene, the woman could have simply remained silent, or she could have said too much or too little, or she could have said something insensitive or foolish. Any writer could come up with a wrong thing for her to say. But to find the one perfect thing—the one thing completely consistent with her character, the one thing that would in fact make this man turn back to her, the one thing that would make him realize the barriers between them mattered less than the love drawing them together—that was hard. That was damn hard.
Yes, it’s easy to write a sloppy, unconvincing happy ending. But writing an unhappy ending is also easy. Writing a happy ending that rings true and actually resolves the complications created during a story isn’t easy at all.
And are happy endings in fact unrealistic? Undeniably, life is difficult. For far too many people, it’s almost unrelieved misery—torn apart by war, distorted by poverty or persecution, cruelly limited by devastating illness, injury, or loss.
What about the rest of us? Many of my Facebook friends are mystery writers, and many write pretty bleak mysteries. Love never lasts, plans always go awry, friends turn traitor, the deck is stacked against the righteous, the most corrupt have the most power, violence erupts on every corner of these mean streets, dames lie, clients lie, partners lie, everybody lies. If the battered protagonist can crawl home at the end of the day and douse shattered ideals in a glass of lukewarm gin, that’s the most anyone can expect.
Then these writers set their stories aside for a few minutes and post Facebook messages. “Here’s our youngest grandson playing with our brand new kitten. SO adorable!” “Church choir practice went late again last night—and IMHO, we sound AWESOME!” “Happy anniversary to the love of my life! Forty-seven years ago, you officially made me the luckiest man on the planet—and you’re even more beautiful now than you were on our wedding day!” I read the messages, I scratch my head, and I wonder, “Why does this guy write noir?”
No human being lives a life untouched by pain, disappointment, and conflict. But for most of us, there’s also the occasional kitten. Sometimes, love lasts, friends prove loyal, and people tell the truth. Sometimes, happy endings are possible—not perfect endings, not now-I’ll-never-have-another-sad-moment-as-long-as-I-live endings, but endings that are, on the whole, more happy than sad.
Undoubtedly, some stories should have unhappy endings. They tell such tragic tales, or portray such flawed or broken characters, that any other sort of ending would feel wrong. I’ve written some stories like that, and their endings have been harsh. Sometimes, though, a happy ending is the right choice.
About a year ago, I decided to end my longest-running series of short stories for Hitchcock, and I wanted to make that ending happy. The series began way back in June, 1988, with a story called “True Detective.” It was followed by “True Confession,” “True Romance,” “True Adventure,” “True Crime,” “True Love,” “True Story,” “True Suspects,” “True Colors,” “True Blue,” and “True Test.” The next story would bring the series to an even dozen, and that seemed like a good place to end. Among other things, it wasn’t getting any easier to keep coming up with titles beginning with “true.” I’d started by using names of actual magazines but soon had to give that up and settle for any “true” phrase I could scrape up.
More than that, whether or not these characters feel real to anyone else, they’re very real to me, and I wanted to give them a break. Ever since the first story, Lieutenant Walt Johnson has been feeling guilty about getting the credit for cracking cases that have in fact been solved by his brilliant but self-effacing subordinate, Sergeant Gordon Bolt; I wanted to find a way to ease Walt’s conscience. And Bolt falls in love with Walt’s widowed mother way back in “True Romance,” but she keeps turning down his proposals. After over twenty years, it was time for Bolt to finally achieve his heart’s desire. So I decided to write one last story, “True Enough,” that would relieve these characters of the burdens I’d saddled them with. (By the way, I doubt any readers have wasted a minute wondering how these characters got their names. But in case even one reader ever has, this seems like a good time to reveal that I originally thought of these two as a variation on Holmes and Watson. So the dazzling detective is Bolt, rather than Sherlock, and the comparatively dim companion who records his triumphs is Walt Johnson rather than John Watson.)
Did I find a convincing way of giving these characters the happy ending they deserve? Others will have to answer that question—I’m not objective enough to judge. I know the happy ending to this series can’t possibly be as utterly right as the one in that English novel I read at Kenyon so many years ago. But I’m grateful to Mr. Ward for teaching me to appreciate well-crafted happy endings, and for helping me realize that happy endings can sometimes be, in their own quiet way, satisfying and true.