#416: The Wants – Five Books I Wish Had Ended Differently

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As a GAD reader, there’s little more satisfying than closing a book that came through on its promise — the ingenious impossibilitiy was ingenious, the baffling alibi trick was smartly worked, the clues stuck their heads out at you from all over the place, and the detective summed it all up with an added twist just to prove how dolt-headed you, the reader, are.

The reverse of this is how frustrating it is to have a book display promise throughout and then chuff it up on the home straight.  And so, here would be my five picks for the most egregious of these — those books that were winning all the way along and then stumbled and fell over themselves in spectacular fashion — including one non-GAD title simply because of how much it irritates me.  Spoilers ahead?  Nah, not especially.

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1. Sparkling Cyanide (1945) by Agatha Christie

Sparkling CyanideOn the anniversary of a woman’s murder, her widower gathers everyone who was present that night at the same location to name her killer…only for another death to occur in almost the exact same circumstances.  This is such a great hook, and I remember the thrill of waiting at this second gathering just knowing another death was coming and being desperate to find out the who.  And when the presence of cyanide is explained at the end…man, what a crock of shit.  There’s a famous a highly-regarded short story that pulls a similar ‘trick’ and I hate just as vituperatively, and one would assume Christie was beyond this sort of chicanery at the peak of her powers.  The rest of the book is superb, however.

2. The Moving Toyshop (1946) by Edmund Crispin

Moving ToyshopControversial perhaps, but I wanted to put this in to see what others make of the thoroughly prosaic use of the movement of said shop.  Crispin creates a whirligig, joyously inventive series of notions and strings them together with the insane ease of someone hitting their stride as an author…and then simply stops all these plates spinning for a final section that turns into a ‘toughs threatening a frightened woman’ pulp novel that seems to originate from the wrong side of the Atlantic.  It’s still Crispin’s best book for my money, but the creativity and chutzpah of everything that’s come before peters out as he seems to festinate in this tone-shift so that he can stop trying and put the thing to bed.  Must try harder.

3. The Second Angel (1998) by Philip Kerr

51xm1jef7zl-_sx294_bo1204203200_I apologise for veering so suddenly out of era, but this novel frustrates me so much.  Kerr does amazing work in setting up a futuristic society where a fatal viral infection has resulted in blood becoming the most valuable commodity on Earth, to the extent that it is kept in vaults on the Moon.  Somewhat inevitably, this becomes a heist novel in which the man who designed the vaults has to break into them with a rag-tag bunch of, etc.  And it’s great, even with all the footnotes and philosophy, until the solution of how to break the vault comes so far out of nowhere that I’m inclined to think Kerr was working on a different novel at the same time and accidentally jumbled his manuscript pages.

4. The Slayer and the Slain (1957) by Helen McCloy

the-slayer-and-the-slainIt is difficult to talk about this book without giving anything away, and to a certain extent it is worth preserving for the uninitiated, but be aware that it is neither a mystery novel nor an impossible crime (as it sometimes gets labelled).  One might call it an extended piece of Margaret Milar-esque psychological suspense, except that where the conclusion should be interesting in its absence of reconciliation it is instead just a point where the book stops (done much better in Though a Glass, Darkly (1951)).  As the deliberate building of all that has gone before this feels oddly empty — Jim Thompson did this kid of thing all the time, and far more successfully — and it just fizzles out as the shameful waste of an intriguing premise.

5. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928) by Dorothy L. Sayers

dorothy-l-sayers-the-unpleasantness-at-the-bellona-club-bkThe first half of Sayers’ fourth Lord Peter Wimsey novel is a beautifully intricate puzzle, as he tries to determine which of two siblings who died on the same night died first in order to establish who iherits what.  It’s genius, and if resolved at the halfway point would be a masterpiece.  Alas, the second half is such a dull trudge that only a brilliant solution can save it…and Wimsey establishes the solution by calling into a bar and overhearing two reporters speculating about what happened and just deciding ‘By gally, that’s how it was done, what?’.  And it is.  That’s the actual solution to the case.  Reached by your genius amateur.  By overhearing two uninformed people in a public place.  Speculating.  How very unpleasant.

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I imagine everyone has at least a few of these — hell, I’ve got another fifteen I could give you right now — so c’mon: get if off your chest…!

24 thoughts on “#416: The Wants – Five Books I Wish Had Ended Differently

  1. Ho hum. There are two novels there that I loved though admittedly I haven’t read Bellona in a while. Based on what you point out I can see where you are coming from there.

    My own contribution was the very last book I reviewed – Trial and Error by Berkeley. It is a lovely premise but I badly wanted a very different ending and found the actual conclusion to be somewhat disappointing. I get that the author was more interested in discussing the nature of justice but I just wanted a good twist ending…

    • Trial and Error is a difficult one because it reads like an Iles book for much of its length, and with his Iles hat on Berkeley would have done a much more savage job of it,.

      Mind you, that book has problems enough in my opinion…

  2. Hmm, not bad! I read three out of five. I can’t remember a thing about The Moving Toyshop, except that the climax on the carousel was lifted wholesale – and without permission – by Hitchcock for the ending to Strangers on a Train – yet the director didn’t get rightfully sued, as far as I know!

    Sparkling Cyanide: great characterization, great backstory, great build-up . . . . all to end in complete shite! I totally agree with you about this one.

    The Slayer and the Slain: Yeah, you harp on this one! I liked it a lot. Maybe I started to see the surprise coming a little earlier than I should have, but I thought the prose was lovely and the main character intriguing. My only complaint with McCloy – who does veer back and forth from Christie to Millar territory, so you shouldn’t complain – is her innate racism, which is sadly in view here. Other than that, I thought this one was well worth reading.

    • Sorry, I didn’t realise I was harping on about TSatS. I’ll find something new to pour my energies into…maybe I should look into these ‘locked room mysteries’ I keep hearing so much about.

  3. The “how the toyshop moves” always undermined that book for me, so much that I can’t believe it ends up on the top 100 mystery lists without fail. Much prefer Gilded Fly.

    As for changing ending, if you could remove the h*******m part of the solution of The Red Widow Murders, that would be a massive improvement.

    • I think that’s my biggest disappointment of The Moving Toyshop: when the question is “How could a whole shop simply up and move from one place to another??” and the answer is…

      S
      P
      O
      I
      L
      E
      R
      S

      …”Take everything out of one shop and put it in another one…” you sort of feel like someone isn’t doing their job properly.

      • Am I going to be the guy who defends The Moving Toyshop? Really?

        1. It’s not a bad book, but it’s not great, so the ending doesn’t really disappoint. If anything, the disappointment is “why is this so widely talked about?”

        2. If I recall, the mystery of how the toyshop moved is cleared up midway through the book. As disappointing as the answer was, it didn’t come at the end of the book (yeah, I’m being a bit of a nerd here).

        3. The end of the book features a moderately respectable semi-impossible crime – granted it is only worthy of being featured in a 20 page short story.

        • No, it’s not a bad book at all — it’s a terrifically entertaining and creative plot strung together by some sublime comic writing, that’s why it made this list: because it goes so, so, so wrong come the end, with all manner of clunky nonsense. Or I’m entirely misremembering and it’s amazing. Take your pick.

  4. Moving Toy Shop is the only one I can agree with here, as I haven’t read the others. And I can’t add much more to what yourself and Puzzle Doctor said about it, only to say that it’s also frustrating how so much is made of the hook of said toy shop, but then the solution (which makes in not an impossible crime in my opinion – to be discussed) just tumbles out in a few throw away lines as if its nothing.

    I think the ones I wish had better endings are the type we were talking about recently as having too water tight a set up to be true. Ed Hoch’s The Problem of the Voting Booth always comes to mind on this. It had such a huge start that I was ready for a huge finish that never came. Although there is one aspect of the solution which is still rather nice.

    • I was always under the impresssion that it was considered an impossible crime novel because of a death that occurs very late on, not because of the shop movement. Hmmm, have been wrong this whole time?

      • That’s interesting, I don’t even remember the later death! I’ve always assumed it was the impossible moving of the shop! That the person wakes up in the same place that they were but the whole shop changed.

      • I came to the same impression as you after reading the book. Granted, it is a weak impossible crime because you have to rely on the statements of four people who have been constantly lying and a fifth person who would make an intriguing killer. Still, there’s a clever bit there…

    • But the problem with Voting Booth, which I quite liked, is that there really is no other way the murder could have happened – Hoch should have made the locale less observed to set up a reasonable alternative.

      • I agree, it’s a case of ‘to good to be true’ again. Yes if there was a good false solution, or a bit of a gap to let other ideas in that would have worked better. Because actually the the set up makes the solution fall I think, because actually the reason why solution worked and that there was no weapon to be found was actually really clever, but it’s choked by how water tight the set up is.

  5. I’m going to have to say The Poisoned Chocolates Case (Berkeley’s ending, not the ones by Christianna Brand and Martin Edwards), because, to put it as vaguely as possible, what the hell did she see in him?

    Oh, and The Mystery of the Yellow Room. The explanation of the first attack on Mlle Stangerson is such a cop-out.

    • Is there a previous solution in TPCC you would have preferred as the final one? I’ve never been that convinced by the Sheringham solution, despite it being the “original” answer for ‘The Avenging Chance’. I’m a huge fan of the penultimate one, to be perfectly honest, but, well…

      As for Yellow Room — yeah, it’s kind of a cheat, I don’t deny. Nevertheless, it comes on the back of about 60 years of hidden panels, murderous apes, and whistle-trained (deaf) snakes. In that context it’s staggeringly good, and opened up what was possible within the subgenre phenomenally. It also contains one of my favourite clues in the whole firmament of detective fiction…about which I shall say nothing because, well…

      • In actual fact my favourite Poisoned Chocolates solution is Martin Edwards (only partly because it was the solution I was developing in the early part of the book), but of Berkeley’s I actually think his final one is the best, save for the unsatisfactory motive.

        Unless you count Morton Bradley’s faux solution, which is delightful.

  6. My choices in no particular order:

    1. The Red Widow Murders – I just wanted a very different solution than the one Carr gave us. Give us something more in the vein of The Judas Window or maybe Till Death Do Us Part for the solution and I think we would all be talking about this being the best locked room mystery of all time.

    2. The Invisible Circle – Paul Halter builds up such a tower of impossibilities that it probably just wasn’t possible for this one to deliver. The solutions are fun in a way, but they’re also so bonkers that I can’t imagine anyone really being satisfied.

    3. Seeing is Believing – I’m fine with the supposed cheat that everyone moans about. It’s the “how” that I didn’t like. This is one of Carr’s last truly great Merrivale puzzle-hooks, and then it offers a solution that is ludicrous.

    4. Rim of the Pit – I’m kind of nitpicking here since the end of this is long, enjoyable, and ties things together……..but some of those solutions just didn’t jive with the puzzle that Hake Talbot sold us.

    5. Death in Five Boxes – I’m totally nitpicking at this point. The ending is fine, it just doesn’t deliver on the promise of the other 90% of the book.

    • 1. Well, of course, all Carr had to do was that simple additional step if making the book as good as Till Death Do Us Part. How careless of him to have overlooked this. Man, why didn’t he think of this more? 😛

      2. I’m an Invisible Circle apologist, and even I admit that many people are justified in their displeasure with this one. I love it, and I’ll happily defend it when the time comes, but I can understand people not going for it and its deliberate zaniness. Except that vanishing knight bit. That’s…weak.

      3. Not read it, can’t help. But I’ve sort of disagreed with you twice and so therefore I proclaim you 100% correct here.

      4. Yeah, I can see that. Talbot should have just made this as good as Till Death Do Us Part. Simple fix, really, and weird he didn’t think of it.

      5. The cheat in this I don’t love, and there’s a bit about someone being…somewhere that I seem to remember being a bit awkward, but I’m vague on that. The cheat is, alas, what I’ll take away from this, though, and very nearly earned it a place on this list, but I’d mentioned Carr already in this series and so wanted to feature some different authors.

    • Yes, that one bit of Seeing Is Believing – hurry up and read it, JJ – undermines the whole thing. It’s a brilliant set up and the… issue some people have with it doesn’t bother me at but the how? Ugh.

  7. One book and one short story I wish had ended differently (plus a bonus entry). I’ll keep things general to avoid spoilers:

    Anthony Berkeley, Death in the House – an intriguing series of impossible murders… pulled off, as it turns out, using a method that I couldn’t believe for one minute would work. There are other things wrong with this novel, but since you’re looking for letdown solutions, I’ll just mention that one.

    Edward D. Hoch, “The Second Problem of the Covered Bridge” in the collection All But Impossible. The first Dr. Sam Hawthorne story, “The Problem of the Covered Bridge,” is one of the best in the series… this is one of the biggest disappointments. Here it wasn’t that I couldn’t believe that the method used could work, but that Dr. Sam or the sheriff wouldn’t have discovered it in the first few minutes after the killing. Again, it’s not the only problem with the story, but it’s the most on point to this topic.

    And even if it doesn’t quite fit this post, I can’t resist mentioning Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in His Life. Blecch.

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