Susan Oleksiw writes the Anita Ray series featuring an Indian-American photographer in South India. In When Krishna Calls (2016), Anita and her aunt face the loss of their hotel and everything they care about. The Mellingham series features Chief Joe Silva. In Come About for Murder (2016), a member of a prominent family dies in a sailing accident. Susan’s stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.
Finding the Ending by Susan Oleksiw
I recently finished a mystery novel that was hard to end, not because I wanted to keep working on the story but because I couldn’t seem to understand where the characters would end up and how they would feel about the change in their lives. The plot suggested several possibilities, but none seemed quite right. I rewrote this part several times, and every time I picked it up to work on any aspect of the manuscript, I wanted to rewrite the ending again. It is a common rule that the ending should fulfill the promise of the beginning, but that isn’t as simple as it sounds.
In three earlier books I struggled with the ending in the same way. In Family Album, I wanted Chief Joe Silva to reach out to Gwen McDuffy in a way that was clear to the reader as well as the characters. I reworked that ending so many times I thought I’d never finish the book. But I did. It’s not giving anything away to say that Joe proposes obliquely and Gwen accepts. There is, of course, more to come in their relationship in the following books.
The ending of Friends and Enemies was even harder because the character I followed in the and at the end, Eliot Keogh, was meant to be a minor character. Eliot’s return to Mellingham for a high school reunion after many years turned out to be the arc of the story. His growth from a man with a grudge to a completely different person happened without my even noticing until I came to the end. The challenge was to show how much he had grown from the man driving into town in chapter one. This is the ending both readers and editors have most remarked upon.
Endings in a traditional mystery novel or a cozy mystery would seem to be straightforward and almost easy—the murderer or other criminal is captured, features of the crime are explained if not already clear, characters reassess their position in relation to each other, and the reader is reassured that all is well with the world once again. This is the standard ending of comedy—the reconstitution of society. But in a mystery I like to see a deeper change in the individuals who have been at the heart of the story.
The general graph of a mystery shows the rise and fall of action, mimicking the rise and fall of emotion. But I see the graph of a character growing through the story as a steady rise as if on a staircase. The discovery of dark feelings isn’t a low point; it’s a step to a more honest understanding of experience.
In the most recent Mellingham/Joe Silva mystery, Come About for Murder, the trajectory of the story is partly Joe revealing himself as a deeply devoted stepfather to Philip. But the story itself opens with Annie Beckwith at the funeral for her sister and brother-in-law. She thinks throughout the novel about her sister’s marriage, and the fidelity husband and wife felt for each other. In the end she discovers this devotion in another pair, and she learns about her own capacity to understand and support it.
Some writers begin writing only when they know what the ending will be. In one sense I know pretty much who is guilty and how that will be uncovered. But the more important ending, the revelation of character and personal growth and understanding, eludes me until the last few pages, and then I write and rewrite and rewrite again until it becomes clear what has happened to the character, from beginning to ending.
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