Crime Doesn't Pay

Over at the Whatever, China Miéville opines on the difficulties of ending a crime novel (or, at least, the whodunnit sub-genre):
Reviews of crime novels repeatedly refer to this or that book’s slightly disappointing conclusion. This is the case even where reviewers are otherwise hugely admiring. Sometimes you can almost sense their bewilderment when, looking closely at the way threads are wrapped up and plots and sub-plots knotted, they acknowledge that nothing could be done to improve an ending, that it works, that it is ‘fair’ (a very important quality for the crime aficionado - no last-minute suspects, no evidence the reader hasn’t seen), that it is well-written, that it surprises… and yet that it disappoints.

The reason, I think, is that crime novels are impossible. Specifically, impossible to end.
My first inclination is that this is a bit harsh. Surely there must be at least one crime novel that has managed to have a good ending (and sure enough, when I got to the end of the post, I found out that even Miéville acknowledges this). Statements like the above are just begging for dismissive responses. After all, the only thing one needs to disprove the statement is a single example. If I didn't know any better, I'd say that Miéville was a troll. In an effort to explain himself, he offers three examples, one of which is perhaps the most infamous crime solver of them all:
...crime novels are not what they say they are. They are not, for a start, realist novels. Holmes’s intoxicating and ludicrous taxonomies derived from scuffs on a walking stick are not acts of ratiocination but of bravura magical thinking. (Not that they, or other ‘deductions’, are necessarily ‘illogical’, or don’t make sense of the evidence, but that they precisely do so: they make it into sense. The sense follows the detection, in these stories, not, whatever the claim, vice versa.)
From what I've read of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (which is not terribly much), I'd have to agree with Miéville here. Sherlock Holmes is an enjoyable character because of his immense intelligence and ridiculous powers of observation, but I always somehow feel cheated by this. There is a certain vicarious thrill when Holmes deducts the truth via details so small that no mere mortal would notice them, but at the same time, I always find myself annoyed when this happens because these details which Holmes uses in his logic were often not available to me as the reader. It's something of a cheat, what Miéville rightly calls "magical thinking." So yes, I did find myself let down by my first Sherlock Holmes story (and subsequent ones). Perhaps this is why the latest cinematic interpretation of Holmes makes him into an action hero and master of martial arts (Incidentally, I think I'd rather have the mystery with an impossible ending, thankyouverymuch. In reality, we'll probably get both.)
...detective novels are not novels of detection, still less of revelation, still less of solution. Those are all necessary, but not only are they insufficient, but they are in certain ways regrettable. These are novels of potentiality. Quantum narratives. Their power isn’t in their final acts, but in the profusion of superpositions before them, the could-bes, what-ifs and never-knows. Until that final chapter, each of those is as real and true as all the others, jostling realities all dreamed up by the crime, none trapped in vulgar facticity. That’s why the most important sentence in a murder mystery isn’t the one starting ‘The murderer is…’ - which no matter how necessary and fabulously executed is an act of unspeakable narrative winnowing - but is the snarled expostulation halfway through: ‘Everyone’s a suspect.’ Quite. When all those suspects become one certainty, it’s a collapse, and a let-down. How can it not be?
This is perhaps where Miéville falters. The point he makes here (it's the journey, not the destination) is fine by itself I suppose, but it ultimately comes down to the fact that we're disappointed by the ending because, well, it ended. Something similar could be said for almost any story. How many times have you finished a book or a movie or any other form of storytelling and wanted more? How many times have you wanted to spend more time with your favorite characters? In all stories that end, there are possibilies that are constricted by the finale. One might even argue that this is the point of storytelling (and sure, there's room for subversion and deconstruction there too, but such techniques rely on the original tropes to work in the first place).

Unfortunately, our desire for more isn't always a good thing. This summer's blockbuster movie fare is a reasonable example of this. X-Men Origins: Wolverine revealed nothing of particular consequence. We'd have probably been better off not knowing the specifics of Logan's past. Vague insinuations of a mysterious past did a pretty fantastic job in the first two movies. Similarly, I had always loved the brief glimpses of the future shown in James Cameron's Terminator films and wanted to see more. So along comes Terminator Salvation, which adds nothing of particular consequence to the series. I haven't read it in a while, but Terminator: The Burning Earth did an excellent job telling pretty much the same story, so perhaps such efforts are not always doomed to failure. As Miéville notes, all of this may be due more to "authorial inadequacy" than anything else. It is quite easy to provoke interest in a plot or a mystery, but more difficult to solve it in an entertaining manner.

I think some authors tend to write themselves into a corner by exploring intriguing ideas. Ideas that are so intriguing that they don't want to give them up when they realize that there is no adequate solution. Stephen King seems like one of these people. Look no further than the third Dark Tower tome, which ended on a cliffhanger several years before the release of the next book (by which time he had concocted a not-so-convincing answer to the cliffhanger, then rushed on to tell a different story, perhaps hoping to distract us from his cliff-hanging shennanigans). Other stories I've read of his do similar things (I mean seriously, the hand of God came down and saved them should not be a valid option for saving your characters from an inescapable position).

Long form television series suffer from this as well. The X-Files and Battlestar Galactica are two that come to mind for me. Each has a pretty underwhelming ending (did X-Files ever even end? Does anyone care?), and I have to say that part of the reason I haven't progressed past the first season of Lost is that I'm pretty sure the ending will be pretty lame. And I have to admit that I'm less outraged about Firefly now that I realize that it probably would have gone on too long and ended poorly. Of course, like any true geek, I'm still outraged, just not as much as I used to be.

But I digress. I think what Miéville is really saying here is rather simple: it's hard to write a crime story with a good ending. This isn't exactly earth shattering news. It's hard to write a good ending to any story, let alone something like a crime novel (which I admit presents more of a challenge than some other genres). I don't think it's inaccurate to say that most attempts fail, just as Miéville claims. Sturgeon's Law seems particularly relevant here, but I don't think it's impossible to write a good ending to a crime novel. To his credit, Miéville does cite one example of a successful crime novel ending (alas, this book does not appear to be available, uh, anywhere). After all, while Sturgeon's Law states that 90% of everything is crap, there is still 10% of everything that is not! But what do I know, apparently I'm easy on people who write "bad" endings.