Truth and Consequences

SherlockHolmes“Everybody, sooner or later,” said Robert Louis Stevenson, “sits down to a banquet of consequences.” Wonderful quote. I’ve used it as one the chapter headings in my mystery novel. For those of us who view the universe as having moral underpinnings, it is quite true. There is, or there will be, an accounting.

On earth, however, the guilty escape judgment on a fairly regular basis. We’ve had recent evidence of this in several highly publicized trials where, in spite of seemingly overwhelming evidence, the defendant has gone free—judged, if not exactly innocent, at least not guilty in terms of the criminal justice system. Many serious crimes are never solved. This is reality. 

But in the traditional mystery novel, the guilty must be punished—or at least led away to be punished somewhere beyond the scope of the story. Evil upsets the moral equilibrium of the fictional universe, and if that equilibrium is to be restored, the truth must come out, the victims vindicated, and the evildoers punished. What drives the classic mystery story, in addition to the solving of a puzzle, is the resolution of chaos and the reestablishment of justice and order. The world is not the same as it was before—lessons are learned, consequences are felt, characters grow in some way—but harmony reigns once again. 

Until recently, that is. Today’s mystery novel reflects the culture in which we live. Who is to say, the modernist asks, what is “right” and what is “wrong”? What if everyone in the story is seriously flawed? What if there are no consequences? 

Like so many others, I was captured in the web of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. She had me from the first sentence: “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.” But the ending of the novel (spoiler alert!) was disturbing. Indeed there was no ending but merely a reshuffling of the characters on the stage—no one held accountable, no one having learned a thing. 

As I turned the final page of the book, the sensation I felt was exactly like turning off a radio just before the final note of a song. I felt the need to sound that final note myself, if only in my imagination. So in my head I’ve written a short addendum to Gone Girl, a final chapter in which the characters sit down to a banquet of consequences.

Call me old-fashioned.


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