Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Dead protagonists and other clever ways to end a series

A few months ago I read a novel that ended when its protagonist died. Needless to say, it was the final book in its series.

With the subject of series’ conclusions much on people’s minds these days thanks to Ian Rankin, John Rebus, and that courageous gay activist J.K. Rowling, I now turn my thoughts to last things as well. To avoid plot spoilers for anyone who might be reading the book in question, I won’t name my dead protagonist. But can you name any? You get half-credit for Sherlock Holmes, whom Conan Doyle killed off in “The Adventure of the Final Problem” but was forced by public outcry to revive later. You get similar partial credit for coming up with Michael Dibdin’s Blood Rain, which ended with Aurelio Zen being blown up by a Mafia bomb … only to begin a slow recovery from his injuries when Dibdin decided to revive the series three years later.

If you can’t think of protagonists who died, what other clever or satisfying ways have authors chosen to end series?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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24 Comments:

Blogger J. Kingston Pierce said...

Well, of course Hercule Poirot perished in Curtain (1975). And Paco Ignacio Taibo II's Héctor Belascoarán Shayne died in one book, only to be magically resurrected in its successor, after the author realized his audience wanted Shayne back. It's late. I can't think of any more examples right now, but I'm sure others will mention them

Cheers,
Jeff

October 25, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the note. I'd forgotten about the resurrected Belascoarán, and I am embarrassed to admit that I'm not sure I had heard of the perished Poirot, your "of course" notwithstanding.

If I recall correctly, Taibo makes resurrection-type references to his hero's return from the dead. Conan Doyle concocted a less metaphysical explanation for Holmes' revival. Perhaps if the list of revived heroes grows long enough, I can compile an accompanying list of such explanations.

October 25, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Well, MacDonald had Travis McGee suddenly acquire a daughter in his last book, "The Lonely Silver Rain." That one was published a year before MacDonald died.

I almost thought the McGee books should have ended with "The Green Ripper," with him going out in a blaze of gunfire against the terrorists ("John Wayne time," McGee called it), but the final two or three were still way above par.

Clive Cussler did the same thing with Dirk Pitt, giving him twin children, but Pitt's continued with his kids working for NUMA too. Parenthetically, Pitt's always been a pale imitation of Travis in my book (not to say Cussler needs my approbation, or that he had McGee in mind when he started the Pitt novels).

What happened to Lord Peter Wimsey? Anything?

I don't think Philip MacDonald killed off Anthony Gethryn. I liked "The List of Adrian Messenger" better than any of the other Gethryn books, and I thought it might be the crowning achievement.

Doyle eventually did send Holmes off to semi-retirement in Devon or some such place to keep bees.

October 25, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Ending a series must be difficult for an author, so one can understand the impulse to conclude with a momentous event such as having a child. I imagine such an event would be especially drastic for a boat-dwelling beach bum like Travis McGee. Was MacDonald able to make a successful book out of it?

I'm glad to hear the recommendation for The List of Adrian Messenger. You have reminded that I recently bought a copy after someone else recommended it.

October 25, 2007  
Anonymous LauraRoot said...

Gordianus the Finder in Steven Saylor's excellent Roma Sub Rosa series. And Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse.

October 25, 2007  
Blogger JD Rhoades said...

Doyle eventually did send Holmes off to semi-retirement in Devon or some such place to keep bees.

Where Laurie King picked him up, pulled him out of retirement, and gave him a female sidekick. The books are actually quite good.

October 25, 2007  
Blogger Karen Olson said...

What's sad is that many authors don't choose to end their series; their contracts simply run out and they don't get another one. So the characters are left languishing in whatever limbo they were left in that final book that was contracted...

October 25, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Oh, sure. MacDonald had the discovery/confrontation with her in the last five pages, after the usual McGee derring-do had been completed.

I'd love to have seen one more, with McGee worrying about his newfound daughter heading off to get her DVM. I have enough faith in MacDonald that he wouldn't use the tired old kidnaped-family-member plot device to make McGee do something he wouldn't.

I'm reminded that Rex Stout killed off a member of the inner circle in "A Family Affair," his last Wolfe book.

October 25, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I suppose I could add to that list, with an asterisk, Donald Westlake's series of stories about a New York cop named Abe Levine. In the last, Levine dies in the line of duty, his dead body shielding a colleague, if I recall correctly.

J.D., I had that series in mind when I posted my comment. Why shouldn't fictional characters enjoy the same option of peaceful retirement that their real-life counterparts do?

Laura, I've read just one or two Morses and none of Saylor's books (I've held forth elsewhere on my uncertain relationship with historical mysteries.) How do the protagonists die?

Karen, such a fate is saddest for the author, of course. But even for those who keep getting contracts, it must be difficult psychologically to end a series, the longer and more successful the series, the more difficult the decision. And, once the author has decided, how does he or she write the ending in way that will satisfy everyone? I wonder if anyone has ever tallied what proportion of series come to an end of the kind under discussion here.

October 25, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

At the end of a well known detective series the sidekick looks at the main protagonist and says....

The trouble with you,....., is that you've got the wrong job. At the wrong time. In the wrong part of the world. In the wrong system.

Is that all?

I think we all feel like that sometimes, and I thought it was a part of a great ending.

October 25, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Linkmeister, perhaps a task such as the one MacDonald set for himself is especially hard. How does the author work a change that will sufficiently alter the protagonist's life while at the same time preserving the character's essence?

Once again, I don't want to offer spoilers, but I read one story in which Rex Stout kills off one of the operatives Wolfe employs from time to time. (I will not name that operative here, nor will I discuss the memorable and chilling way Stout kills him off.) Is A Family Affair that story?

October 25, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Criminy, Uriah, am I going to feel like a dope when you tell me which series that is? No, wait. Don't tell me. I now have a mission in my crime-fiction-reading life: to make the discovery myself. I suppose that to facilitate my task, I will should begin reading series starting with the last book.

October 25, 2007  
Anonymous LauraRoot said...

both died of natural causes - Morse's unhealthy lifestyle (lots of liquid lunches) caught up with him, Gordianus dies of old age/grief after his wife's death.

October 25, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Yikes. That must have been a wrenching experience for devoted readers -- that is, if they were not resentful or angry at the author.

October 25, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

That's it.

October 25, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

That was a virtuoso touch, and it would have made a fine source of new interest in the series had he kept the series going. If I'm not mistaken, Stout used a similar method for killing off a villain in at least one other story. But neither case is quite like killing off a protagonist.

October 25, 2007  
Anonymous Karen C said...

I'd mention Morse as well. I still remember my gut wrenching sadness at the end of that final book.

Despite knowing this was the last book, knowing what would happen (you couldn't avoid the gossip really), it was still... gut-wrenchingly sad. And so wonderfully characteristic and appropriate for that character. You couldn't hate Dexter for doing that - it was almost meant to be.

October 26, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I've only read one Morse book, but I feel a twinge knowing that Colin Dexter killed off the character. I can certainly understand the wrenching feeling when a character dies. I felt that way about the protagonist who sparked this comment, though the circumstances of this character's death were very different from Morse's.

I'm still not sure I should identify the author and protagonist, though. They are not as well-known as Dexter and Morse, so you might not have heard of the character's demise. What do you think? Should I reveal all? Perhaps that would make the book more attractive to readers who relish an emotional jolt.

October 26, 2007  
Anonymous KarenC said...

Doesn't matter what you do - if you reveal some will love you (because the tension of wondering who.... is killing us) and some with loathe you with a passion for giving away a spoiler.

Personally I'd probably not reveal and post an end of month "what I read this month list"

Of course you could just leave everybody hanging as well - the power is almost staggering ;)

October 26, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

What to do? What to do?

Perhaps I'll give a deadline: I reveal all in, say, thirty days, so you'd better have read the book by then.

One clue is that I have written about the book and its author on this blog.

October 26, 2007  
Anonymous LauraR said...

I agree Karen. It was very much signposted as the death of Morse in the publicity, and it felt realistic and appropriate given Morse's health problems and unhealthy lifestyle.

October 26, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

How did Colin Dexter feel about killing off such a successful and long-standing protagonist?

October 26, 2007  
Anonymous cfr said...

I think he (Dexter) was possibly relieved, but this is just a comment based on observation and the reality of life.

Dexter is older than Morse, his fictional creation. I suspect he was becoming tired of writing new stories for his well enduring pro-tag.

In real life the author deserved a rest and so he chose to expire his hero, Morse. And who can blame him?

Since the demise of Morse I have seen Colin Dexter at a writing event, where he looked frail physically, but with his mind on the ball/button and with sharp intellect.

This was a few years ago and Dexter is still making it to events in the UK. Good on him!

Morse will never wither and Dexter will never leave the memory of the many who have enjoyed the novels of Morse. (Morse is his alter ego, perhaps...)

How did Dexter feel on killing off his protag? Well you'd have to ask him directly.

Here in the UK, it was said that he thought it was time.

Time for the character or time for the author?

In my mind it was time for both. And a perfect ending...

October 26, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

What a beautiful little essay, tribute and piece of speculation about Dexter and his creation. It's a fortunate author who chooses the right time to end a series.

I've read what I now realize was the first Morse book. If I read more, I'll be torn among reading in series order, reading according to which books I can find, and now, reading from the end.

October 26, 2007  

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