Good writers work very hard to craft interest-grabbing opening sentences to their books. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens wrote as the opening for A Tale of Two Cities. I think it is much harder to write a memorable closing line to a book, although Dickens often achieved that as well.
British suspense writer Ruth Rendell went one better perhaps in composing a memorable closing sentence to her entire writing career. Her last novel, Dark Corners (Doubleday, 2015), ends with the sentence: “‘And now,’ he said, ‘now it’s all over.’”
Rendell (1930—2015) was a truly great suspense writer, with over 60 books to her credit. She began writing traditional murder mysteries, from the point of view of a police detective whose goal was to discover and arrest the murderer. But she then moved on to write stories from the point of view of the murderer, some of them under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. She did a masterful job of detailing her central characters’ inevitable descent into murder and often madness. In One Across, Two Down (1971), she described this as “a slow, indiscernible disintegration towards…utter collapse.”
Dark Corners offered as a frontispiece a quote from a 2005 interview. When asked why she seemed to be fascinated with psychopaths, she answered, “I do empathize with people who are driven by dreadful impulses. I think to be driven to want to kill must be such a terrible burden. I try, and I think I succeed, in making my readers feel pity for my psychopaths, because I do.”
Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Rendell’s later books is that her psychopathic murderers were not that different from the other characters in her books, who, for the most part, lived petty, self-centered lives.
Rendell’s change in viewpoint was perhaps based on a profound insight. The real problem is not crime but human evil and guilt. In the end, the best solution she could offer for human evil and guilt was not arrest and punishment but confession. It is a good start, but unfortunately it falls short of a satisfying conclusion. While clearly identifying the problem, she could not identify a full solution. She could offer no clear avenue for forgiveness and redemption.