Two things you never do in the crime genre. First and foremost, never kill a pet. You can be brutal to human beings, kill them in imaginative, excruciating ways, but an innocent little dog is off limits. Second, never end a book without all the loose threads tied up, all the answers given, justice done, and the world set right again. Readers expect tidy endings. It’s one of the reasons, probably, that they choose books in the genre. The comfort factor.
But does this always have to be the way? Can a mystery be satisfying even if it consciously doesn’t meet this powerful expectation? That was one of the questions—the biggest question, in fact—that I considered as the story of Mercy Falls formed in my thinking. I began to see a long story arc, one that, more and more, I realized would probably span two books. And I wrestled with how to write this project in a way that would fit neatly with readers’ expectations.
The more I considered the project, the more I realized that there were two significant ideas at work. First, to write a book that would carry the reader only partway across the bridge of the entire story. And then, to write a book in which Cork O’Connor has to confront a whole new mystery and set of dangers, while at the same time keeping an eye over his shoulder for the problems that have followed him from the earlier book. It would mean ending the first part of the project without tying up loose ends, and writing a follow up that would not only complete the story but also be independent enough of the earlier work that readers coming to it without having read the first part would still feel that they’d been given a satisfying piece of fiction.
An audacious idea, I knew. In retrospect, I’m amazed that I decided to undertake the challenge.
I thought out the entire story arc fairly carefully and found a place that seemed appropriate for the break in the two books to occur. I knew it would leave the reader with questions unanswered, a cliffhanger kind of ending, which was a situation I strongly suspected readers might not appreciate. But I liked the idea of trying it, just trying something different. So that’s what I did.
Mercy Falls ends with a threat—to Cork, his family, his entire life—a threat not resolved until nearly the end of the book that follows: Copper River. The novel received a fine welcome from critics. Reviewers loved it. Almost immediately I began to get emails from my readers with a broad range of responses. Some loved what I’d done. Others were perplexed. A number were angry. Pretty much what I’d expected. To those who were outraged, I explained myself and most understood. But there were still some who bought Voodoo dolls, put my image on them, and stuck needles through the heart. They also vowed they would never read another of my books.
I continue to get the occasional email rant from someone who’s just read Mercy Falls, and I continue to offer my explanation and advise them to move quickly to a reading of Copper River.
I confess that I wonder at times if I made the right decision. But the place I end up is always the same. If you never take risks in this art form—and it is an art—you never grow as a writer, and who wants to be a writer stuck in the same place book after book? Even more important, who wants to read that kind of writer?