I listened to a radio show not long ago, Character Assassins, which looked into the issue of mystery writers killing off their detectives. One of the most famous cases is the public outcry when Arthur Conan Doyle dispatched Holmes off the Reichenbach Falls in ‘The Final Problem’. Doyle had resolved to get rid of Sherlock permanently. "I must save my mind for better things," he wrote to his mother at the time, "even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him." However, he later famously gave in and resurrected Holmes in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’.
Like many other Sherlock fans, I’m glad Conan Doyle was persuaded to bring Holmes back and write the subsequent stories, but as I writer I also feel that an author knows when a character or story have reached their end. Commercial influences or pandering to the fans shouldn’t override doing what feels right and true for the character. As a writer, it often feels that you have to write what does happen to the character, not what you or the reader might want to happen to them. Stories, like real lives, are not easy or painless for the people who live them.
However, as a reader I have the backbone of a melted marshmallow when it comes to the death of beloved characters. I have avoided books such as The Remorseful Day and Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case because I don’t think I want to read a novel in which a much-loved detective dies.
Possibly it’s an unjustifiable position when the one thing that is likely to crop up in a mystery is a dead body. However, I’ve followed some of these detectives over dozens of books and stories. I worry that reading about their deaths would be like experiencing, however vicariously, the loss of a dear friend. I also have a nervous suspicion that the knowledge of their demise would then haunt my enjoyment of earlier stories.
Are there braver readers than me who have read the tales in which one of their favourite characters dies? Has it then affected any subsequent re-readings of earlier books? Are my anxieties at all justified or not?