A book’s ending can be the difference between a five-star masterpiece and a one-star waste of time. The best mystery/thriller endings are the ones readers never see coming, but in a good way, like the ones that leave my mouth hanging open as I stare in disbelief at how well the plot twist took me by surprise, or the ones that don’t leave me wishing for the last three hundred pages of my life back.
Unfortunately, readers cannot always be so lucky as to stumble upon perfect endings all of the time. Here’s a list of the top four most unsatisfying endings in mystery/thrillers.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
4. It by Stephen King
Perhaps one of his most popular works, Stephen King’s It follows a group of seven children as they are tormented by a shape-shifting clown named Pennywise who finds particular pleasure in eating children. The story follows the characters as children, and then as adults twenty-seven years later when they return to Derry, Maine to take down Pennywise once and for all.
Descending into the sewer lines below the town, the group travels down to his underground lair of child-consumption and are finally able to defeat the figure that has haunted Derry since the literal dawn of time. Losing two of their own in the process, the final five emerge from the sewers forever changed by the horrors they’ve dealt with for the majority of their lives.
At least, you’d think there’d be some degree of residual trauma. But no; once the final five leave Derry for the last time, their memories begin to fade. Thirty years and eleven hundred clown-infested pages later, they forget about everything.
So, Mr. King, you mean to tell me that I put nearly twelve hundred pages of reading into this novel for two of the original seven to die, and for the remaining five to have absolutely zero recollection of each other? Really? Perhaps I’m too sentimental, but after putting an entire month into one novel, I want the characters to share the same level of emotional attachment to each other that I’ve developed for them. But nope; we’re instead left to mourn the relationships the characters themselves don’t remember.
While It definitely won’t be my last King novel, it might be a bit before I jump into another one that’s over a thousand pages.
3. Survive the Night by Riley Sager
To be fair to the ending of this book, the majority of it was also bad. The premise seemed super cool: Charlie decides to leave her college and go back home after the murder of her roommate. She hitches a ride with Josh, a man she just met, despite the fact that said murder has yet to be solved. As they begin the journey, Charlie grows suspicious of Josh’s intentions, questioning whether he’s really who he says he is.
In the end, the premise had more promise than the finished product. The unraveling story reveals that Josh is actually not a bad guy, but was paid by the grandmother of Charlie’s dead roommate to kidnap and bring Charlie to her. The grandmother proceeds to lightly torture Charlie in an attempt to figure out how her granddaughter was murdered, and in a remarkably expected twist, Charlie’s boyfriend, who we think is coming to save her, is the murderer she left her school to flee from.
I know. It’s a lot.
Sager, instead of wrapping up his novel with a satisfying yet unexpected twist that doesn’t rely on the addition of ten more plot elements, adds unnecessary characters, lackluster action, and, my personal pièce de résistance, an out-of-nowhere marriage between Charlie and Josh—the man who kidnapped her—in the epilogue.
A successful mystery/thriller ending usually leaves me with a mirage of questions, but Sager’s Survive the Night left me with only one: why?
2. The Woods Are Always Watching by Stephanie Perkins
Stephanie Perkins’ The Woods Are Always Watching had great potential, which extended about as far as the description on the dust jacket. Two friends take their final precollege trip together, a three-day hike in the Pisgah National Forest in Asheville, North Carolina. The dust jacket teases a “waking nightmare,” and being tested in “horrifying ways.”
So, as a fan of anything “horrifying,” it was disappointing when I cracked the book open on a cold January night, ready to be immersed in a tale filled with blood and gore, but instead got less than a hundred pages of unimaginative villainy and unsurvivable injuries—including an entire hand being shot off—that somehow don’t actually affect the character’s journey back down the mountain. The two friends are successfully able to escape from the two villains, injuries be damned, and the book concludes with them driving away, trying to get a phone signal.
My biggest gripe with the novel, though there are many to pick from, is that we don’t ever get to know the villains; they are simply bad because Perkins needed a way to torment a couple of hikers. We learn nothing of their backstory and hear nothing from their perspective. Of the novel’s two hundred pages, the bad guys are introduced around page 130, and are ultimately defeated not by the main characters, but by a bear sixty pages later.
If they’re marketing hell on earth, it should probably be a little scarier than two hillbillies, who can get taken down by one swipe of a bear, and a shotgun.
The only thing that was actually satisfying about the ending is that I know it’ll be the last time I read a mystery/thriller from Stephanie Perkins.
1. Home Before Dark by Riley Sager
The most disappointing ending on the list is Riley Sager’s Home Before Dark. It takes first place since, unlike the other books on this list, everything except the ending was so good. Despite having read Survive the Night the weekend before picking up this one, I naively decided to give Sager another chance. In hindsight, I should’ve learned my lesson the first time around.
The main character, Maggie, returns to the allegedly haunted Victorian estate she lived in with her parents for less than three weeks as a child. Despite mysteriously fleeing from the house one night, Maggie’s father, Ewan, never sold it. Now that he’s dead, Maggie returns to the house to box it up and sell it.
Although her family gained fame from a novel her father wrote about the house, Maggie cannot remember anything from her time there. So when spooky things start happening again, Maggie is left to determine: is the house haunted by ghosts or people? And who is to blame for the murder of Petra, a woman who’d been missing for twenty years, after Maggie finds her remains?
Given Sager’s reputation for unsatisfying endings, I went into the last fifty pages hoping for the best and expecting the worst. And that is precisely what I got: the worst.
Instead of the estate being haunted by the ghost of three-owners-past, plot twist, it was really Maggie who killed Petra, and her father made up the entire “haunted house” story to hide the fact that his daughter murdered her babysitter! But, plot twist again, it was not Maggie who killed Petra, but the disgruntled mother who previously owned the estate, who then pinned the murder on Maggie.
Ugh. I liked this book for the first three hundred-or-so pages because there were complexities, cool ghost stuff, and layers of mystery. But in the end, the entire web of conflict boiled down to one woman who killed another woman. There couldn’t have been a spookier way to wrap things up?
Unfortunately, it’s probably too late for Sager to change the ending of his forthcoming novel, The House Across the Lake, but if I were him, I’d consider getting another pair of eyes on my next ending so I don’t leave my readers slamming their books shut with a huff and a promise not to pick up my next one.
Header Photo Credit: Julia Wnuk
Julia Wnuk is a Staff Writer for Blue Muse Magazine