All Posts By Michael Kahn

A Truly Challenging Question for Me (and You)

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I received an email from the folks at Goodreads asking for me to answer the following question: “If you could travel to any fictional book world, where would you go and what would you do there?”

What a great question! And one you should ask yourself as well. Here’s how I answered it:

I started by sorting through the fictional worlds of my favorite novels, and soon realized that I had no interest in spending any length of time in any of those worlds. Moby Dick may be the Great American Novel, but life on the Pequod under the rule of the obsessed Captain Ahab was not my idea of a great time. As for Huckleberry Finn, a day or two floating down the Mississippi River aboard the raft with Huck and Jim would be fun, but once that steamboat destroys the raft and forces Huck (and, if I don’t drown, me) onshore, the fun would end. The Roaring 20s version of Long Island with Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway? Nope. The corrupt L.A. of Raymond Chandler’s mystery novels? Nope. The English countryside of Jane Austen’s 18th Century novels? Maybe for a few days, but that would get old pretty fast. The Deep South of William Faulker’s amazing novels? Are you kidding? The Greek siege of the ancient City of Troy in the Iliad? No way–though I’d love to hang with Odysseus for a few days. The 19th Century Russia of Anna Karenina? Not for me. As for roaming the countryside of Spain in the 1600s, I concede that it has a certain appeal, especially while sharing a full wineskin with Sancho Panza. However, trying to cope with Don Quixote would drive me crazy. Moreover, given that the Alhambra Decree had expelled all Jews from Spain in 1492, a picaresque adventure with the Man of La Mancha might end unhappily for yours truly.

I flipped through the rest of my list of favorites. Blood Meridian? Catch-22? The Scarlet Letter? For Whom the Bell Tolls? Nope, nope, nope, nope.

Try it yourself. Run through your own list of favorite works of literature and you will likely discover what I discovered, namely, to borrow that old saying about New York City: it might be a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there.

As I was about to give up, I had my epiphany: Shakespeare!

No, not the Denmark of Hamlet or the Scotland of Macbeth or the Venice of poor Shylock.

Instead, I selected that fairyland forest on the outskirts of Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Can there be any better place to travel than a magical forest inhabited by fairies, lovers, and those six hilarious amateur actors, including Peter Quince, Nick Bottom and Tom Snout, who comprise Shakespeare’s version of the Marx Brothers. As for what I would do on that moonlit evening? Well, if I couldn’t convince Peter Quince to find a role for me in the play they plan to present for the wedding of the Duke and the Queen, I’d just find a comfortable spot near that stage, fill a tall glass with wine, and enjoy the evening.

Can’t Leave Rachel Out!

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As you might infer, the main character in my Rachel Gold mystery series is named Rachel Gold. But back in the beginning, back many years ago, on the eve of publication of my first novel, Grave Designs, there was no Rachel Gold mystery series. Just a mystery novel featuring as the protagonist a savvy young female attorney named Rachel Gold. Period. But before long, upon the urgings of my agent and publisher, there was second Rachel Gold mystery novel, and then a third, and so on.

Every few years, however, I decide it’s time for a change of pace, time to write a standalone novel that’s outside the series. Such as my newest one, Played!.

But, as explained in an essay that Crimespree magazine published on the eve of the release of Played!, Rachel somehow finds a way to make a fun cameo appearance in each of those non-Rachel-Gold novels, including the new one. Here is a link to that essay. Enjoy.

Relaxing With Some Tense Thoughts

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My epiphany occurred as I read an interview of John Updike from nearly a half century ago. Ah, I said to myself, nodding my head, so that’s why I did it.

The “it” was doing something I’d never before done in all of my prior novels and short stories. Each of those prior works, like the vast majority of works of fiction, was written in the past tense. Even though deciding which tense to use in writing one’s novel is an important decision for any author, the choice of past tense is so common that readers (and many authors) generally don’t take notice of it. For example, a chapter might open: “Harry raised the rifle, took a deep breath, aimed, and pulled the trigger.” Change the tense from past to present and the scene feels different: “Harry raises the rifle, takes a deep breath, aims, and pulls the trigger.”

I made the choice to write my new novel, PLAYED! in the present tense. Why? Well, it just felt right. But later, after I’d handed in the manuscript, I came across John Updike’s Paris Review interview from 1968, in which he said of his decision to set Rabbit, Run in the present tense,

Rabbit, Run was subtitled originally, “A Movie.” The present tense was in part meant to be an equivalent of the cinematic mode of narration. The opening bit of the boys playing basketball was visualized to be taking place under the titles and credits. This doesn’t mean, though, that I really wanted to write for the movies. It meant I wanted to make a movie. I could come closer by writing it in my own book than by attempting to get through to Hollywood.

And PLAYED! also began as a screenplay entitled “False Pretenses.” About halfway into the script, I decided instead to tell the story as a novel. But by then, having already visualized the story as a movie, I decided to write it, in John Updike’s works, in the “equivalent of the cinematic mode of narration.”

Later still, after I’d gone through the page proofs and sent my corrections back to publisher, I decided to take a deeper look at this tense issue. And I discovered, to my surprise, that there is an impressive stack of present-tense fiction, many of which you and I have read. They range from bestsellers, such as Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, to literary stars, such as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which won the Booker Prize in 2009,  to classics, such as Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, which opens with one of the most cinematic first chapters in all of literature (and decades before the invention of motion pictures).  There’s Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next, Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, which had the added attention-grabbing device of being written in the second person. It opens: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.”

Many authors–including yours truly–opt for the present tense without much deliberation. As Hilary Mantel explained in an interview in The Guardian, she had no plan regarding the tense of her novel. “I was writing as I saw it,” she explained. “It was only a little later I became aware of what had happened and saw that I’d made two important decisions very quickly – tense and point of view. And they are inextricable.”

Below is Chapter 6 from PLAYED!  This is where Cherry Pitt, the hot young wife of the powerful and corrupt Chicago attorney Leonard Pitt, baits the hook to snare Hal, the goofball younger brother of the the brilliant but nerdy lawyer Milton Bernstein. As with the rest of the novel, the scene is written in the present tense:

Primo Dog Tuesday.

That’s Hal’s name for it. During the year he worked as a fitness trainer at the East Bank Club in Chicago, he became addicted to Chicago-style hot dogs—those Vienna Beef marvels on poppy seed buns with yellow mustard, neon relish, and green sport peppers. When he moved back to St. Louis, he scouted out places to satisfy that passion, and Primo Dog was one that made the cut. Although Woofies is still Hal’s numero uno in St. Louis, Primo Dog is the closest one to Old Chatham Country Club, and that’s where Hal heads at 12:15 each Tuesday on his lunch break.

Primo Dog Tuesday.

Ray mans the grill. He nods as Hal walks up to the counter. “The usual, big guy?”

“You got it, dude.”

A few minutes later, the tray of food in hand, Hal uses his foot to push open the screen door to the tables outside. That’s when he sees her. He stares, and the door swings back against him. Seated alone at a table facing him is Mrs. Pitt. She’s wearing skinny jeans, a red tank top, and sunglasses.

“Mind if I join you?” he asks.

Hal waits for her answer. She is holding the hot dog — not the bun, just the dog — between her thumb and forefinger. Long nails, red polish. She glances up, shrugs as if to say suit yourself, and bites off the end of the hot dog.

With a nervous smile, Hal sits down. He unwraps his hot dog and takes a big bite.

“Didn’t see you at the pool today,” he says as he chews.

“That’s because I wasn’t here.”

“Yeah.” He forces a laugh, “Guess that’s probably why.”

He takes another bite of his hot dog as he tries to think of something to say. He’s usually pretty good with chicks, but with this one he’s in brain freeze.

Finally, he says, “I read somewhere that hot dogs are bad for you.”

She looks at him from behind her sunglasses but says nothing.

“Too many nitrates.” Hal shrugs. “They say you shouldn’t eat them.”

Mrs. Pitt studies him as she bites off another piece of the hot dog and slowly chews it. “What do you suggest I eat instead?”

“Don’t know.” He shrugs. “Guess I’m a big one to talk.”

“Are you?”

He tries to grin, completely lost now, treading water.

“I’m married,” she says.

“Oh. I’m not.”

She lowers her head to stare at him over her sunglasses. “How long is your break?”

Hal checks his watch. “I’ve got to head back in ten minutes.”

“Too bad.” She stands. “See you around.”

“Wait.” Hal stumbles to his feet. “How about tomorrow? It’s one my days off. Wednesdays and Thursdays.”

Mrs. Pitt pauses, staring at him from behind her sunglasses. “How about what tomorrow?”

Hal tries another grin. “Whatever takes longer than ten minutes, I guess.”

She glances down at his empty plate. “Does anything take you longer than thirty seconds?”

“Depends what you have in mind.”

“A beer.”

“Sure. I can make that last longer ten minutes. Guaranteed.”

She smiles. “That sounds nice.” She tells him her address. “Come in through the alley. Twelve-fifteen.”

Stunned, Hal watches her walk toward her Corvette, staring at that awesome little round butt swinging back and forth in the tight jeans. He jogs over to her car as she starts to gun the engine.”

“Mrs. Pitt, I don’t even know your first name.”

“Cherry.”

She guns the engine again, puts it into gear, and roars away.

Hal watches her speed down the street.

“Cherry,” he repeats aloud, and then he smiles. “Dude.”

Watching  her red Corvette disappear around the corner, he never once considers the improbability of their encounter at Primo Dog. If you’d asked him right then, if you’d come up to him as he stood out there by the curb in the warm afternoon sun and asked him if he didn’t think it a bit odd that the wife of a millionaire lawyer, a woman you’d normally expect to see at lunch at the Zodiac Room in the Neiman Marcus at Plaza Frontenac or maybe at the Women’s Exchange on Ladue, just happened to be eating at a hot dog joint in West County at exactly the same time as him—well, if you would have asked him that, he would have given you one of those thousand-watt smiles and a shrug and said, “Hey, dude, guess the lady’s got good taste.”

But at the same time as you? you’d ask. On the only day of the week you go there?

Another shrug, and then a cocky wink. “Luck of the draw, dude. Luck of the draw.”

 

What’s in a Name? (The Sequel)

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A few weeks ago I wrote a post on all those novels–including three of my own–that started off with a title other than the one that ended up on the dust jacket in the bookstore. You can read that post–“What’s in a Name? More than you imagine!”–here.

But it was only later that I realized I’d left out my favorite title evolution story, namely, the tortured tale of the various rejected titles of the Joseph Heller novel that was eventually published as Catch-22. It’s a wonderful story.

For those who haven’t read this satirical World War II novel, the title is a fictional military rule that captures the illogical and immoral reasoning of the military bureaucracy. The rule states (a) that if the soldier is crazy, the soldier does not have to fly military missions; and (b) a soldier has to be crazy to fly one of those missions. But Catch-22 of the rule states that the soldier must apply to be excused, and by applying the soldier demonstrates that he is not crazy. As a result, one must continue flying, either by not applying to be excused, or by applying and being refused. As the narrator explains:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to, but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

The term Catch-22 quickly entered the American language, where the dictionary defines the word as “a frustrating situation in which one is trapped by contradictory regulations or conditions.”

 But on to the title:

The opening chapter of the novel was originally published in a small literary magazine in 1955 as Catch-18. But Heller’s agent apparently asked him to change the title of the novel so it would not be confused with another recently published World War II novel, Mila 18 by Leon Uris. (Apparently, the number 18 had special significance to Heller in Judaism, where it means “alive.”) Reluctantly, Heller tried to change the name to Catch-11, but the publisher nixed that because of the recent release of the movie Ocean’s Eleven. So next came Catch-17, but the publisher again said no, concerned that it might be confused with the World War II film Stalag 17. Heller then proposed Catch-14, but that, too, was rejected, apparently because the publisher didn’t feel that 14 was a funny number. You can find the full story here.

And thus we ended up with Catch-22–the sixth choice back then. More than a half century later, it’s hard to imagine that novel with any other name.

 

Pre-Publication Reviews of PLAYED!

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Here are some excerpts:

  • “. . . brisk, sprightly entertainment.”
    • Kirkus Review
  • “Kahn is the author of the popular Rachel Gold series, and this stand-alone (for now) has the same sharp dialogue, wit, and clever plotting her fans have come to expect.”
    • Booklist
  • ” . . . this neat little yarn from Kahn (The Dead Hand and nine other Rachel Gold mysteries) . . . [a] pleasant tale built on the love between two brothers.”
    • Publishers Weekly

And for fans of Rachel Gold, I promise that she makes a brilliant cameo appearance in this new novel.

What’s in a name? More than you imagine!

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“Mike, I have a better idea for your book title.”

I’ve heard that from my editor three times over the years. All three times she was right.

But first, some background:

While you can’t tell a book by its cover, you might consider reading a book by its title. Nevertheless, the history of literature reveals that authors are often better at writing novels than naming them. Take, for example, one of the masterpieces of American literature. At various times during its creation, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s manuscript had the following clunky titles: Trimalchio in West Egg; Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires; On the Road to West Egg; Under the Red, White, and Blue; and The High-Bouncing Lover. Only at the time of publication did Fitzgerald and his publisher finally agree on a title: The Great Gatsby.

Another example: When Carson McCullers was twenty-one, she submitted six chapters of her first novel, The Mute, to Houghton-Mifflin. The publisher gave her an advance, renamed her book The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and the rest is history.

Here’s a challenge: below are seven  pre-publication titles. See if you know the publisher’s final title for each:

  1. The Last Man in Europe
  2. Fiesta
  3. First Impressions
  4. Strangers from Within
  5. All’s Well that Ends Well
  6. Tomorrow Is Another Day
  7. Whacking Off

The final titles?

  1. 1984
  2. The Sun Also Rises
  3. Pride and Prejudice
  4. Lord of the Flies
  5. War and Peace (actually originally published as All’s Well that Ends Well)
  6. Gone with the Wind
  7. Portnoy’s Complaint

And now back to me and my titles. The origins of the name of your book are often more mysterious to trace than the origins of the name of your child. The title you start with just somehow feels right–or so you believe when you type Chapter 1 at the top of the second page.

I chose The Canaan Legacy as the title of my first novel, and it was published in hardcover under that title. The origins? A powerful lawyer dies and, to the bafflement of his law partners and his family, a previously unknown codicil to his will establishes a large trust fund for the care and maintenance of a grave in a pet cemetery. The name on the tombstone: Canaan. The mystery: neither he nor his family ever owned a pet, much less one named Canaan. By Chapter 3, the grave has been robbed.

When it came time for the paperback edition, the publisher informed me that the title needed to be changed.

“Why,” I asked.

“Because the current title makes people think it’s a book about the bible.”

“So what do you suggest?”

“Grave Designs.”

“Grave Designs?” I mulled it over. “Not bad. I’m good with that.”

And thus you can now purchase my first novel under the title Grave Designs.

Next was the Rachel Gold mystery submitted to my publisher under what I assumed was a terrific title: Zero Sum. By then, I was lucky be in the good hands of the brilliant Barbara Peters, the Goddess of Editors. One of the featured characters–and I emphasize the word “character”–was Judge Howard Flinch, a quirky, hot-tempered, erratic judge generally viewed by lawyers as the worst jurist in Missouri. But for the case Rachel Gold had–where both the law and facts were against her clients–a quirky, hot-tempered, erratic judge was perhaps the best judge for the case.

“Mike,” Barbara said to me, “I have a better idea for your book title.”

“Oh? What do you suggest?”

“The Flinch Factor.”

“The Flinch Factor?” I smiled. “Not bad. I’m good with that.”

And thus you can now purchase the novel formerly known (in manuscript) as Zero Sum under the title The Flinch Factor.

Which brings me at last to my newest novel, which actually began as a screenplay entitled False Pretenses. About halfway through the script, I decided it would work better as a novel. I kept the title False Pretenses until about two-thirds of the way through manuscript, when I changed it to The Cherry Snatch. And thus it remained when I finished the manuscript and submitted it to the Goddess of Editors.

“Mike,” Barbara said to me on the phone, “I love your novel but I don’t like the title. I have a better idea.”

“Really? What do you suggest?”

“Played, with an exclamation mark. Think about it. The title works on all three levels.”

“Played?” I smiled. “Not bad, Barbara. I’m good with that.”

And thus coming this July to a bookstore near you is the novel formerly known as False Pretenses and then as The Cherry Snatch but soon to be known as Played!

A Mystery for the Ages

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The folks at Goodreads.com asked me to answer the following question: What mystery in your own life could be a plot for a book?

I mulled that over for awhile. After all, the life of a trial lawyer is a life of dealing with small and big mysteries in every case. Indeed, like any good detective story, the key to a satisfactory resolution of a lawsuit is to figure out, and then explain to the jury, the main character’s motivations. But rummaging through my old lawsuits seemed an unfair way to seek an answer to the Goodreads question. After all, even we trial lawyers need to deal with the reality that exists outside the courtroom.

And thus, after much thought, I came up with the following answer:

Our wedding day: August. 17, 1975

As a trial attorney by day, I get forced to try to solve mysteries in every case, but picking one of those feels like picking one of the low hanging fruits of mysteries.

The deeper, more intriguing, and often more rewarding mysteries are how each of us got to where we are. My marriage is a perfect example. My wife Margi is the child of two Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe. They both somehow survived the concentration camps (unlike many in their families and millions of others) and, through a convoluted sequence of post-WWII events, ended up in St. Louis, where someone fixed them up on a blind date. (They had never met before.) They fell in love, got married, and had two little girls, Margi and her little sister Bobbie. I met Margi in high school, promptly fell madly in love, and we were married the summer after her college education.

5 kids and 5 grandkids later!

Now step back and pretend that you are a Las Vegas odds maker. What are the odds that Margi’s parents would both have survived the camps, much less both moved to St. Louis, much less met and got married, much less had a little girl named Margi, much less sent her to the same high school as me? While those odds seem so astronomical as to qualify as a mystery for the ages, I guarantee that if you trace your own life back a few generations your odds will qualify as well.

Does Size Matter? An NSFW Episode in American Literature

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Ernest Hemingway

As you may have guessed, the topic of this post is a penis. No ordinary penis, either. Indeed, the scene opens like the beginning of a joke: two literary lions walk into a bar in Paris. One will soon confide to the other his concerns about his penis. Specifically, about its size. And the scene will be immortalized in what may well be the apex (or, more accurately, the nadir) of passive-aggressive humiliation in American literature.

But first, some background:

I was browsing in a used bookstore the other day and came across a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, his classic memoir of Paris in the 1920s, published posthumously in 1964. I first read this beautifully evocative book nearly a quarter of a century ago. And all these years later, I could still remember his depictions of the life of a struggling, young, expatriate journalist and writer, still madly in love with his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Part of the fun of A Moveable Feast was reading of his encounters with other great artists of that era, including John Dos Passos, Ford Maddox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas. And, of course, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

The memoir’s influence continues to this day, having inspired, among other things, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. In that film, a nostalgic screenwriter (played by Owen Wilson), while on a trip to Paris with his fiancée’s family, finds himself mysteriously going back to the Paris of the 1920s every day at midnight. Those time-travel portions evoke scenes inspired by the Hemingway memoir, including interactions with Gertrude Stein, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. The Wilson character uses the phrase “a moveable feast” at least twice in the film, and a copy of the book appears in one scene

But back to F. Scott Fitzgerald. As I walked to the counter to buy the book, I had this vague memory of a bizarre encounter between Hemingway and Fitzgerald in which the topic was the size of Fitzgerald’s penis. And thus when I returned home with my copy of A Moveable Feast, I set aside my higher literary ambitions and instead scanned the table of contents in search of a promising chapter heading. And there it was: Chapter 19, entitled “A Matter of Measurement.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

The chapter opens with Hemingway explaining that Fitzgerald had asked him to meet for lunch at a restaurant. “He said he had something very important to ask me and that I must answer him absolutely truly. I said that I would do the best I could.”

They meet at the restaurant. “We talked about our work and about people and he asked me about people that we had been out of touch with.”

Hemingway keeps waiting “for it to come, the thing that I had to tell the absolute truth about; but he would not bring it up until the end of the meal, as though we were having a business lunch.”

Finally, as they are eating a cherry tart and drinking another carafe of wine, Fitzgerald gets to the point: “Zelda said that the way I was built I could never make any woman happy and that was what upset her originally. She said it was a matter of measurements. I have never felt the same since she said that and I have to know truly.”

What follows next is, well, unique. I’ll let Hemingway take over:

“Come out to the office,” I said. “Or you go out first.”

“Where is the office?”

Le water,” I said.

We came back into the room and sat down at the table.

“You’re perfectly fine,” I said. “You are O.K. There’s nothing wrong with you. You look at yourself from above and you look foreshortened. Go over to the Louvre and look at the people in the statues then go home and look at yourself in the mirror.”

“Those statues may not be accurate.”

“They are pretty good. Most people would settle for them.”

“But why would she say that?”

“To put you out of business. That’s the oldest way to putting people out of business in the world.”

He takes Fitzgerald over to the Louvre to look at statues, but Fitzgerald remains doubtful, thus triggering the final bit of advice from Hemingway:

“It is not basically a question of the size in repose,” I said. “It is the size it becomes. It is also a question of angle.” I explained to him about using a pillow and a few other things that might be useful for him to know.”

It is an unforgettable scene, with an observation from Hemingway that has no doubt stuck with many male readers: “You look at yourself from above and you look foreshortened.”

But when I closed the book I found myself thinking about what Hemingway had done. As a lawyer by day, I would describe the contents of that chapter as an indisputable (and despicable) invasion of privacy. One can hardly imagine a more private, painful, and embarrassing disclosure than the one Fitzgerald shared with Hemingway, and which Hemingway then shared with the world.

Often, when I see a Shakespeare play or watch a movie version of a Jane Austen novel, I find myself hoping that there is indeed an afterlife so that Shakespeare and Austen and all of the other artists, many whom died, like Herman Melville, in obscurity, can bask in the heavenly glory of their immortal art.

But when I closed the book after reading Chapter 19, I found myself hoping that, at least for F. Scott Fitzgerald, who died years before publication of A Moveable Feast, there is no afterlife.

Bringing Up the Rear: The Literary Mic Drop

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Many years ago, my agent offered me the following advice: “The most important sentence of your novel is the first one. The second most important sentence is the last one.”

There certainly have been vivid, memorable first lines, many of which we can quote by heart–from “Call me Ishmael” in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick to “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” in George Orwell’s 1984. At the top my list is the first sentence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Each one accomplishes the author’s goal: to entice you into reading the next sentence, and, hopefully, the one after that, and so on and so on and so on.

But that final line–the one just before the curtain comes down–is even more important. The reader needs it for a sense of closure. And the author needs it to encourage the reader to pick up his or her next novel. It is the literary equivalent of the mic drop.

The masters of the literary mic drop have crafted some memorable closing lines. There is The Great Gatsby, which F. Scott Fitzgerald ends: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” And Huckleberry Finn, which Mark Twain ends: “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” And my favorite, from James Joyce’s novella The Dead: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

And more often–as is the case with The Great Gatsby and so many other novels–that last line is perfectly set up by a lead in. Perhaps the most famous example is Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, with Lady Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes in the back of a taxi:

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly, pressing Brett against me.

“Yes,” I said. ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

No genre needs a good final sentence more than the mystery novel, whose goal is to bring order back into the world by the final chapter. I decided to flip to the back page of some of my favorite mystery novels. Here’s what I found:

One of Raymond Chandler finest novels is The Long Goodbye, which he ends with a two-sentence paragraph that beautifully captures the moment and our protagonist:

I never saw any of them again–except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.

Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon ends with Sam Spade seated at his desk as someone enters the outer office. His secretary Effie Perine quickly goes into the outer office, shutting the door behind her:

When she came back in again she shut it behind her. She said in a small flat voice: “Iva is here.”

Spade, looking at his desk, nodded almost imperceptiby. “Yes,” he said, and shivered. “Well, send her in.”

And then there is this powerful and poignant closing line, which comes from the one mystery novel that you will never find in the mystery section of your bookstore. I refer to William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom–one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century and, as I’ve previously written, one of the great murder mysteries in American literature. It is the tale of the rise and mysterious death of Thomas Sutpen at the end of the Civil War, told entirely in flashbacks narrated decades later, mostly by Quentin Compson to his roommate at Harvard University. This is the same Quentin Compson whose subsequent suicide occurs in The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner closes Absalom, Absalom with Quentin’s anguished thoughts:

I don’t hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!

And, finally, I end with the ending from my third novel Firm Ambitions–an ending I borrowed from my favorite Hollywood ending. Rachel Gold, having concluded a nasty divorce case that morphed into a murder case, receives a surprise phone call from Max Feigelbaum, who she describes as “a tanned and ruthless little ferret who wore dark glasses and Italian suits and was one of the most feared divorce lawyers in Chicago.” He wants her to handle a divorce case in St. Louis. Rachel tries to beg off, explaining, “I’m getting out of divorce work.” He tells her she’ll “want to make an exception for this one. It’s a beaut.”

As he explains the case, Rachel feels her pulse quicken. “Asking a trial lawyer if she wants to take part in a good courtroom battle,” she explains, “is like asking a ballplayer if he wants to take part in a World Series.”

She finally agrees, and the novel ends:

“Maxie,” I said with a smile, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”