Paul Burke’s Top Ten Gruesome, Unusual and Sad Endings

Article published on March 26, 2018.

Basically, I mean murder, suicide or tragedy. A couple of these endings are real deaths but as seen through fictional accounts. A couple are off the page, most are within the story but they are all important to the narrative. Maybe I’ll come up with something more cheerful next month but for now…


  1. The cat did it! Death in August by Marco Vichi. Florence, 1963, a sweltering, draining Inspector Bordelli is one of the few policemen left in the city when a rich old woman is murdered. When Signora Pedretti-Strassen’s body is found in bed her medicine bottle is right beside her and yet she has suffered a fatal asthma attack. Bordelli investigates but all the principal suspects have alibis. It turns out the killer used a cat sprinkled with pollen and lured through the bedroom window, which triggered the old lady’s condition. The tale is more serious than it sounds and the beginning of a great series set in 60s Italy.
  2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. A psychiatric ward controlled by the nurse from hell, Big Nurse Ratched. It’s a nightmare for the patients until Randle McMurphy is admitted and shakes things up. As if Billy’s suicide isn’t tragic enough, McMurphy meets his end at the hands of Indian Chief Bromden, an act of compassion because he has been lobotomised.
  3. Cogs Tyrannic by John Arden. Normally known for his plays, Arden wrote this collection of novellas containing four stories. One dealing with the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester rail line in 1830. William Huskisson, government minster sent to open the first public railway line has gone down in history as the first person to be killed by a train. He died in Eccles after being hit by Stephenson’s Rocket.
  4. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. Social realism with a bang, it doesn’t make you want to cry so much as bleed. The day after Jude and Sue arrive in Christminster (the family has become nomadic because the couple are unmarried and it is hard to find work). Jude’s troubled son, from a previous relationship, kills his two half siblings and commits suicide. His reason, poverty, “Done because we are too many”.
  5. The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor. A great new thriller that deals with the assassination of the Dictator by the conspirators he took to be his friends: Cassius, Decimus Brutus and Marcus Brutus (supported by many other prominent Romans of course). Stabbed 23 times, Caesar struggles to cover his modesty as he dies. This must be one of the few events in history we all know? It makes a great part of an engaging fiction.
  6. The Dramatist by Ken Bruen. When Irish PI Jack Taylor, notorious drunkard, starts getting his life together and the possibility of a happy ending rears its head tragedy strikes. Sober all Christmas, his friends Cathy and Jeff ask Taylor to babysit lovely little, Serena May. She is the light of their lives. Jack opens the flat window for a bit of air and drifts into his own thoughts. It’s the shouts and screams from the street below that alert him to Serena May’s fall. Jack can’t face it and sinks into another spiral of decline – he has never fully recovered. Others around Jack have died since, but to be honest not all of them are his fault.
  7. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Lennie Small is ‘mentally disabled’, he has a low IQ. He and George begin working for a farmer, whose son, Curley, has a chip in his shoulder and is always getting at Lennie. George and Lennie try to keep to themselves but Curley’s wife likes Lennie. They are talking in a barn, he strokes her hair, she screams, it’s a misunderstanding but Lennie panics and kills her. George is forced to shoot his friend before he is lynched.
  8. I Will Have Vengeance by Maurizio de Giovanni. Maestro Vezzi is brutally murdered in his dressing room at Naples San Carlo Theatre. In this case, it isn’t so much the specific murder as the presence of detective Commissario Riccardi that matters. This and the other eight novels in the series are memorable for Riccardi’s sense of the dead. He feels the presence of the victims. It adds a haunting quality to the murder investigations in fascist Italy.
  9. Rosa by Jonathan Rabb. Five women have been murdered in ravaged Berlin at the end of WWI. The sixth victim turns out to be socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. The case turns political in this fantastic, nail-biting fictionalisation of a true story. Luxemburg was arrested/kidnapped in January, 1919, then brutally murdered by the police whilst in custody and dumped like trash a few months later. Detective Inspector Hoffner and his sidekick Fichte are great characters. Apart from thrilling this is also a wonderful insight into the dying Weimar Republic.
  10. Eat Him If You Like by Jean Tealé. At the time of the Franco-Prussian War, Deputy Mayor of Beaussac, Alain, attends the fair as Hautefaye, a nearby village. The people of Hautefaye take him for a German spy and kill him, eventually roasting him on a spit, hence the title. Strangely, this is a true story and in a short novel Teulé gives a version of what happened that doesn’t explain it but does make you realise how powerful hysteria can be and the effect it can have on a crowd.


Paul Burke
March 2018


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