The Mystery Surrounding ‘The Sand Men’

Reading & Writing


Before the incredible review for ‘The Sand Men’ in Starburst came in, a pricey new magazine called Crime Scene reviewed it, and for the most part was a rave, with one cavil; a worry from reviewer David Bradley that it has ‘no clear ending’. Personally, I think it has a very clear ending – I’ve just chosen not to spell it out in huge black and white letters.

It was important to me that the reader should be able to make up her or his mind about the protagonist and the situation, both of which are clearly delineated. What’s very deliberately not spelled out is just how much of the heroine’s theory is to be believed, because ‘The Sand Men’ is a story with two mysteries, one inside the other, and the main one is clearly resolved while the minor one is not.

When I wrote the book I laid out a huge graph in my living room which showed everything that happens in the book, some questionable things that may have happened and one or two things that clearly don’t happen. I even put the clue to the truth in the book’s title.

To properly see inside the strange world of ex-pats living in a city like Dubai, you have to start thinking like an outsider looking in and getting paranoid. The thing that tipped me off to the realisation that Mr Bradley didn’t quite get the book was that he called the heroine ‘trustworthy’ when she is clearly anything but. That’s absolutely fine, because he’s a crime reviewer. Luckily for me the excellent Solaris, who are publishing the book, allow me the headway to explore a more experimental style of writing. I did puzzle about what it was doing in a crime magazine, as I think of it more as SF, and an homage to JG Ballard. The reviewer said its images stuck in the mind long after the book had been returned to the shelf, which was very nice of him.

This made me think about other novels. Should thrillers always be unambiguous? Should everything be tied up in a neat bow at the end? What if you have an unreliable narrator? What if there are further mysteries to resolve? How can you ever know the exact truth?

So I’d like to know; are there any thrillers in which the full story is not neatly resolved? The most obvious one I can think of is ‘Snowdrops’ by AD Miller, in which it is hard to see whether a crime as been committed at all. It’s a brilliant read, and remains the only thing Miller has written, to my knowledge.

All suggestions to the shouty saloon bar that is our forum, below.


5 comments on “The Mystery Surrounding ‘The Sand Men’”

  1. Ford says:

    I read a while ago, but how about The behaviour of moths / by Poppy Adams? (Not crime, or a thriller) We only get the narrator’s view; who is obviouisly, very unreliable!

  2. DebbyS says:

    Hmm, this is an interesting topic. One of the appeals of traditional crime fiction is the very lack of ambiguity: you have a beginning, a middle and an end and you always find out whodunnit, with no loose ends. Here’s hoping that reading The Sand Men will help me develop a more sophisticated palate.

  3. Ken Mann says:

    I’m happy with any amount of ambiguity provided I have the feeling that the author knows what is going on. Ambiguity because the writer couldn’t be arsed to work out what is going on in their own story is another matter.

  4. Anthony says:

    Not crime but the ‘ending’ to George RR Martin’s big fun “dying of the light” leaves the reader to decide what happens next. The Invisibles graphic novel on the other hand just left me feeling like Grant Morrison couldn’t be bothered tying up his loose ends. Must think of some others.

  5. Ken Mann says:

    I just came across a new variant. Episode 1 of the new BBC series “River” features a policeman who can see ghosts. Are they “real” or are they figments of his mental state? The conventional technique is to leave out details that would settle it one way or the other until the final scene/episode. This time round the writer seems to have included details that definitively settle the matter from the off, but includes details that settle it both ways at different points. She is either doing something really clever or she has made a mistake. Fortunately I enjoyed it enough to be around for episode 2, though I will be annoyed if it turns out to be just a mistake.

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