Spoiler Alert! When Reviews Give Away Endings

Agatha Christie’s family and fans are up in arms over Wikipedia’s decision to reveal the ending‚ and the murderer‚ of Christie’sThe Mousetrap, the world’s longest running play. For 58 years, London audiences have been asked at the end of every performance not to reveal the ending, a request apparently kept until now. A British newspaper, The Independent, reports that the online encyclopedia’s policy regarding this matter has been debated among approved Wikipedia committee members. One spokesman is quoted: “Our purpose is to collect and report notable knowledge…. Asking Wikipedia not to reveal the identity of the murderer is like asking a library to remove copies of The Mousetrap book from shelves because someone could just go and read the end.” Another committee member disagreed, arguing that the revelation “breaches an oral contract between the actors and the audience….Given the importance of Wikipedia on the internet, I believe that they have a duty to protect this contract, as its breach is completely disrespectful of an old and well-kept tradition.”

This monsoon in a mousetrap got me thinking about the unwritten first commandment of fiction book reviewing: thou shalt not spoil a reader’s potential enjoyment by revealing a book’s ending in your review. As I recently discovered with my reviews for Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May off the Rails and Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile (in the September 15 issue of LJ), this rule gets tricky with sequels and series titles in which the plot turns of previous books are key elements of the novel under review. How do you write about such a book without either being too vague or including too many plot spoilers?

Fowler’s eighth title about two elderly London detectives opens immediately where Bryant and May on the Loose left off. SPOILER ALERT! That cliff-hanger of an ending‚ the murder of a police office and the killer’s escape‚ had shocked me, and I struggled with how much to reveal in my review for the new book. I decided I couldn’t omit discussing the key event that propels Bryant & May off the Rails, but I chose not to identify the murdered officer, hoping new readers of Bryant and May on the Loose will still be surprised.

Likewise, Lehane’s new novel is a sequel to his acclaimed Gone, Baby, Gone, and picks up the action 12 years after Boston PI Patrick Kenzie (SPOILER ALERT!) returned a kidnapped child to her neglectful mother. As Patrick’s guilt (he knows he was legally right but morally wrong in his actions) is a driving force in Moonlight Mile, the haunting conclusion of the preceding book cannot be ignored in any review.

The issue of spoilers also came up with last week’s release of Mockingjay, Susanne Collins’s highly anticipated conclusion to her” Hunger Games” YA trilogy. LJ Book Review Managing Editor Anna Katterjohn found it difficult to write the review for this week’s LJXpress newsletter (sign up here) without giving too much plot away, and the survey of other Mockingjay reviews by the Baltimore Sun‘s Read Street blog was spoiler-free.

Of course, some readers do enjoy spoilers, and maybe Wikipedia was right to reveal the ending ofThe Mousetrap in its quest to collect and report on all notable knowledge. But I’m curious. Do any print encyclopedias identify Christie’s country-house murderer? The first three librarians who email me at wwilliams@mediasourceinc.com with the answer will get a free advance reader’s copy of Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile.

Wilda Williams About Wilda Williams

Wilda "Willy" Williams (wwilliams@mediasourceinc.com) is LJ's Fiction Editor. She specializes in popular fiction and edits the Mystery, Science Fiction, Christian Fiction, and Word on Street Lit columns.


  1. Wikipedia also reveals the twist ending for The Sixth Sense and for Psycho, which Hitch explicitly asked us not to reveal. For how long are we supposed to keep secrets? I played Christopher Wren in The Mousetrap, so I know the killer, but I never promised anyone that I wouldn’t tell (but then, no one has ever asked,… no matter how much I plead with them). But in the Wikipedia entry, there is no “spoiler alert” under the heading, “Identity of the murderer.” You have the first paragraph which says that at each performance, the audience is asked not to reveal the ending, but then in the next, they reveal the killer (???). They should use spoiler tags to mask the reveal; it doesn’t matter that they are an encyclopedia. I could only find the named killer in Gale’s Drama for Students (v2)… but come on, how can you critique the play without knowing the ending? Oh, and Norman has been dressing up as his own dead mother. Oops.

  2. Wilda Williams says:

    Dear Effing.librarian, I agree you can’t be expected to keep a secret forever. On the other hand, there is much to be said for the pleasure of a surprise or shocking ending and to deny newbies that pleasure without some advance warning is not very sporting of Wikipedia. When I saw Psycho for the first time as a college student in the dark ages before the arrival of the Internet, we all knew about the infamous shower scene, but the entire audience still screamed with horror. Now you can preview that scene on YouTube, thus lessening the film’s impact. You do qualify for a free copy of Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile, so shoot me an email at wwilliams@mediasourceinc.com with your address. I promise to keep your true identity a secret!

  3. It is the prerogative of the book reviewer, especially at a reputable publication (something on a higher plane than, say, Mad Magazine) whether to reveal the ending. Consequently, I never read any reviews of the final Harry Potter book until after I read it. However, for a movie review to reveal the ending is un-forgiveable.

  4. Outstanding info for humane mousetraps for getting me started. I will keep this particular website link and come back to it.