Whether it’s ‘franchise’ movies, fashion magazines, reality TV, video games or something else, pop culture is a big part of a lot of people’s lives. So it shouldn’t at all be surprising that we would see pop culture in crime fiction too. After all, why shouldn’t fictional characters read a gossip magazine or go to a theme park or an ‘action figure’ film? It makes sense when you think of how pervasive pop culture is in our lives.
And it’s been around for a long time, too. For example, we see pop culture in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). In that novel, famous movie star Marina Gregg and her husband have purchased Gossington Hall, which Christie fans will remember was the home of Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly (The Body in the Library). It’s soon announced that the remodeled home will be open to the public at a charity fête and lots of the locals are excited to see the house and perhaps meet a famous movie star. Especially excited is Heather Badcock, who is very much a fan of Marina Gregg. In fact, Heather gets the chance to meet her idol, but is sickened and dies soon afterwards. At first, it’s thought that the drink that poisoned her was originally intended for the movie star. But soon enough, Miss Marple and Dolly Bantry figure out that Heather was the intended victim the whole time. Film celebrities and the pop culture that surrounds them are an important part of this novel.
The first Walt Disney film was made in 1928 and since that time, Disney films, television shows and networks, and theme parks have become integral parts of pop culture. I’ve even used a few Disney song lyrics as titles for posts.** So it shouldn’t be surprising that Disney shows up in crime fiction too. Robert Crais’ Elivs Cole for instance has a Mickey Mouse clock on the wall of his office, and in Lullaby Town, he wears a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt. And that’s not the only story in which he wears pop-culture franchised clothes.
We see pop culture in Marshall Karp’s The Rabbit Factory, which features his LAPD cops Mike Lomax and Terry Biggs. Eddie Elkins is an actor who portrays Rambunctious Rabbit, the ‘star’ of popular theme park Familyland. When Elkins is found strangled, Lomax and Biggs investigate the murder. They’re shocked to find that the victim was really convicted child molester Edward Ellison. So at first, it looks as though this murder was revenge for a horrendous crime. But soon enough it turns out to be more complex than that. Ellison’s death is actually the first in a series of deaths intended to ruin the network that created Familyland. Throughout this novel we see how pervasive theme-park and television culture can be.
Malls are another important part of pop culture. With their franchised store brands and ‘food court’ restaurants, they’ve been woven into pop culture life for several decades. There’s a stark and sometimes darkly funny look at the mall culture in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. When Green Oaks shopping center opens in 1984, ten-year-old Kate Meaney is sure that it’s going to be a magnet for all sorts of criminals and that suits her just fine. She’s a budding detective who’s opened her own agency Falcon Investigations, and she spends a lot of time at the mall watching for suspicious activity. When her grandmother insists that Kate sit the exams at the exclusive Redspoon school, she reluctantly takes the bus there with her friend twenty-two-year-old Adrian Palmer. She never returns though, and everyone thinks that Palmer is responsible for her disappearance. In fact his life is made so unbearable that he leaves town. Twenty years later, the real truth about what happened to Kate is slowly revealed when Palmer’s sister Lisa strikes up an unlikely friendship with Kurt, a security guard at the mall. Kurt’s been seeing some strange images on the security cameras – a young girl who seems to look just like Kate. Each in a different way, he and Lisa Palmer re-visit Kate’s disappearance and in the end, we find out what happened to the girl.
One of the most powerful purveyors of pop culture is television. And of course the TV culture is woven throughout crime fiction. I’ll just give a few examples. In Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Delicious and Suspicious, The Cooking Channel’s restaurant critic Rebecca Adrian is visiting Memphis to choose Memphis’ best barbecue restaurant. One of the top contenders is Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, which has been owned by the Taylor family for years. When Adrian is poisoned a few hours after eating at Aunt Pat’s, talk begins to go around that Aunt Pat’s food is to blame. So family matriarch Lulu Taylor investigates the murder to save her restaurant’s reputation and clear her family’s name. Oh, and three of the characters in this novel are docents at Graceland, the Memphis home of Elvis Presley. If that’s not pop culture….
In Liza Marklund’s Prime Time, journalist Annika Bengtzon is assigned to cover the story of the shooting death of Michelle Carlsson, a major TV celebrity. She was in the process of filming a TV series Summer Frolic at the Castle when she was found murdered in one of the television station’s control rooms. As Bengtzon investigates, we see the ‘pop culture power’ of television celebrities and it’s really not surprising because of that that this is deemed to be a major story.
And then there’s Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, in which Delhi investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri investigates the murder of Dr. Suresh Jha. At the same time, his wife Rumpi and his mother Mummy-ji end up involved in their own mystery. They attend a ‘kitty party’ where all of the guests add some money to a kitty. Later, one woman’s name is drawn and she wins the money in the kitty. This party turns out differently though when a thief takes the money. Mummy-ji scratches the robber, hoping that there will be enough DNA evidence from that to catch the person. Later she and Rumpi go to the local forensics laboratory where a good friend of Mummy-ji’s works as a lab technician. Despite their friendship, here’s what he says:
‘Auntie-ji, I think you’ve been watching too much of CSI on Star TV, isn’t it?’
Needless to say, Mummy-ji is not pleased at this dismissal and in the end she insists on and gets her answer. But it does show how pervasive television pop culture is, even in crime fiction.
What about you? Do you indulge in pop culture? It’s OK, you can tell me. I won’t tell. ….
If you do love pop culture, go visit Pop Culture Nerd, a great source for all things pop culture.
** Bonus bragging rights question: In which Disney film does Billy Joel have a major role? No fair Googling!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.