Davy Crockett, Peter Pan, Elvis Presley, Disneyland*

Pop CultureWhether 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Liza Marklund, Marshall Karp, Riley Adams, Robert Crais, Tarquin Hall

16 responses to “Davy Crockett, Peter Pan, Elvis Presley, Disneyland*

  1. What an interesting topic! It’s a fine balance isn’t it? Too many pop culture references can date a book badly, but the RIGHT amount adds to their interest. And you can get a sense of history from long-running authors. It is obvious from books written in the 20s and 30s that the celebrity culture is not as new as people claim, it is taken for granted in novels that star actresses (for instance) will be pursued, and that the general public will be interested in their goings-on. I have a real fondness for older books where the great days of theatre-going feature – the first nights, the actor-managers, the audience in evening dress, the divas and their men. Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Christie to some extent – and Noel Streatfeild, if I can move from murder stories! Great post.

    • Moira – Right you are indeed about the need to balance how much pop culture to include in a novel or series. As you say, the right number and type of references give the reader a very valuable sense of time and place. Too many references, or references that are too obscure, can as you say date a book obviously. For the writer, it is sometimes hard to know exactly what that balance is.
      And you’re quite right about the novels of the ’20’s and ’30’s and their depictions of movie and theatre celebrities. The pop culture theme of celebrity worship didn’t start with reality TV stars! As I read your comment I thought about those terrific novels and films where elegant theatre stars and movie celebrities go to opening night parties and eager ‘stargazers’ watch them enter and leave. There’s a certain sophistication in those stories isn’t there? You’ve filled in that gap beautifully for which thanks. And thanks for the kind words too.

  2. Pop music definitely makes it into British crime fiction – Ruth Rendell’s ‘Some Lie and Some Die’ and Peter Robinson’s ‘Piece of my Heart’. But writers have to be careful as some cultural references don’t travel well.

    Some US references pass me by and I’m sure it would be the same with UK ones abroad.It’s a bit like me trying to explain who Jimmy Saville (a v popular children’s entertainer in the 1970s who has just been revealed as a paedophine) was to an friend from NZ. It’s really difficult to find a comparison when you don’t know their culture.

    • Sarah – Those examples you gave really support your point (And I love those titles you mentioned! Oh, and folks, the books are good, too). It is important for a writer to keep in mind the audience and be sure that readers are likely to know any pop culture references. As you say, some (like references to certain pop music and really widely-known celebrities) travel. So do references to worldwide companies. But others simply don’t. And not understanding a reference can pull the reader right out of a story.

  3. Margot: An interesting post. I agree that television appears in mysteries but I maintain it is rarely present in the lives of fictional sleuths. Far fewer sleuths watch T.V. than the general population. I have done one listing of non-T.V. watching sleuths. Your post reminds me I should do another random sampling to see how often a sleuth sits before a television.

  4. Lovely post. And great examples, spanning the entire gamut of pop culture. How you do it, I really don’t know, Margot, but you manage to come up with such interesting posts day after day.
    Don’t remember the name, but wasn’t it the movie about a cat and a bunch of dogs? Vaguely remember it.

    • Natasha – How kind of you 🙂 – Thank you! And you have a better memory than you think. The film does indeed star a cat named Oliver who gets mixed up with a bunch of dogs. It was Disney’s Oliver and Company and Mr. Joel did the voice of Dodger who was the leader of the dogs. The story is loosely – very, very loosely – based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

  5. Fascinating, Ms. Kinberg. The first example of pop culture in crime-fiction (if I can call it that) that comes to my mind is smoking and drinking. I don’t think I have read about too many fictional sleuths and police investigators who don’t do one or the other. Some of them play cards too, the role of an unintended gambler often serving as a suitable decoy while solving a case.

    I think Billy Joel was a trendsetter with “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. I’m amazed no other singer has come forward with a 21st century version of the song that will definitely have the word “blog” or “blogger” in it.

    • Prashant – It’s funny you’d mention a 21st Century update of We Didn’t Start the Fire. In one of my daughter’s history classes, she was assigned to add a few verses to that song to update it. It was a way to help students remember and think about some of the most important news events in recent history. And if Mr. Joel or someone else does update the song, I’ll bet it will refer to blogging…
      Interesting too that you’d mention smoking, drinking and card-playing. All of them have been important parts of popular culture (although of course in recent decades, smoking is becoming more and more limited). And yes, lots and lots of sleuths do at least one of those things as they solve cases, probably without even thinking that they’re being drawn to pop culture.

  6. Skywatcher

    The use of pop culture references seemed to me to begin in earnest with Stephen King, whose referencing of TV and music is useful in creating a feeling of down-to-earth reality, but will lead to the stories dating far more quickly. Attempting to make a period piece credible by introducing the culture of the period is a potential minefield (it always irritates me when characters talk about someone like Noel Coward, who is still remembered, but never say anything like ” I say, have you read the latest Eden Philpotts?” It’s as if they know which pop culture references will still be recognised a century later!

    The first example of referencing habit might go as far back as 1887 and A STUDY IN SCARLET, where Holmes is critical of other fictional detectives Dupin and Lecoq.In the short stories, Watson also mentions in passing such authors as W. Clark Russell who are pretty much unknown nowadays.

    • Skywatcher – Interesting point about Stephen King. I honestly don’t think of him when I think of crime fiction (which is really quite wrong of me as what he writes certainly involves crime). At any rate, you are quite right that his work references pop culture. I agree with you too that it is difficult to integrate enough of the right kind of pop culture without either dating a book or in otherwise really pulling readers right out of the story (Philpotts? Really?).
      You’ve a well-taken point too about the Conan Doyle stories. I’m glad that you filled in that gap for me.

  7. It’s true that using too many references to pop culture dates a mystery quickly, but we also have to be careful about business and technology references as well as politics for the same reasons.

    • Pat – Oh, absolutely and 100% correct! Any references that are too specific and too closely associated with a particular time are likely to date a book. Same thing with references to particular people. Good point!

  8. I remember when Bobbie Ann Mason used a lot of references and it began to be called KMart Realism It’s funny how it went from being cool to dated in a few years. And now with the mention of technology, you really risk dating yourself. Best to set things in the past if possible.

    • Patti – I love that term KMart Realism. And you’re quite right that it’s easy to date a book if the pop culture references are too specific and there are too many of them. And oh, yes, technology, too.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s