Most of us read crime novels for the stories. Plots, characters, settings and so on draw us in when they’re done well, and they keep us interested. But if you look a little deeper, you can also often see some larger themes in crime novels. A novel’s theme may not be the reason you choose to read it, or even the reason you richly enjoy it (or don’t!), but a theme can add to a novel and give the reader something to think about when the novel is finished. And it’s surprising how many crime novels and series address larger themes without losing focus on the stories themselves.
For example, the theme of justice is explored in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is on his way across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. On the second night of the journey, he’s stabbed. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same coach. Since Hercule Poirot is among that group, he’s asked to investigate and see if he can find the killer before the train gets to the next international border. The idea is that if he can present the solution to the police, there’ll be less trouble and delay. Poirot agrees and interviews all of the passengers. He also finds out what he can about their backgrounds. In the end, we find that this killing has its roots in a past event. Throughout this novel, questions of justice, what constitutes justice and how we serve justice are raised. It’s really a very important theme here.
Of course, justice is a theme in a lot of other crime fiction too. So is family. Gail Bowen explores that theme quite often. Her sleuth is Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, an academic and political scientist who has her own family. Several story arcs and sub-plots involve her family members. But Bowen explores family in other ways too. For instance, in The Nesting Dolls, an unknown young woman gives a baby to a friend of Joanne’s daughter Taylor. With the baby is a note identifying the mother as Abby Michaels. Abby makes it clear that she wants Isobel’s mother Delia to have full custody of the child. The situation is very complex, and of course a search is made for Abby. But she seems to have disappeared. She’s later found raped and murdered, her body left in her car. The themes of family in its many forms, family ties and family identity come up clearly in this novel.
Ruth Rendell explores family quite frequently too, both under her own name and under the pen name of Barbara Vine. Of course, those novels (I’m thinking for instance of A Dark-Adapted Eye) often explore families that aren’t particularly healthy. The theme of what family is and how family ties play out is a strong characteristic of her work though.
Honour is explored in a lot of crime fiction too. In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight for instance, Superintendent Frank Swann of the Perth Police investigates the murder of brothel owner Ruby Devine. Although they were on opposite sides of the law, so to speak, they were friends, and he is determined to find out who killed her. It’s not going to be easy though. Swann’s run afoul of the ‘purple circle,’ a group of fellow cops he reported for corruption. He’s ‘broken the code,’ so very few people will co-operate with him. Little by little though, Swann finds out the truth about Ruby Devine’s death. The theme of honour, of who has honour and of what it means and can cost is clear in this novel. And yet, the story itself is the main focus.
That’s also true in Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. The main plot is the murder one morning of Tasmania Police Sergeant John White. The main suspect in the killing is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley. For various reasons, the police have to tread carefully in this case to make sure that everything is done ‘by the book.’ But in the end, we do find out the truth about White’s murder. Throughout the novel, the theme of loyalty comes up in several ways. For example, there’s the loyalty that White’s colleagues had towards him. There’s the loyalty that’s expected in general among cops. And there are other kinds of loyalty too. We see how that loyalty can be both an important social ‘glue’ and an impediment. But the real central focus of the novel is the murder, its investigation and its effects on everyone involved.
Guilt is a theme that’s often explored in crime fiction. Certainly we see it clearly in Arnaldur Indriðason’s series featuring Inspector Erlendur. One of the story arcs that runs through this series is Erlendur’s search for the truth about his younger brother Bergur’s fate. Years earlier, when the two were boys, Bergur was lost during a terrible blizzard, and Erlendur has always felt responsibility and guilt about this, since he was supposed to be ‘in charge.’ That guilt plays a powerful role in his thinking and choices. Guilt also plays a role in some of mystery plots in this series too. For instance, guilt is woven into the plot of Jar City, in which Erlendur and his team investigate the murder of a seemingly inoffensive old man named Holberg. The more they dig into his past though, the more possibility there is that he wasn’t as inoffensive as it seemed. As the case goes on, we see the theme of guilt in Holberg’s life. Guilt is also explored in the way that various people who knew Holberg react. But that theme doesn’t take over. The mystery plot is the focus of this novel.
And that’s the thing about an effective use of theme in a crime novel. Themes can add richness to a novel, and a layer of interest. They can also make the reader remember a novel long after it’s done. But the main focus of the high-quality crime novel is its plot, characters and context.
There’s only been space here for a few themes and examples. Which main themes do you see in the crime fiction you like to read? If you’re a writer, do you consciously address themes?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Limelight.