The Underlying Theme*

ThemesofBooksMost 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.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Barbara Vine, David Whish-Wilson, Gail Bowen, Ruth Rendell, Y.A. Erskine

33 responses to “The Underlying Theme*

  1. Murder on the Orient Express is indeed a masterpiece. Your introduction is interesting as last night at my talk I was asked why I thought women wanted to read violent novels, was it to do with the detached nature of the violence, meaning you could experience it without the reality. I chose to answer that by explaining why I read cosy crime, (that although contained murder, was not gratuitously violent), and that that was the puzzle and the motivation behind the crime: the psychology of the characters involved.

  2. Margot, as always you inspire me to look at stories in a new light. I hadn’t really thought about it, but family does feature as the theme in so many novels. Sometimes we’re so focused on discovering who the killer is or the killer being caught that the information about family and their ‘off duty’ life, we just absorb it with the story. One that comes to mind, but I can’t for the life of me remember the name of it. 😦 Maybe later.

    • Mason – I think that’s the thing about themes such as justice, family, loyalty, and so on. When it’s done well, they are woven into a story so that one doesn’t think about them separately, at least at first. Rather, one just follows the story to find out how it ends and what happens next. But those themes really are there I think if you look for them. And if you do think of the author, the title or something about the novel you have in mind, please feel free to stop back and say so.

  3. Margot, I especially like family as a theme. In the Bernard Samson series, Len Deighton explores family and relationships. Bernard’s relationship with his father, his relationship with his own family and his close friend from his childhood, and even relationships with his co-workers. I have only read the first six in the series, but I hope that continues in the last three.

    • Tracy – Family is such a rich topic isn’t it? And I’m very glad that you brought up Len Deighton too. He’s an author whose work I’ve been meaning to spotlight for a while and just haven’t yet. Shame on me!

  4. I think Adrian McKinty does a brilliant job of shedding light on big picture politics – specifically, the Northern Island – conflict in his Sean Duffy police procedurals.

    For my part, I love reading crime fiction that provides insight into power and justice – even better if it teaches me something new about a part of the world I don’t know.

    • Angela – Thanks for mentioning McKinty, an author I mean to spotlight. I agree that he does a terrific job of using politics as a theme. And the themes of power (and who has it) and justice (and who gets it, whatever it is) are important and compelling. Little wonder you dive into crime fiction that treats that theme.

  5. kathy d.

    I agree on liking bigger themes that discuss world issues, or even a few social issues within a country. But the characters have to be interesting and the writing good, as Sara Paretsky does so well in combining these aspects — and always having a theme or two.
    And Donna Leon does this well, too.
    Other authors can pull us in with themes of family dynamics, as does Tana French.
    Those of us who are legal beagles like legal/courtroom themes done well. And I like financial wheeling and dealing, although haven’t seen much about the recent Recession, bailout, big bank finagling, etc.
    And just what are Fred Vargas’ themes? Her fans, including me, love whatever she’s writing about, but often there are several threads being juggled in the air, all well. Often Medieval myths and folklore are involved, although motives are usually more complicated. Family dynamics can be part of it, like the zany family in Ghost Riders of Ordebec. The village settings always add to her books.

    • Kathy – You have an important point. Larger themes like family, the nature of power, etc., aren’t in themselves enough to keep the reader interested. There also need to be interesting characters, a solid plot and so on. And authors such as Sara Paretsky, Tana French, Donna Leon and Fred Vargas have a lot of loyal fans because they focus their novels on the characters and the plots in their stories. The larger themes, such as loyalty, justice, etc., are woven in, but they aren’t the main focus.

  6. Col

    I probably don’t read books because of this element. It’s perhaps something I recognise retrospectively after perhaps considering a couple of an author’s books.
    Persson has a lot to say regarding how Swedish society has changed in the past 30 or 40 years, but I probably don’t understand his message, or in truth don’t care to especially because its not a subject that interests me a great deal. .
    John Ball’s first Virgil Tibbs book concerned racism and attitudes and educating people by example and behaviour, but not having read more by him with Tibbs I don’t know if race is an underlying theme in the rest of his books.

    • Col – I’d suspect you’re not alone in noticing themes after you’ve had some time to digest a novel and possibly others by the same author. Those larger themes are I think more subtly woven into a well-written novel, so that they don’t call attention to themselves straight off. And you make an interesting point about how themes may appear in more than one book. I’m thinking for instance of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, who addresses themes of family in several of her novels. She addresses the nature of change, too. Perhaps those larger themes are more apparent, as you say, once a person’s read a few novels by a given author. Interesting point, for which thanks.

  7. The extent to which police officers can break the rules in order to secure a conviction without losing the reader’s sympathy is a theme I have tried to address. How bad do you have to be to become a bent cop? I think, from the writer’s point of view, much depends on whether the character in question is likeable; an attractive character gets off with a lot. What I want is for readers to ask themselves: I’m on his side, but was he right to do what he did to get his result?

    • Ian – You bring up a very important theme in crime fiction: police behaviour. It’s not realistic if a police officer can just do anything to get a conviction. That’s not how it works in real life and I think you’re right that it loses reader sympathy. At the same time, there are police who push the limits. What’s more, depending on the crime, etc., we may really be on the side of the police, even if the officer does things not exactly according to the rules. It’s not an easy balance to achieve.

  8. Ruth Rendell takes on a lot of social justice issues like SIMISOLA and ROAD RAGE. I admire most of them but sometimes she is too heavy-handed. Hard to get the right balance.

    • Patti – It really is hard. Rendell does address a lot of important issues, and many of her books do have a theme of social justice. That’s a truly important topic, but people won’t be drawn into a story if they feel ‘preached at.’

  9. I don’t think I’m particularly conscious of themes as I read, but looking back at the kind of stuff I enjoy, I’d say the theme of team interactions seems to recur. I definitely enjoy productive functional police teams such as Dalziel and Pascoe, or Rebus and Siobhan, far more than the lone maverick detective. Politics tends to feature quite highly in books I enjoy most too – not surprising since I’m interested in politics in real life (again a reason I enjoy Rebus so much). Social issues – hmm, depends on the issue, and whether the author can avoid too much preaching – when it works, then this would be another theme I enjoy.

    • FictionFan – I think a lot of people don’t really reflect on the themes in the work they enjoy until after they’ve read it. Then they notice it if I can put it that way. I’m not surprised either that politics as a theme interests you in your crime fiction. My guess is a lot of us enjoy themes in fiction that reflect our ‘real-life’ interests. And I agree completely about functional police teams. A novel has to be very, very well written for me to ‘buy’ the ‘maverick cop.’ And about social issues? I agree with you there, too. They’re important and I can be drawn into a novel that addresses one of them. But not if I feel that I’m being ‘preached at.’

  10. kathy d.

    Oh, really, must include Sjowall and Wahloo in discussing larger themes. They always brought in social issues while writing a page-turning mystery. They are the parents of Scandinavian crime fiction, or so called, although there were other writers, too, at the same time and before them. They also show that good mysteries do not have to be doorstops, but can be thoroughgoing and under 300 pages.

    • Kathy – I’m glad you mentioned that duo. They certainly did address large themes of justice and society, didn’t they? And you’re right; their novels are not ‘chunksters.’ They tell their stories in a lean, spare way.

  11. kathy d.

    And Denise Mina, too, often deals with social and political issues, certainly those dealing with the rich 1% and the other 99%, the decline of print newspapers and downsizing, and more. And the good news: Her latest book “The Red Road” comes in at 294 pages! Rah, rah, Denise Mina: She’s heard readers’ cry for fewer doorstops.

  12. Like writerdsnelson I like the psychology of the characters – of working out what makes people do what they do. Talking of themes, several of the crime books I’ve read lately have had an underlying theme of disintegrating families….

    • Tess – Oh, that’s interesting! In my opinion it’s even more interesting when that happens in an unplanned way. I agree with you, too, that the psychology of what makes people do what they do is fascinating. When it’s done well it’s utterly compelling.

  13. What interesting and varied themes you and your commentators came up with. I like Cold War spy fiction when it tackles the questions of trust, loyalty, betrayal, patriotism. Those stories of double and triple agents: I’m not sure how much that actually happened in real life, but they questions they raise in your mind are fascinating. Particularly when spies have a personal life involved. I enjoyed the TV series The Americans for the same reason.

    • Moira – That’s one of the things I really love about this blog: the ideas my commentators give me and what they teach me. You’re absolutely right that good spy novels touch on themes of loyalty and patriotism. And of course trust and betrayal too. I wonder when I read those novels what it must really be like not to be able trust anyone or really confide in your spouse or partner. I think that must be incredibly difficult.

  14. I was waiting to see if anyone else mentioned Jane Haddam (since I forgot about her initially). In her very long and ongoing series about Gregor Demarkian, the later books all seem to have an issue that the story is centered around. Haddam is one that can overdo it (sometimes), but I like her novels anyway and I think she does a good job of presenting more than one side of an issue.

    • Tracy – I’m glad you mentioned Haddam. I need to get to know her work better and you’ve reminded me of that, so thanks. And it’s interesting how fine the line is between taking up a larger theme (so that it’s interesting) and overdoing it.

  15. Thanks for the mention Margot. It’s fair to say that in Line of Sight (less so with Zero at the Bone) one of my models for integrating social issues related to crime was Sicilian crime writer Leonardo Sciascia, particularly his novel The Day of the Owl. I also admire the way Richard Price has done it, too, ie tell a great story (a la Lush Life and Samaritan etc) while using crime fiction as a vehicle to say something about contemporary society, the media etc. And of course Angela Savage, with all of her work, and that of her partner Andrew Nette (in Ghost Money), deftly saying things about Asian politics and history while also telling a ripping yarn…

    • David – It’s a pleasure to mention your work. And I couldn’t agree more about both Savage and Nette’s work. Both discuss larger themes, but at the same time, they tell a strong story. That takes a deft hand. Thanks for mentioning Sciaccia’s work. I’ve not read his work as of yet. Perhaps it’s time I tried it.

  16. Margot – Fascinating topic and it seems to have hit a nerve by the number of thoughtful comments. My contribution: so far my novels have had backdrops and motives but not an underlying theme. This may be because they tend to the cozy, which is more plot, character and setting dominated.
    However … if my in-progress novel has a theme it’s the illusory nature of fame and success (in this case in Hollywood in the Golden Age), and the corrupting influence of money on our lives and culture. Neither is exceptionally original, I admit, but both are always effective in the context of the mystery novel.
    Moira’s comments about spy novels reminds me that I like themes in that genre, war fiction too, that address issues like courage, loyalty, and honor, regardless of which side the protagonists are on. These not so black and white issues and the treatment of them make fiction richer and more satisfying to read, I think.

    • Bryan – That’s an interesting idea for a theme – the illusory quality of nature of fame. There’s a lot in that idea and I can certainly see how it would work well as a theme. As I’m thinking about your comment, too, I’m wondering about how theme may be related to sub-genre. Certain sub-genres may lend themselves to certain themes (e.g. loyalty in a spy novel). I appreciate that ‘food for thought.’ And you’re right; themes that aren’t ‘black and white’ are the more interesting for that complexity.

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