Category Archives: Barbara Vine

Tearful Nights, Angry Dawns*

DomesticNoirAn interesting post from Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling has got me thinking about what many people call domestic noir. It certainly isn’t a brand-new kind of crime story, but it’s gotten an awful lot of press in recent years. I thought it might be interesting (I hope it will!) to have a look at some examples and see how it’s evolved. Now, before I go on, please pay a visit to Reading, Writing and Riesling. Lots of great reviews, recipes and fabulous ‘photos await you there.

Domestic noir mostly concerns itself with intimate family relationships (sometimes friends are involved too). And that dynamic is an effective backdrop for a crime novel, since such relationships are complex. What’s more, the complexity and conflict aren’t always obvious on the outside. All of this means (at least to me) that it’s not surprising at all that those relationships are featured in so much crime fiction.

As I say, threads of domestic noir have been woven through crime fiction for a long time. For example, Agatha Christie’s The Hollow is in part the story of John and Gerda Christow. He’s a successful Harley Street specialist; she’s his frumpy, adoring wife. One weekend, they’re invited to the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell, who’ve put together a house party. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and was in fact, invited for lunch that day. When he arrives, his first thought is that the scene of Christow’s murder has been staged for his ‘amusement.’ Soon enough it’s clear that this is a real murder, so Poirot works with Inspector Grange and his team to find out who the killer is. There’s a network of relationships here that matter in the course of this novel. There’s the Christows’ relationship, the relationship Christow has with his former lover Veronica Cray (a famous actress who’s also taken a cottage nearby), and the relationship Christow has with sculptor Henrietta Savernake, who is a member of the Angkatells’ house party. And (also in the tradition of domestic noir), this story doesn’t end happily for most of the characters. Admittedly, most people wouldn’t call this a ‘pure’ example of the sub-genre, but it’s an interesting take on it.

Both under her own name and as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell wrote several novels you might argue are examples of domestic noir. One of them is her first Barbara Vine novel, A Dark-Adapted Eye. In that novel, journalist Daniel Stewart decides to do a story on the execution of Vera Longley Hilliard. Years ago, she was hung for murder, and Stewart wants some background on her life and on the events that led up to the killing for which she was convicted. He approaches Vera’s niece Faith Longley Severn, hoping he can persuade her to help him write his story. As the two begin to collaborate, we learn the background of the proud, ultra-respectable Longley family. There’s a very complicated network of relationships in the family; and as they are explored, we see how they’ve led to murder.

Wendy James’ The Mistake offers readers an intimate look at the various members of the Garrow family. Angus Garrow is a successful attorney, and is being put forward as the next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. His wife Jodie is beautiful and intelligent, and a good mother to their two healthy children, Hannah and Tom. On the surface, they’re a family to be envied. Then one day, Hannah is rushed to a Sydney hospital after a car accident. It turns out to be the same hospital where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another girl – a baby she never mentioned to anyone. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby, and Jodie says she gave the child up for adoption. But when the nurse checks, she finds no records of a formal adoption. Now all sorts of ugly questions begin to surface. Where is the baby? If she’s alive, can she be contacted? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? As the stories get worse and worse, the Garrow family begins to splinter, and we how complex and sometimes difficult those relationships really are.

A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife introduces readers to a successful Chicago couple, Todd Gilbert and Jodi Brett. He’s a developer; she’s a psychotherapist. Although they’ve been together for twenty years, they’ve never formally married. Everything changes for the couple – or better to say, a lot is revealed – when Todd begins an affair with Natasha Kovacs, the daughter of his business partner. Todd’s strayed before, but this time things are different. Natasha becomes pregnant, and wants marriage and a family. Todd says that’s what he wants, too, and moves in with her. Under the advice of his lawyer, Todd arranges for a letter to Jodi, evicting her from the home they’ve shared for years, and making it clear she has no claim to it, since they were never married. With her options getting more and more limited, Jodi begins to withdraw from life. Meanwhile, Todd has his own problems. He’s finding that life with Natasha isn’t at all what he imagined it might be, and is missing Jodi. Then, he’s murdered in a drive-by shooting. At first, it looks like a carjacking or burglary gone wrong. But it’s not long before the police discover that the killers were paid. The question of who paid them and why is of course an important aspect of this novel. But so is the slow peeling away of the layers of Todd and Jodi’s relationship, and their relationships with the other people in their lives.

Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry begins when Alistair Robertson and Joanna Lindsay make the long trip from Scotland to Victoria, where Alistair was born and raised. The idea is to be closer to Alistair’s daughter Chloe, who lives there with her mother Alexandra. Alistair wants to get custody of Chloe, and he knows his changes are better if he lives near her and re-establishes his relationship with her. The journey to Melbourne is nightmarish. Alistair and Joanna have with them their nine-week-old son Noah; and as anyone who’s ever been on a long flight with an infant knows, it’s difficult under the best of circumstances. And Noah is not an ‘easy’ baby. But, they finally arrive and begin the trip from the airport to their destination. That’s when they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. The police are alerted and a massive search is undertaken. The Australian media make much of the case, and there are all sorts of fundraising and other efforts in support of the family. But then, questions begin to come up about, especially, Joanna. There are certainly cases where parents are responsible for the loss of their children, and many people begin to wonder whether that’s happened here. As matters spiral out of control for both Alistair and Joanna, we get an ‘inside look’ at their relationship and the relationships they’ve formed with others. As is the case in a lot of domestic noir, not much is as it seems on the surface.

Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel explores another sort of relationship: the mother/child dynamic. Eve Moran is driven by her desire to acquire – money, things, men. And she’s toxic enough to do whatever it takes, including killing, to get what she wants. Her daughter Christine depends on her mother, as children do, and is drawn into Eve’s web because of that dependency as well as an unwillingness or inability to see her mother for what she is. It’s a very complicated relationship and it grows more and more dysfunctional. Then Christine begins to see that her three-year-old brother Ryan is being drawn into the same unhealthy, devastating pattern. This compels Christine to try to find a way to break free (and free Ryan) from Eve. In this novel, Abbott shows how the intimate relationships among parents and children can be at least as damaging as partner relationships.

There are a lot of other novels, too, that you could argue are examples of domestic noir (I know, I know, fans of Pascal Garnier, Minette Walters and of Karin Alvtegen). What do you think of this sub-genre? Why do you think it’s gotten so popular?

 

ps. The ‘photo is a reminder that lots of relationships aren’t noir at all. Happy anniversary, Mr. COAMN, and thanks for so many good, good years.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jacob Brackman and Carly Simon’s That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be.

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Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Helen Fitzgerald, Patricia Abbott, Ruth Rendell, Wendy James

This Bird Had Flown*

Ruth_Rendell_1672119cMany crime writers (well, many writers in any genre) will tell you that they’d love to leave a distinctive mark on their genre and innovate it in some way. Few can actually do that. Ruth Rendell was one of those few, and her passing leaves a gaping hole in the world of crime fiction.

To me, anyway, Rendell helped bring the traditional mystery into the modern age. Her Inspector Wexford stories have several elements of the traditional whodunit novel. But she added other elements as well; integrated new themes and more contemporary contexts; and used that series to explore social issues as well as the mysteries at hand. What’s more, the Wexford series blends ‘home scenes’ and domestic life in with the actual crime story in innovative ways.

Her writing had a powerful impact on the genre in other ways too. Crime fiction fans can tell you that with novels such as To Fear a Painted Devil and A Judgement in Stone, Rendell explored the psychology of crime using new approaches. All sorts of themes, such as obsession, paranoia, phobias, and family dysfunction are woven into her work. Both under her own name and as Barbara Vine, she was a ‘game-changer’ when it came to writing about human interaction and human thinking.

What’s especially noteworthy (at least to me) is that Rendell didn’t indulge in gratuitousness to make her points. Some of her books are quite dark, but the stories don’t hinge on mindless brutality. Building suspense and creating a truly chilling story without brutality isn’t easy.

As a reader, I must confess I haven’t liked every Rendell/Vine story I’ve read. Even her most devoted fans will admit that some of her novels and stories are better than others. But what I do admire about Rendell is her willingness to try out different themes and different approaches. She saw ways in which the elements of the traditional mystery could be given contemporary settings and contexts, and she took the risks involved in being a part of that evolution.

Rendell’s work has many, many dedicated fans, and there are good reasons for that. But even if you’re not among them, it’s hard to deny her impact on the genre. And that in itself is worth remembering.

For crime writers, Rendell had another kind of impact. Many of us have learned a lot from her writing style, her plots, her characters and other aspects of her stories. I know I have. For instance, I admire her skill at peeling away the veneer of the supposedly peaceful, suburban idyll to reveal the ugliness that could lie beneath it. She was also, to my mind, quite skilled at building real psychological suspense without gore. And some of her stories bring larger social issues and problems down to the human level; I admire that too. I’d like to be able to do those things when I grow up. If I grow up.

So, would I want to be Rendell? No. But I think that’s the point. She wasn’t really a ‘clone’ of other writers. Instead, she followed her own path. I think writers do their best work when they find their own voices. Hers, anyway, changed crime fiction.

She will be missed.

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).

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Filed under Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell

She’s Dead Serious About Her Family History*

Family SagasAn interesting book review at Cleopatra Loves Books has got me thinking about family sagas. Now, before I go any further, you’ll want to pay a visit to that fine blog. You’ll find all sorts of excellent, thoughtful reviews of crime fiction as well as some books from other genres too. It’s well worth a place on a bibliophile’s blog roll.

Right. Family sagas. Just about all families have their share of stories and ‘skeletons in the closet,’ and some of those stories have an effect for a very long time. Family sagas can be very effective contexts for crime fiction too, since some of those stories and ‘skeletons’ involve crime. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles concerns the ‘blueblood’ Baskerville family, which has had a home on Dartmoor for many generations. It’s said that the Baskerville family has been cursed since the 1600s, when Sir Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he was infatuated. According to this tale, the family is haunted by a demon in the shape of a hound. In fact recently, the current head of the family, Sir Charles Baskerville, was found dead on the grounds of the Manor of Baskerville. Many people say the family curse was responsible, and now family friend Dr. James Mortimer is afraid for the new heir Sir Henry Baskerville. Sir Henry is due to come in from Canada soon, and Dr. Mortimer wants the matter settled before his arrival. Holmes is unable to leave London at the moment so he sends Dr. Watson in his stead. Between them they find that a curse had nothing to do with Sir Charles’ death…

Agatha Christie weaves in elements of the family saga in several of her novels. In Sad Cypress, for instance, Elinor Carlisle receives an anonymous note warning her that she could lose the inheritance she expects from her wealthy Aunt Laura Welman. Apparently someone’s been playing up to the elderly lady and the note hints that there’s an ulterior motive behind it all. Elinor isn’t particularly greedy, but she and her fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy Welman travel to the family home at Hunterbury. There they renew their acquaintance with Mary Gerrard, daughter of Hunterbury’s lodgekeeper. They soon find out that Aunt Laura has become very much attached to Mary, and insists on altering her will to make a good provision for her; however, Aunt Laura dies before the will can be changed. Much to Elinor’s shock and dismay, Roddy becomes infatuated with Mary. In fact, Elinor breaks off her engagement with him. Then, not long afterwards, Mary dies of what turns out to be poison. Elinor is the most obvious suspect, and not just because of Roddy. There’s a fortune at stake as well. Hercule Poirot investigates and finds that Mary’s death has everything to do with a family saga. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow, Five Little Pigs and Crooked House

In A Dark-Adapted Eye, her first novel as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell shares the story of the Longley family. The Longleys have always been a very respectable family – not a hint of grist for the ‘gossip mill.’ But in this case, appearances are, as the saying goes, deceiving. Many years ago, Vera Longley Hilliard was hanged for murder. No-one discusses the matter, but it’s haunted the family ever since. Then, journalist Daniel Stewart digs up the story and decides to write a book about the family and the hanging. He approaches Faith Longley Severn to help him with the work, since she’s a family member. She agrees and together they look into what really was behind the murder for which Vera Hilliard was executed. This novel is about the crime, but it’s also about the family, its history and its relationships.

One of the more famous family sagas is the story of the Vanger family, whom we meet in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist has just lost an expensive libel lawsuit against well-insulated and powerful Swedish industrial magnate Hans-Erik Wennerström. With his publication Millennium in danger of folding, he’s open to an offer from Henrik Vanger. Forty years earlier, Vanger’s grand-niece Harriet disappeared. Everyone thought she drowned, but Vanger has a good reason not to think so. He’s been receiving anonymous birthday gifts of dried flowers, just as Harriet gave him all those years earlier. Vanger offers to support Millennium financially, and give Blomkvist the information he needs to bring down Wennerström if Blomkvist will find out what really happened to Harriet. Blomkvist agrees and he and his research assistant Lisbeth Salander start exploring the Vanger family’s history and finances. And it turns out that this is quite a family saga…

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn has been working to support the political life of her friend Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. He’s got a very bright future in the party, and everyone’s looking forward to an important speech he’s scheduled to make. To everyone’s shock, he collapses during the speech and dies of what turns out to be poison. Kilbourn is grief-stricken at the loss of her friend, and decides to deal with that grief by writing a biography of Boychuk. As she does so, she begins to get closer and closer to the truth about why and by whom he was killed. She also learns quite a lot about the Boychuk family’s history and how it affected him.

Martin Edwards deals with family sagas and stories in several of his Lake District mysteries. For example, in The Hanging Wood, DCI Hannah Scarlett gets a call from Orla Payne, who wants to find out what happened to her brother. Twenty years earlier, Callum Payne went missing and no-one has ever found a trace of him – not even a body. Orla wants Scarlett and her team to look into the case, but unfortunately, she’s mentally fragile and is drunk when she calls, so Scarlett doesn’t make much of the matter. Then, Orla dies of what looks like suicide. Now Scarlett feels guilty for not taking that call more seriously, and begins to look into both Orla’s death and the the disappearance of her brother. That investigation turns up quite a lot of family history and a family saga that’s been going on for several generations.

When it comes to crime fiction, family sagas have to be handled deftly. Otherwise, the history of the family can take away from the story of the crime(s) that’s supposed to be at the heart of the novel. But when they’re well-written, family sagas can add a lot to a crime novel. And they can provide all sorts of useful and realistic motivations for murder. I’ve only mentioned some examples here. Your turn.

Thanks, Cleo, for the inspiration!
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Lucksmiths’ English Murder Mystery. OK, this is really a fun song if you’re a crime fiction fan. :-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Gail Bowen, Martin Edwards, Ruth Rendell, Stieg Larsson

We Just Saw It From a Different Point of View*

PerspectivesonCultureWhile I was in Madrid I had several interesting conversations with José Ignacio at The Game’s Afoot. One of them was about the differences between books written by authors who are members of the cultures they write about, and books written by authors who aren’t. One the one hand, someone who’s not a member of a given culture can offer a distinctive perspective on that culture. On the other, a member of a culture has an intimate knowledge of that culture’s subtleties and nuances. So the reader can really get an ‘insider’s view.’

The diversity of crime fiction lets us use both perspectives, and that in turn gives us a better understanding of the places and cultures that are discussed in the genre. Let me just offer a few examples to show you what I mean. I know you’ll have many more to offer.

Ruth Rendell is English. Her novels under her own name and as Barbara Vine reflect her background; she is very much a member of the culture that’s featured in her work. Whether it’s her Inspector Wexford novels or one of her other works, we really get the ‘insider view’ on her culture. The same could be said of course of many other English authors. By contrast, Martha Grimes is American, although most of her Inspector Richard Jury novels take place in England. Like any two authors, these two have different writing styles and that’s clear in their novels. But beyond that, there’s an interesting question of the way they write about England. One has the intimate knowledge of the ‘insider.’ The other has the distinctive perspective of someone from a different culture.

We also see a contrast in crime fiction that takes place in Spain (and this is what José Ignacio and I spoke of in our conversation). In recent decades, there’ve been several Spanish authors who have given readers an ‘insider’s’ look at life in different parts of Spain. Authors such as Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, who wrote the Pepe Carvalho series, and more recently Domingo Villar (the Inspector Leo Caldas series) and Teresa Solana (the Martínez brothers PI series) have portrayed Spanish life from a ‘local’s’ point of view if I may put it that way. There’ve also been many novels set in Spain that weren’t written by Spanish authors. For instance, Roderic Jeffries (the Inspector Enrique Álvarez series) is English. And Jason Webster, author of the Chief Inspector Max Cámara series, is Anglo-American. There are lots of other such examples too. These authors do vary in their writing styles of course. But you could also argue that there is a difference in perspective between novels about Spain written by Spaniards, and novels about Spain that are written by members of other cultures.

Both H.R.F. Keating and Tarquin Hall have written series that take place in India. Keating’s of course features Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay police force. Hall’s sleuth is Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Neither author was born in India, so you could argue that these series are written from the perspective of people who aren’t members of a given culture. On the other hand, Kishwar Desai is Indian. Her Simran Singh series has an ‘insider’ perspective because she is a member of one of India’s cultures. When it comes to India, one could make the point that because the British were in India for a long time, they became members of one Indian culture – the Anglo-Indian culture. And there are still close ties on many levels between India and the UK. But there is arguably a difference between books about India written by, say, English authors and those written by members of one of India’s original cultures.

The Chinese detective story has a long history, and many Chinese crime fiction stories haven’t been translated into other languages. But there are authors such as A Yi, Qiu Xiaolong and Diane Wei Liang, whose novels have been translated. Through those authors’ perspectives, readers get an ‘insider look’ at life in Beijing, Shanghai and other places in China. There have also of course been crime fiction stories set in China that aren’t written by Chinese authors. For instance, there’s Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee series, which is set in China’s northwest. Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing takes place mostly in Beijing. So does Catherine Sampson’s The Pool of Unease. And of course plenty of authors have had their protagonists visit China, even if the novel wasn’t set there. Those novels also depict life in China, but many people would say the authors have a different perspective, since they are not native members of any of the Chinese cultures.

Thai author Tew Bunnag has given readers a unique perspective on life in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand. Admittedly he doesn’t exclusively write crime fiction, but through his stories we get an ‘insider’ look at the country. Many other authors, such as John Burdett, Andrew Grant, Timothy Hallinan and Angela Savage, also write about Thailand. Their perspectives are different because they aren’t members of that culture, but that’s just what makes those perspectives valuable. We get a broad look at the country from both points of view, if you will.

And that’s the beauty of the diversity in the genre. There’s room enough for both perspectives. These are just a few examples. Lots of other countries and cultures have been portrayed in crime fiction both by members and by non-members. My guess is that you’d be able to contribute a much longer list than I would.

How do you feel about this issue? Do you see a difference between novels written by members of a culture, and novels that aren’t? Writing style aside, for instance, do you see a difference between the work of Donna Leon and that of Andrea Camilleri, both of whom write about Italy? Do you see a difference between the portrayal of South Africa in the work of Malla Nunn, who is Australian, and its portrayal in the work of Deon Meyer, who is South African?  If you do see such a difference, do you find it off-putting?

And then there’s perhaps a more difficult question. How do you feel about the way your own culture is portrayed in crime fiction? Does it bother you when it’s portrayed by someone who’s not a member (assuming of course that the writer is accurate)?

If you’re a writer, do you write about another culture? If you do, what drew you to it?

 

ps  The ‘photo is of a sculpture by Joan Miró, which now makes its home in Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía,

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue.

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Filed under A Yi, Andrea Camilleri, Andrew Grant, Angela Savage, Barbara Vine, Catherine Sampson, Deon Meyer, Diane Wei Liang, Domingo Villar, Donna Leon, H.R.F. Keating, Jason Webster, John Burdett, Kishwar Desai, Malla Nunn, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Martha Grimes, Qiu Xiaolong, Robert Van Gulik, Roderic Jeffries, Ruth Rendell, Shamini Flint, Tarquin Hall, Teresa Solana, Tew Bunnag, Timothy Hallinan

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.

 

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