Category Archives: Y.A. Erskine

Must Have Been the Right Month*

januaryA lot of people see January as the time to start anew. It’s the beginning of the year, it’s a chance to ‘do it right this time,’ and it’s a time when many people set positive goals for themselves. You’d think it’d be an optimistic time of year, right?

Not exactly. For one thing, there’s the weather. In some places, it’s the dead of winter, with freezing temperatures, bad weather and little light. In others, it’s mid-summer, with intolerable heat and the onset of wildfire season. And there are plenty of crime novels that take place in January, too.

For example, Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train begins in January. In one plot thread, we are introduced to Katherine Grey, who has served as paid companion to wealthy Mrs. Harfield for ten years. When Mrs. Harfield dies, Katherine unexpectedly inherits a large fortune. One of her decisions, now that she has money, is to do what many other people with money do at that time of year: escape the January winter weather and head for a warmer climate. She decides to accept an invitation from a distant relative, Lady Rose Tamplin, to stay with her in Nice for a while. Katherine arranges to take the famous Blue Train to Nice, and that turns out to be a fateful decision. On the way, she gets drawn into a case of theft and murder. Hercule Poirot is also on the train, and Katherine works with him to help find out who the murderer is.

One focus of Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill is a case from 1978. One January day, Sophie Jenkins and Rachel Jones walked to school together. Only Rachel returned. A massive search was undertaken, but no trace of Sophie was ever found. Now, years later, there’s another death, this time of Yvonne Jenkins. At first it looks like a tragic, but straightforward case of suicide. But DI Francis Sadler suspects it might be more than that when a discovery is made that links this death to the 1978 case. With help from Superintendent Llewellyn, who investigated the original case, Sadler and his team look into the 1978 disappearance again, and discover how it is related to the present death.

Bitter January weather sets the scene for the end of a difficult case for Martin Beck and his team in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna. One summer day, the body of a young woman is dredged from Lake Vättern. At first, the police find it hard to identify her, since she wasn’t Swedish. But in time, they learn that she was twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw, an American who was on a cruise tour of Sweden when she was killed. Little by little, and after several false starts, Beck and his team trace the victim’s last days and weeks, and they find out who was on board the cruise ship when she died. It takes months of hard work, and some lucky breaks, but they finally narrow down the list of suspects, and discover who was responsible for the murder. Then, they set up a ‘sting’ operation to catch that person. The operation takes place during bitterly cold January weather, which adds to the atmosphere. In the end, the team solves the crime, but it takes a lot of time and effort.

In some places in the world, January is the middle of summer. But that doesn’t make things any safer. For instance, Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood takes place in January. In that novel, Tasmania Police Sergeant John White goes to the scene of a home invasion. With him is Probationer Lucy Howard. She’s at the front of the house, and White goes to the back, where he’s stabbed to death. The suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in trouble with the law before. The police are more than eager to avenge the murder of one of their own, but they’ll have to tread lightly. For one thing, the suspect is a juvenile. For another, he may be able to claim Aboriginal identity. If he and his lawyer choose to do that, then the media will put everything the police do under very close scrutiny. It isn’t usually particularly hot in Hobart in January, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of tension in this novel…

There is in Geoffrey McGeachin’s St. Kilda Blues, too. That novel takes place in January, 1967 – the ‘Summer of Love.’ Melbourne police detective Charlie Berlin has been shunted aside, so to speak, in the police hierarchy because he doesn’t ‘play politics.’ But he’s pulled into action when fifteen-year-old Gudrun Scheiner goes missing. Her father is a wealthy and well-connected developer, and is desperate to get his daughter back if possible. So, the police are motivated to get to a solution quickly. As Berlin soon comes to believe, this isn’t an isolated case. Gudrun is one of nine girls who’ve disappeared, and it could be that Melbourne is up against a serial killer. With summer in full swing, and young people not in school, it’s even more difficult to track people’s whereabouts, but Berlin and his partner/former protégé Rob Roberts search for the truth. And the truth turns out to be very unexpected…

And then there’s Wendy James The Lost Girls. This story’s focus is in part the murder of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. It’s January, 1978, and Angela’s been given (reluctant) permission to spend the summer with her aunt and uncle, Barbara and Doug Griffin. There isn’t much to do, so Angela, her cousin Mick, and Mick’s friends spend plenty of time at the local drugstore, playing pinball. Then, one horrible day, Angela goes missing. She’s later found dead, with a scarf around her head. At first, the police concentrate on family and friends, as is only logical. But they don’t have enough evidence to charge anyone. Then, a few months later, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor is also found dead, also with a scarf around her head. Now, it looks as though the same person committed both crimes, and the press begin to dub this killer, ‘The Sydney Strangler.’ The case is never solved, and it leaves the family with lasting scars. Years later, documentary filmmaker Erin Fury decides to do a film on families who’ve survived the murder of one of their members. She wants to include the Griffin family, and interviews the various members. Little by little, and partly through these interviews, we learn the truth about Angela’s fate, and about Kelly’s.

See what I mean? January is not really a safe month. Perhaps it’d be best to follow the lead of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman and shut up shop for the month, as she does in Cooking the Books

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s January.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Geoffrey McGeachin, Kerry Greenwood, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Wendy James, Y.A. Erskine

He Took it All Too Far*

too-much-of-a-good-thingThe old expression, ‘everything in moderation’ makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. We all know what happens when you go beyond a judicious amount of food, or exercise too much, or have too much to drink. Moderate speed gets you where you’re going. Taking that too far gets you a speeding violation, or worse.

It’s the same way with personality traits, really. And that’s what can make a fictional character really interesting. The same trait that can be appealing in moderate doses can create all sorts of problems if it’s taken too far. That fact can add nuance to fictional characters, and a layer of suspense to a story.

In Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, for example, we are introduced to Elinor Carlisle. She’s engaged to Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman, and has every expectation of a comfortable future. Then, she gets an anonymous note that suggests that someone is trying to win over her wealthy Aunt Laura, from whom she is set to inherit a fortune. Elinor isn’t particularly greedy, but she is accustomed to having money. So, she and Roddy decide to visit Aunt Laura at the family home, Hunterbury. There, they have a reunion with Mary Gerrard, the lodgekeeper’s daughter. They soon learn that Aunt Laura has become very fond of Mary, and that Mary may be the person referred to in the letter. Along with that, Roddy is immediately infatuated with Mary, and Elinor has to face the fact that her engagement may very well be over. What Elinor hasn’t told anyone is that her feelings for Roddy are a lot stronger than she’s let on. Although she tells her Aunt Laura that she loves Roddy ‘enough, but not too much,’ that’s not really the case. So, when Mary dies of what turns out to be poison, Elinor has two motives. Dr. Peter Lord, the local GP, is in love with Elinor and wants her name cleared. So, he asks Hercule Poirot to clear her name. Poirot agrees to look into the case, and finds out that more than one person could have wanted Mary dead. I won’t mention titles, for fear of spoilers, but there’s another Agatha Christie novel where devotion to a loved one is taken very much too far, and leads to more than one murder.

It’s not just that sort of devotion that can be taken too far. Most of us would say that it’s a sign of good parenting to support one’s children and nurture their gifts. But that, too, can become problematic. We’ve all seen or heard of ‘football parents,’ or ‘stage parents.’ There’s a real sense of that in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory.  Gideon Davies has had rare musical talent from a very early age. And, at twenty-eight, he’s a world-class violinist. Then one day, he’s terrified to discover that he can no longer play. He decides to get psychiatric help to find out what is blocking him. As he’s going through therapy, we learn that, years earlier, his two-year-old sister Sonia drowned. That terrible day had consequences for many people, and it has played its role in Gideon’s mental state. So has the fact that Gideon’s been under a great deal of family pressure for a long time because of his talent. He hasn’t really had a chance to live what most of us would call a normal life. There are a lot of other examples, too of this kind of parenting. For instance, Riley Adams (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig’s) Hickory Smoked Homicide gives readers a look ‘behind the scenes’ at beauty pageants and the parents who go to great lengths to be sure their children win.

Sometimes, the same traits that can spell success in a profession can also be taken too far. For instance, in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red, we are introduced to Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne. She’s been doing well as the co-host of Saturday Night, and is well on her way to the top, as the saying goes. But she’s looking for that one story that will make her career. She thinks she finds it in the person of Connor Bligh, who’s been in prison for years for the murders of his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. Only their daughter, Katy, survived, because she wasn’t home at the time of the killings. There are now some hints that Bligh could be innocent. If he is, then this could be exactly the story Thorne needs. Thorne is determined, persistent, and eager to get the story right – all good qualities in a journalist. But she finds herself getting closer to the story than is prudent, and we see how all of those good qualities also have their downsides.

In Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police is called to the scene of a home invasion. He takes probationer Lucy Howard with him, and the two approach the house. Tragically, White is murdered. Howard didn’t see the killing; she was at the front of the house, and White was at the rear. But it’s common belief that the killer is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in and out of the justice system for some time. As the police investigate, we see what an important role loyalty plays among the police. It’s a valuable trait if you’re a police officer. Your fellow coppers need to know that they can trust you, and that you’re loyal to them. But we’ve all read enough crime fiction to know that sometimes, police loyalty goes too far.

Fans of medical thrillers such as Michael Palmer’s and Robin Cook’s will know that many of them feature doctors or other medical professionals who are fanatically dedicated to the research they’re doing. Research is essential to moving us along as a society. However, unrestrained research that doesn’t take into account the human side, if I may put it that way, is a different matter.

There are plenty of other examples, too, of characters who have what many of us would consider positive traits, but who take them too far. This can add real tension to a crime novel, and can serve as an interesting layer of character development.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust.  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Paddy Richardson, Y.A. Erskine

Obeys All the Rules*

Unwritten RulesEach social group has its own ‘code of conduct.’ The rules may not be written anywhere, or even clearly articulated, but they’re there. If one’s going to belong to a given group, or have anything to do with anyone in that group, one has to follow those rules. And depending on the group, there can be severe consequences for anyone who doesn’t.

When those rules are woven into the plot of a crime novel, the result can be an interesting layer of tension. There are also lots of possible directions the story can take (e.g. a broken rule as the motive for murder). So it shouldn’t be surprising that we see those rules a lot in the genre.

One of the deep-seated traditions among the police is the rule of staying loyal to fellow cops. And that makes sense at one level. Police have to work together and trust each other implicitly if they’re to do their job well. Speaking out against another officer is therefore often seen as disloyal or worse. There are several novels that include that plot point. One is Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police goes to the scene of a home invasion with probationer Lucy Howard. While they’re there, White is stabbed. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in and out of trouble with the law for a long time. The police have to do everything ‘by the book’ in this case; since Rowley is part Aboriginal, the media will be watching closely for anything that may smack of racism. As the novel evolves, we see how the death of one of their own impacts the force. It permeates everything the police characters do.

We also see this rule against speaking out in David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight. Superintendent Frank Swann returns to Perth after an absence when he learns that a friend, Ruby Devine, has been killed. The police theory is that Ruby’s partner Jacky White is responsible, but there’s no real evidence. Swann believes there’s another explanation: a corrupt group of police known as ‘the purple circle.’ They’re powerful and dangerous enough that no-one has spoken out about them; and their fellow cops obey the ‘loyalty’ rule. Swann has made the dangerous choice to convene a Royal Commission hearing into their activities, so he’s a ‘dead man walking.’ But he is determined to find out who killed Ruby. Throughout the novel, we see how deeply-engrained this rule is, and what the consequences are for breaking it.

In the LGBT community, one of the long-held rules is that you don’t ‘out’ anyone. Coming out is an intensely personal and sometimes very difficult decision, not to be made by anyone else. That rule is touched on in Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit. Successful accountant Daniel Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who’s been blackmailing him. He’s been publicly married for several years, but has also had trysts with other men. Someone has apparently found out about those relationships and is threatening to ‘go public.’ One of Quant’s first reactions is that Guest could settle matters in a straightforward way by coming out. But Guest doesn’t want to do that, and Quant respects those wishes. Perhaps a small part of the reason is the fee; the most important reason, though, is that Quant abides by the ‘no outing’ rule. It’s too important not to, and the loss of trust that results from breaking it has serious consequences.

The Mob and other criminal groups have their own rules, like any other social group. Perhaps the most important one is that you don’t discuss the group’s activities with anyone, especially not with law enforcement. Informing on the group usually carries a death sentence. That rule is brought up in a lot of novels; one of them is Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas. Fred and Maggie Blake and their children have recently moved from the US to the small Normandy town of Cholong-sur-Avre. There are a lot of adjustments to be made in order to adapt to the new culture, but everyone makes an effort. They have to. As we soon learn, this is no ordinary family. Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, a former member of the New Jersey Mafia. He informed on the group, so he and his family were placed in the US Federal Witness Protection Program. At first, it seems that the move to Normandy will be successful. Then, word of the family’s location gets back to New Jersey. Now, the ‘Blakes’ have to face the fact that their lives are in imminent danger.

In many social groups, there’s a rule against marrying or even having strong social bonds outside one’s caste. It’s expected that the different socioeconomic strata will stay separated and people will keep to their places. We see that, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress. In that novel, we meet Mary Gerrard, daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterbury. She’s found a patron in wealthy Laura Welman, whose family owns the property. In fact, Mary’s been educated ‘above her station,’ and there are plenty of people who question the wisdom of that. When she suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison, local GP Dr. Peter Lord asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. The most likely suspect is Elinor Carlisle, whose fiancé Roddy Welman had fallen in love with Mary. But Lord wants her name cleared. So Poirot looks into the matter more deeply. In the process, he gets to know the local opinion of Mary and of Laura Welman. With few exceptions, it’s believed that it was a mistake to try to move Mary out of her station in life. Here’s what her admirer Ted Bigland says about it:
 

‘Mean well, people do, but they shouldn’t muck up people’s lives by interfering.’
 

Mary also comes in for criticism for ‘going after’ Roddy Welman, who is in a very different social group.

There are a lot of variants on that rule about relationships with people in other groups. Malla Nunn explores the issue of relationships among members of different racial groups in South Africa in her Emmanuel Cooper series. And it’s referred to much earlier than that, too, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Yellow Face.  Many other novels also address the social rule against mixing of castes/races/ethnic groups.

In many social groups, there’s also a rule that you don’t turn your back on family, no matter what. Any crime fiction fan can tell you that there are countless novels where people feel compelled to do things (or overlook things) because someone is a sibling/parent/child/cousin/ etc… And in some cultures, that family bond is more important than anything else. For instance, in Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, we meet ex-pat American travel writer Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty. One of the plot threads in this novel concerns his relationship with former bar girl Rose, who’s started her own apartment-cleaning business. The third member of Rafferty’s family is Miaow, a former street child Rafferty is trying to adopt. Rose is Thai, with that culture’s view about family. At one point, they’re discussing getting married, and Rose wants to make sure Rafferty is clear about what he’d be getting. Here’s how she puts it to Rafferty:
 

‘She [Rose] turns to face him. ‘We have ten dollars left,’ she says. Her voice is so low he has to strain to hear it. ‘Miaow is hungry. My little sister up north is hungry. Who gets the ten dollars? … I would send the money to my sister,’ Rose says. ‘Without a minute’s thought.’
 

On the one hand, matters would be entirely different if Rose and Rafferty get married. On the other, she wants him to know that in marrying her, he’s marrying her family, as the saying goes.

Those rules by which different social groups live are different for each group. They’re not always codified, but everyone in the group learns them. And they can make for compelling plot points and layers of interest.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Depeche Mode’s Shouldn’t Have Done That.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, David Whish-Wilson, Malla Nunn, Timothy Hallinan, Tonino Benacquista, Y.A. Erskine

Tough Kids, What Can I Do?*

Juvenile CrimeOne of the hardest challenges for law enforcement, social service and other professionals to face is working with young suspects and young people who are actually guilty of crimes. On the one hand, a crime is a crime regardless of the age of the culprit. On the other, there are real psychological and other differences between younger people and adults. What’s more, there are many people who argue that if you don’t give juvenile criminals genuine opportunities to make lives for themselves (as opposed, let’s say, to putting them in prison, especially with adults), you create repeat offenders who will probably be criminals for the rest of their lives.

There are no easy answers to these questions, and I don’t claim to have the solution. But young people’s involvement in crime is an important social reality, and so naturally, it comes up in crime fiction too. Space permits me only a few examples, but hopefully they’ll suffice.

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall takes a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. With her are her husband Captain Kenneth Marshall and her stepdaughter Linda. Shortly after they arrive, Arlena begins a not-very-well-hidden affair with a fellow guest Patrick Redfern. One day she’s strangled and her body is discovered on the beach at Pixy’s Cove, not far from the hotel. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel and works with the police to find out who the murderer is. One of the people they interview is sixteen-year-old Linda Marshall. She disliked her stepmother intensely and as it turns out, doesn’t have a real alibi for the time. So she is a very real suspect for this crime. It’s interesting to note how the police (and Poirot) view her in light of her age. Saying a lot more would give away spoilers, but it’s an interesting treatment of a young suspect.

In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, we meet Trevor Sharp, an Eastvale, Yorkshire teenager who’s having trouble fitting in at school and getting along. To his father’s dismay, he takes up with Mick Webster, who’s been in and out of trouble for a very long time. Although Trevor’s father warns him to stay away from Mick, Trevor doesn’t listen. He and Mick start getting involved in several ‘adventures’ that get them into real trouble. DCI Alan Banks encounters them in the course of a few cases he’s investigating: a voyeur who’s making the lives of the local women miserable; a series of home invasions; and a murder. As Banks and his team slowly follow the threads of these cases, we see how what starts as an adventure, a rebellious act, or an ‘I want to make my mark’ act can spiral out of control.

Kate Morgenroth’s Jude tells the story of a fifteen-year-old boy’s who’s been living with his drug-dealer father. Jude is a witness when one day, someone shoots his father. So he’s taken away for his own safety. Later he goes to live with his mother, who’s the local District Attorney. Jude is placed in an exclusive private school. He remains under suspicion for his father’s murder, but the police don’t have enough evidence to arrest him. He knows more than he’s telling, too, but his life depends on his not saying anything. Then one day his new friend Nick dies of a heroin overdose and Jude is implicated. He’s not guilty, but he’s persuaded to plead guilty so as to shore up his mother’s campaign for re-election on an anti-drugs platform. Jude is promised that as soon as the election is over, his name will be cleared. Instead, he’s tried as an adult and convicted. Then, a school friend David Marshall, who’s now a reporter, gets wind of the story. Together he and Jude work to find out the truth about Nick’s death – and about Jude’s own past.

There’s also William Landay’s Defending Jacob. In that novel, fourteen-year-old Ben Rifkin is stabbed to death. Before long, his schoolmate Jacob Barber is suspected and in fact arrested. At first, his father, Assistant District Attorney Andy Barber, doesn’t believe his son had anything to do with the crime. But little by little, pieces of evidence begin to suggest that things are not what they seem. Is Jacob guilty of the crime? If so, what led to it? If not, who’s trying to frame him and why? This novel takes a look at juvenile crime from the legal and the personal perspective.

And then there’s Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is in prison for a horrific crime. One night, thirteen members of her family were poisoned, and some stabbed as well. Then the house was set on fire. Only Durga survived, and the evidence suggests she may have been a victim as well, as she was tied up and possibly raped. But the police can’t get very far on the case because Durga hasn’t spoken about that night. The Inspector General for the State of Punjab knows that this is an extremely delicate case. Durga is not an adult, so she can’t really be treated as one. And yet, she obviously knows more than she is saying. So he asks an old friend, social worker Simran Singh, to come to the village of Jullundur to interview Durga, work with her and perhaps get her to open up. Simran agrees and makes the trip from Delhi, where she lives. As Simran slowly gets to know Durga, we see that applying the ‘usual rules’ to certain juvenile cases can do more harm than good. We also see that this is definitely not a case of a teenager who ‘just snapped.’

In Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police is called to the scene of a home invasion. With him goes probationer Lucy Howard, who’s hoping to get some experience. Tragically, White is stabbed to death at the scene of the crime. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in and out of the juvenile justice system for a long time. Since one of their own has been killed, the police are determined to catch the killer. But they know that to do that, they’ll have to ‘play by the rules’ no matter how much they’d rather not. It complicates matters too that Rowley is part Aboriginal, so the media will be very alert to any perceived discrimination. In this novel, there are some really interesting discussions of the protection provided by the juvenile justice system. There are also interesting questions raised about what kinds of crime young people commit, and at what point one considers them adults.

It’s challenging enough to decide what the best way is to deal with criminals. It’s even harder when alleged or actual criminals are (at least legally) children. I honestly don’t have all the answers. I don’t even know if there is just one answer. But it is a very real issue in real life, and it’s raised in crime fiction too. Which novels that deal with this issue have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pete Townhend’s Rough Boys.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Kate Morgenroth, Kishwar Desai, Peter Robinson, William Landay, Y.A. Erskine

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