Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Underlying Patterns and Themes

Well-written crime fiction is focused on the crime, its motive, and the solution. In a good mystery, the mystery itself is the central point of the story. That said, there's often much more to a memorable story or series. Since people aren't one-dimensional, neither are good mysteries that involve them. That's especially true of well-written series, where there are often underlying themes. Sometimes the author develops those themes deliberately; other times they evolve more naturally. Either way, underlying patterns and themes give a good series an interesting dimension.

One of my favorite examples of themes that run through a series is the way that the theme of social class runs through much of Agatha Christie's work. For instance, in Sad Cypress, Poirot is investigating the murder of Mary Gerrard, the young protégée of a wealthy widow. Mary's been educated "above her place," with the result that she's no longer sure where she belongs in society. Elinor Carlisle, niece of Mary's patroness, is accused of Mary's murder. Elinor is vigorously defended by the housekeeper, who says that a "well-bred" young lady like Elinor wouldn't commit murder. As Poirot unravels the mystery, we see many other examples of class-based prejudice in what the characters say and do. That's also true in The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours). In that novel, in which Poirot investigates the murder of a successful doctor, we see real differences in the attitudes and assumptions of the wealthy and "well-born" Angkatell family, at whose home the murder occurs, and Midge Hardcastle, a cousin of the family. Midge is from a working-class background, and her resentment of the Angkatells' assumptions about life comes through in several places in the novel. In Death on the Nile, a very wealthy young woman, Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, is shot while on a cruise of the Nile. One of the characters on that cruise, Mr. Ferguson, is a harsh critic of the wealthy class and frequently says that women like Linnet Doyle should be removed, because they're social parasites. Ferguson's character gives a voice to social class tensions.

Another theme, or pattern, that runs through many mystery series is the darker side of human nature. Colin Dexter addresses this theme skillfully in his Inspector Morse series. For instance, in The Jewel That Was Ours, Morse and Lewis investigate the death of Laura Poindexter, a tourist who was planning to donate a valuable jewel to the Ashmolean Museum. When Dr. Thomas Kemp, the tour's expert/lecturer, is also killed, Morse uncovers Kemp's dark side; he's a drunkard who's often unfaithful to his wife. Morse does the same thing in The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, in which a deaf member of Oxford's Board of Foreign Examinations is poisoned. In that novel, Morse uncovers each Board member's sordid secrets as he figures out who killed Quinn. Morse as a character is a good fit for this theme, as he's no angel himself, although he's a brilliant detective.

Spirtual and religious beliefs are also an underlying theme in many mystery novels. Dan Brown's novels are one clear example of this kind of pattern. In The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, Brown explores different sets of beliefs within the Catholic Church. He also does an expert job of showing the reader how those beliefs influence the characters. That kind of effect is also brilliantly explored in Tony Hillerman's Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee series. In Skinwalkers, for instance (the first novel in which Chee and Leaphorn work together), a series of murders is believed to be the work of Navajo skinwalkers, who according to tradition, are supernatural beings (similar to the western concept of witches) who can assume different animal forms, and who prey on humans. Several of the characters in the novel choose not to cooperate with Leaphorn and Chee because of their fear of skinwalkers. Chee himself is put in real danger towards the end of the novel when he is asked to perform a Blessing way (a Navajo cleansing/healing ceremony) - a request that turns out to be a trap for him.

Some authors explore the theme of how a traumatic past affects a character. That's evident, for instance, in Carol O'Connor's Shell Game. I don't want to spoil the novel for anyone, so suffice it to say that in that novel, there's a very clear connection between the murderer's past and the murderer's actions. Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter novels are an even clearer example of the underlying theme of characters being affected - sometimes twisted - by what's happened to them.

One theme that I see in my own Joel Williams novels is ambition and its effect on people. Several of the characters in Publish or Perish are willing to do almost anything to get what they want. For one, it's a relationship with the victim. For another, it's a coveted academic fellowship. For another, it's tenure. They sacrifice relationships and ethics and one of them is willing to sacrifice the victim, Nick Merrill. The same theme appears in B-Very Flat. In that novel, Serena Brinkman, a young violin virtuosa, stands between several of the characters and the achievement of their goals, which include a rare Amati violin, financial security (and family money) and a military career.

What themes run through your favorite series? How do those themes add to the novels for you?


  1. Your literary knowledge astounds me as well the concise methods you use citing examples.

    Class differences has always fascinated me; I was a huge fan of "Upstairs Downstairs" and have watched them again now as an adult.

    The darker side of human nature is always interesting; none of us are angels.

    I try to write with the thought of people are people no matter when they lived. Although mores, living conditions and fashions may alter, human nature has remained the same.


  2. Thank you so much, Elspeth, for your kind words :). What can I say - I'm a bibliophile :). I like your approach that there are some things about human nature that transcend time, place, etc.. As a matter of fact, when I read your comment, it made me think of Christie's Miss Marple, who solves crimes because of her interest in human nature and because the characters in St. Mary Mead, where she lives, exhibit basic (i.e. timeless and context-less) human characteristics. Her village has been her "school of human nature."

  3. You've got the most amazing posts, Margot. I could spend forever at your blog just thinking about the applications to writing.

    The issue of class was very interesting to me in the Christie books. I think she also addressed a xenophobic angle that must have been prevalent at the time. Hastings even thought Poirot was too foreign-acting sometimes. I remember all the books where the characters were relieved to see that the very-English Captain Hastings was there with Poirot.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. I think Ruth Rendell is a writer who handles class and social issues especially well.
    A good example is "Judgement in Stone" with the fascinating opening line, "Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write."

  5. Elizabeth -
    First, thank you so much for the kind words :). That means a lot to me. It's funny you would mention the xenophobia of the times in Christie's work. I almost discussed that theme, but I didn't want my blog post to get too long :). Thanks for adding that; you're absolutely right, and there are a lot of examples of it in Christie's work and in other work of the times.

    Dorte - Thanks for mentioning Ruth Rendell. I love her work, and you're right; that opening line of Judgement in Stone is a perfect example of the social class issues she addresses. I agree, too, that she handles those issues well. You see it, too, in Simisola, where Inspector Wexford has to face local social class and racial prejudcies to find out the truth about a missing physician and a young murdered girl.

  6. Excellent post, Margot. It's insightful and informative and you provide wonderful examples.

  7. Thank you so much for your kind words, Kathleen : ). I'm glad you enjoyed it and got something worth reading from it. Please feel free to stop by and visit any time.

  8. What a terrific post Margot. I do think that the best crime fiction allows their characters and plot to do more than tell a story. I seem to be drawn to books that deal somehow with the mis-treatment of various types of 'misfits' or 'outsiders'. Denise Mina did this well in Garnethill for example as did Mo Hayder in Ritual.

    Being a bit of a greenie I really enjoyed Ruth Rendell's Road Rage which was a Wexford novel which explored environmental issues in an engaging way (she also did a great job of looking at how people cope in captivity in the same book). As long as the theme is explored naturally via the characters and plot development I don't mind what the theme is - I only become annoyed when I feel some sort of message is being preached at me.

  9. Bernadette - Thanks for the kind words : ). Also, thanks for the great examples of the way Mina and Hayder treat the the theme of "outsiders." I hadn't read Ritual - I'll have to do that now :). I agree with you, too, that Road Rage does, indeed, deal with environmental issues in a non-preachy way. It's a solid example of the way a good mystery can treat larger issues without taking away from the main point - the key - to the story: the mystery. Whether it's preaching or something else, in my opinion, anything that takes away from the mystery runs the risk of lessening a mystery novel.