One of the very noticeable developments in crime fiction in the last decades has been what I’ll call “themed” crime fiction. I’m not talking here of larger themes such as holidays, nor am I talking about sub-genres of crime fiction, such as noir, spy thrillers, cozies or police procedurals. I’m referring here to mystery novels that are centered on a topic, such as, medicine, sports, or specialized areas like wine-making. Themed crime fiction has the advantage of drawing those who might not otherwise be interested in mysteries towards the larger genre. It also allows crime fiction fans to learn something about an interesting topic. There are, of course, distinct disadvantages, too. For instance, themed crime fiction can turn away potential readers (e.g. “I’m not interested in football; why would I read a football mystery?”). There’s also a delicate balance required for a themed novel. The focus in a well-written crime fiction novel is on the mystery – the crime at the center of the story – and on the characters involved in it. Too much deviation into, say, the intricacies of a toxicity study (for medical-themed novels) or the details of a wine-tasting event (for vineyard-centered novels) can take the focus away from what’s supposed to be the main idea of a crime fiction novel – the mystery itself. That said, though, themed crime fiction has become increasingly popular, and has meant that many talented writers have been able to reach new mystery fans.
One of the best known themes for crime fiction is the medical theme. I discussed this particular kind of theme in a post from last month, so I’m not going to repeat myself here. Suffice it to say, though, that authors such as Robin Cook and Michael Palmer have made the hospital and doctor’s office some of the most popular settings in crime fiction. Authors such as Kathy Reichs have also popularized medical mysteries (although some say that novels about forensic medicine may deserve their own category). But that theme didn’t start with those authors. Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson’s 1978 novel, The Nightmare Factor had a chilling medical theme, an deliberate epidemic of a virulent and highly contagious strain of influenza. Even earlier, series such as Helen Wells’ and Julie Campbell Tatham’s Cherry Ames series for younger readers focused on medical settings.
Another popular theme in crime fiction is sports. Sports and crime fiction “fit” together, possibly because sports can be very, very competitive; this allows for many believable motives for murder. Sports also attract gambling, and the win-at-any-cost thinking of some in sports also leads to drug (ab)use, and those also make for compelling plots and believable motives for all kinds of crime. Dick Francis’ Sid Halley novels, for instance, take place in the world of horse racing. Halley is a former champion jockey, but, due to an injury, can no longer ride. So he’s become a private investigator who specializes in solving mysteries related to racetracks, stables and horses.
More recently, Michael Balkind’s mysteries give us a look at the world of professional golf. Balkind’s novels focus on PGA champion Reid Clark, who’s got a reputation for being difficult, although he is at the top of his career. He works with his business partner, friend and agent, Buck Green and investigator Jay Scott. In Dead Ball, for instance, Scott helps Clark and Green investigate the murder of Clark’s best friend, Bob Thomas, who’s found dead on the grounds of AllSport, a large golfing complex he helped to create in New York’s Catskill Mountains. AllSport’s purpose among other things, is to introduce golf to inner-city young people, but when Thomas’ body is found, the facility is locked down until Clark, Scott and Green can find out who murdered Bob Thomas.
Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar series is another example of a sports-themed series. Bolitar is a former college basketball star, whose dreams of a professional basketball career ended when he suffered a knee injury. After getting his law degree, Bolitar became a sports agent. Now one of the more sought-after agents in the business, Bolitar frequently gets involved in his clients’ lives. That includes clients who are mixed up in crime. In Coben’s Bolitar novels, the reader goes beyond the basketball court, and gets a look at merchandising, betting, drug abuse, and some of the other less-than-desirable aspects of the world of sports.
Another very popular theme in today’ crime fiction is what I’ll refer to as specialized themes. These are novels that are centered on a particular kind of business, art, craft or skill. One of them is wine-making. Ellen Crosby’s Wine Country Mystery series, for instance, gives readers an “inside look” at the operation of a Blue Ridge Mountains, Virgnia, winery. The winery is owned and operated by Lucie Montgomery, who had been living in the South of France, but was suddenly called on to run the business when her father, who’d owned the winery, died mysteriously. Michele Scott’s Wine Lover’s Mystery series also focuses on making wine and wine pairings, and allows readers to see the inner workings of a large Napa Valley winery, where her sleuth, Nikki Sands, is the wine manager at Malveaux Estates Winery.
Another “specialized” kind of mystery features antiques, antique dealing and antique shops. Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy series is an interesting example of how the antiques trade can lend itself to a crime fiction plot. Lovejoy is an East Anglia antiques dealer who’s rather shady and sometimes unscrupulous. He’s got an almost extrasensory perception, though, when it comes to telling whether something is a genuine, valuable antique or part of a scam. In especially the earlier Lovejoy novels, readers learn the “ins and outs” of the antiques industry, and Lovejoy himself is an interesting sleuth, since he doesn’t exactly keep to the “straight and narrow” path.
A lighter series of novels about antiques is Jane K. Cleland’s Josie Prescott novels. Prescott is an antiques appraiser and dealer Originally with Frisco’s, a large New York auction house, Prescott left the firm when her employer was caught in a price-fixing scam, and returned to her native New England. Now, she works as an appraiser in Rocky Point, New Hampshire. Through Prescott, readers get an “inside look” at bidding wars, antique scams, and other realities of the antique world.
There are many, many other themed novels, too, that feature weaving, knitting, fishing, veterinary medicine and many other choices. The one topic you’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned here is food. That’s because there are so many food-related mystery novels that they deserve their own discussion (my post on this topic from November is here). There’s no doubt, though, that cooking, catering, baking and other food-related business lend themselves to crime fiction, too.
Themed mysteries often appeal to those who might not otherwise enjoy crime fiction. In that sense, they broaden the genre’s audience. They also can provide interesting information, and they often take place in interesting contexts. On the other hand, themed mysteries can focus a story too far away from the center of any good crime fiction novel – the mystery plot itself. What’s your view? Do you enjoy themed novels? What themes do you read if you do?
*Note - You'll notice that I didn't mention Agatha Christie's novels at all in this post. That's because her novels arguably focused more on situations, characters, relationships and interactions more than on particular themes. We could argue, though, that some of her novels, such as Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Murder on the Orient Express (AKA Murder in the Calais Coach), and The Mystery of the Blue Train (among others) were centered on the theme of traveling. Other novels she wrote could be grouped around other themes. But they're not tightly related within themes, so I didn't include them. But I couldn't let a post go by without discussing Christie's work. : ).