Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Theme of Murder...

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. : ).


  1. I was on the elevator today with a man who specialized in medical anthropology. If the academy has divided areas into little pieces, why shouldn't crime writers. Unless the piece grows too little, of course.

  2. Some of my favorite specialized themes for mysteries are gardening mysteries (my favorite is by Ann Ripley), pet sitter and pet mysteries by Linda O. Johnston and Blaize Clement, dog mysteries by Susan Conant and by the late Virginia Lanier, and the Paris mysteries of Cara Black, to name a few. Then there are the sudoku mysteries, the feng shui mysteries, and they go on and on...Every time I go to the bookstore I see a new themed mystery series!

    Then there are the Bangkok PI detective series by Christopher G. Moore, and the series featuring a Laotian doctor and others set in Shanghai, China by a Chinese fiction writer.

    I just love how varied and rich the mystery/thriller genre is.

  3. I agree with what you say here...I read a cozy mystery with crochet because I crochet. I probably wouldn't read the one on wine making or on sports. Though, I do love the Robin Cook medical thrillers.


  4. Patti - I couldn't agree more. In real life, we do specialize. Those of us, for instance, in higher education, specialize pretty specifically. There is no reason at all that crime fiction can't, too. As you say, there is a limit, and it wouldn't make for good writing if a series was about too small a theme. Still, variety adds to the genre.

    Book Dilettante - You've mentioned some themes I like very much, too : ). You are so right about the richness of the mystery genre. When I read your comment, I was thinking about Laurien Berenson's series featuring Melanie Travis and her Standard Poodles; they're different from the Johnston stories, but still with the theme of dogs. And, of course, all of the wide variety of "cultural" mysteries such as Cotterill's Dr. Siri novels (thanks for mentioning them : ) ). As you say, there is a never-ending variety of different themes for mystery novels. I admit, I haven't read the sudoku ones yet, although my husand likes sudoku very much. Maybe I should try one...

    Ann - I know exactly what you mean. I got interested in a few cozy series about dogs because I am a dog lover. I thoroughly enjoyed the Laurien Berenson series, and hers is not the only one. There are some other pet series, too, that I've read, simply because I'm an animal lover. I also very much liked the early Robin Cook novels, even though I'm not in the medical field.

  5. Funnily enough I only seem to like themed books where I am unfamiliar with the subject - e.g. I love the Dick Francis books set in the horse racing industry despite knowing nothing about the topic, and I have a couple of chef/catering related series that I follow despite knowing little about professional food preparation. The couple of times I have tried a book which focuses on a subject I am familiar with I tend to get hung up on incorrect details rather than get lost in the story.

  6. Bernadette - That's very interesting! It does make sense, though. If one knows something about a topic, and the author of a book one's reading has got some things wrong, it's very hard to get re-focused on the plot, even if it's a good plot. That's why (to me, anyway) the author should either know her or his subject very well, or do the research, so that the details are accurate. That makes a story flow much better and keep interest.

  7. It's funny, really - I almost didn't pick up my first Dick Francis book, or my first Harlan Coben book, because they were about sports. I'm very glad I did, in both cases.
    I love themed crime fiction if it's about law, medicine, science or journalism. I think these specialisms are general enough to include a lot of different types of novel, but each of them has a particular structure. I've found it interesting over the years of reading themed books to see how systems differ in different countries, and so on.

    I am less keen on crafty, pet/animal-style mysteries. I know this is grossly unfair and wrong of me, but something in me says that they are likely to be twee. I have to make a real effort to overcome this prejudice, and I honestly admit it is a terrible prejudice with no basis in reality, and hope I won't be vilified for admitting it. I try to do better....

    I also do not like the crime/horror boundary being blurred, a post on which has been bubbling up in me for a few days.

  8. Maxine - Like you, I wouldn't have ordinarily chosen sports-themed novels. And yet, Coben's and Francis' work certainly shows us that it's possible to have a well-written engrossing series of sports-related books that draw in a wide variety of readers. One thought I have about it is that for those writers, it works because they create mysteries first - strong crime novels with all the important elements of a strong crime novel. The sports theme just happens to be woven in.

    I would say the same is true of well-written novels that feature themes you've mentioned you like. As I read that part of your post, I was thinking of writers such as Cook, whose early novels were essentially suspense and mystery novels first. The medical setting was there to serve the plot. Once that essential priority system changes, so that the medicine, the legal case, or whatever else it is takes precedence, the book falls flat.

    That, I think, is also an important point to bear in mind when it comes to craft-themed and animal-themed mysteries. There are solid novels in that category (although I see your point that there are also many that are almost treacly). The difference is, again, the author's focus. For example, when Lilian Jackson Braun began her Cat Who.. series years ago, it featured an interesting human protagonist who, in the course of the series, acquired two Siamese cats. The first few novels focused on the mysteries (which were absorbing) and the characters (who were believable and interesting). The focus of those first stories was the mystery, the crimes, and the plot. Yes, they featured the cats, who played roles, but the real point was the mystery. Many people think that Braun's last several books have been pale imitations, if that, of what they once were. But her early novels really showed (at least me) that it's possible to have a "homey" pet-related mystery and still have a corking good story. I agree with you, though, that that can be difficult.

    That's why (warning: soapbox alert ; ) ) I think that those who write (or aspire to write) crime fiction do it best when they start with the basics of what makes a good crime novel. As an example, instead of saying, "I know! I'll write a book about rug-making. And since everybody loves a mystery, I'll make my rug-maker a crime-solver!," better crime novels come from a different priority: "I have such-and-such an idea for a victim/murderer/motive/investigation. That might work well in rug-making setting, and I know something about weaving rugs, so that's what the protagonist will do." There's more to it than that, of course - lots more. My main point is that crime novels - good ones - start with a solid crime plot. (Now stepping down from soapbox ; ))

    Thanks, also, for mentioning the horror/crime blur. I truly do look forward to your post about that. The two genres really are different, and are too often confused.

  9. I think you're absolutely right, Margot! We should think about the puzzle first, then worry about the hook.

    Nowadays we DO frequently have to have a hook to sell, but that can be worked into the story AFTER we make sure the puzzle is sound. :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  10. Elizabeth - How right you are! You said that quite well, too. Mystery authors do need something to capture interest - that hook - to sell a book. But there has to be a good, solid mystery underlying the hook. Otherwise, the book falls flat and the next one won't sell. It sometimes takes longer, and it's certainly more work, to start with a good mystery and add the hook later. It is worth the effort, though.

  11. I've always enjoyed the Dick Francis mysteries (bless him) because of his working in horses in every book in some way. Sometimes it was obvious, the protagonist is a jockey, sometimes not so obvious, the protagonist sells paintings of horses. I've learned about wine merchants, stockbrokers, kidnap experts, meteorologists and more from Dick Francis.

    I've found with some of the newer cozies that the theme overpowers the mystery. I've found the plot used simply as a tool to convey recipes or knitting knowledge. I want a mystery - not a cookbook.

  12. Elspeth - I couldn't agree more! Dick Francis was so knowledeable, and he wove his knowledge and interests into his mysteries. You're right, too, that he had creative ways of integrating those interests. He will be sorely missed.

    It's funny you would mention some of the new trends in cozies. I've seen food recipes, too, and knitting patterns, and drink mix recipes and more. There's no reason you can't have an engrossing mystery that includes a focus on food, animals or something else. But if those themes take precedence over the mystery, the book changes its tone completely. Mystery fans want a crime story.

  13. I am also in favour of puzzle first ...
    So if one of my beloved series includes a theme, I´ll probably read it no matter what (Ruth Rendell made hardcore environmentalists interesting in Road Rage), but I have never tried Dick Francis, because horse racing puts me off.

  14. Dorte - You do have an excellent point that whether or not we decide to read a mystery depends (at least in part) on how we feel about the author. As you say, an author such as Rendell can make naerly any topic fascinating. Interesting too, isn't it, how some topics can be off-putting enough so that we won't read a book. I know for myself, I have nearly no interest in cars (other than what I need to know as a simple car owner), and certainly none in auto racing. So I admit that an author of an auto-racing mystery novel would have quite a time convincing me to read it...

  15. Totally agree about the good novel first, Margot! I have only read one of those Lilian Jackson Braun novels and I think it was a very late one in the series, so probably when it was past its best. Forgive me for being repetitive, but this is what happened to me with the Eve Dallas series by Nora Roberts writing as J D Robb. These novels haven't become pale imitations of themselves, but I lost interest in them after a while as each seemed to be a repeat of the last, but with a slightly different crime committed each time. There is no real character development (though events happen eg someone has a baby, etc). Perhaps a better example of "the Braun effect" is Jonathan Kellerman, whose early books were so interesting, featuring a child psychologist who advised the courts and police in cases where a problem or crime involving a child had cropped up or been committed. After half a dozen or so excellent explorations of some difficult themes in an intelligent and sensitive way, the books veered into an annual formula, often not involving younger people/psychology at all but the Hollywood arty-showbiz set, and so to me they have become dull and derivative. It does not seem to have harmed the author's sales, though, to the contrary, so I don't really understand this. (Same with James Patterson and Alex Cross, the first two or three of which were good, if a little gruesome, novels - but have become an awful joke now.)

  16. Maxine - You've put your finger on what happens to many series over time. They lose their appeal because there is, as you say, no character development, no fresh approaches, and so on. I haven't read all of the Eve Dallas novels, either, for exactly that reason. The sad thing is, to me, anyway, that many of those series start out with interesting premises and what could be terrific characters. I contrast that kind of novel (e.g. Eve Dallas novels) with the way that Ian Rankin developed John Rebus and Siobhan Clarke over time. I confess, I haven't read every single Rebus novel, but the ones I have read let the reader see this development. There are new ideas, interesting plots (if at times, gruesome) and compelling themes. It's so claer (at least to me) that Rankin takes the time with each novel to create something fresh. Not everyone is a Rankin fan, but I think the Rebus novels are a good example of the kind of thing we look for in crime fiction - strong plot/characters first.

    Funny you would mention Kellerman and Patterson. You brought up the important word, "annual." Trust me, one can't always create anything like a good, fresh novel in just a year. Sometimes one can, but not always. I understand all too well the realities of contractual obligations, deadlines and the like, and I respect authors who have the integrity to keep their obligations. I also understand that, for a publisher, the bottom line is everything, and readers are fickle folk with short attention spans. "What have you done for me lately?" is often the question. So I understand why publishers want lots of books from authors who catch readers' fancies. For me, though, that pace can come at the cost of high quality. It hasn't happened for every author, of course. There are fine, fine authors who can write terrific books regularly (Michael Connelly comes to my mind). One may not like all of Connelly's books, but as a pattern, they are high quality. Still, I believe that the pressure to keep pushing out new books can take the focus away from strong stories. It's a balance that authors have to strike, and I admire those authors who can strike it.

  17. Agreed on the "annual", Margot. Patricia Cornwell is another case in point. Michael Connelly, now, I was privileged to hear him talk at Crime Fest last year and wow, the enthusiasm of that man for his writing was just magificent and wonderful. He just loves it! He was so on a roll with the last two of his books that he wrote them 9 months apart- he just couldn't stop himself, he said. I don't know if you have ever heard him talk or would want to, but I so much enjoyed the interview with him, he was so unspoilt. A real gentleman.

  18. Maxine - Michael Connelly really is a very special kind of writer, isn't he? I do want to haer him speak, and, given his writing, I'm not surprised that he sparkles with enthusiasm for it. That's how I want to be "when I grow up" ; ). Seriously, though, people like that serve as role models.

    Patricia Cornwell? Well...I agree with you about her.

  19. I saw on Janet Rudolph's blog in the past day or two that M Connelly is doing a lunch at Left Coast Crime in LA this (?) year - this is quite close to you, isn't it, Margot? Anyway, if you get the chance to hear him, I do recommend it. One of the things I really liked about what he said was how he described his website, which is designed and run by his sister - he talked about how he likes to add value to his books by videos - for example in The Scarecrow, a character comes into the book fairly late in as a result of a phone call. On the blog, there is a mini-story on video about what this character was doing up to the point when the phone rings. I think this is really inventive (though I did not watch the video as it isn't my thing, and I was going to read the book anyway! But I think it is great that he puts in so much effort for his readers, even though he doesn't have to, given his sales etc).