Is mainstream fiction the only place where a reader can find an exploration of the human condition? Can genre fiction address these issues or are we limited to catching the killer, finding our one true love, making the bad guy pay or founding a new colony on a distant planet? I can only speak as a writer of mysteries, but I know some important issues in my life find their way into my work through the underlying themes of the book. For me, a significant theme is family and how it can strengthen us or betray us.
If you think about the mysteries you’ve enjoyed, you probably found them entertaining because you struggled along with the protagonist to discover the identity of the killer, thief or kidnapper. Sometimes you’re successful and congratulate yourself on being as clever as the author of the book. Other times, if you uncover the killer too early in the book, you’re disappointed. You wanted the writer to be a little better at hiding the face of the bad guy until the very end. Perhaps the best ending is one where you’re surprised by the revealing of the criminal. Part of your satisfaction may come with the twists and turns the writer uses to confuse and mislead you. You like being fooled, if only for a short time.
What readers may only be vaguely aware of are themes underlying the mystery. It’s a good read, an entertaining and enjoyable puzzle to solve. What more should a reader expect? In most mysteries there are underlying themes that are usually not stated but find their way into the reader’s consciousness as the story unfolds. Some are broad such as the theme of class differences and class privilege found in Elizabeth George’s work. The class clash between Lynley and Havers makes for great tension, so it functions not only as a theme but also as a vehicle to create tension in the writing, something we writers all strive to do on each page.
Even humorous mysteries can be pinned to themes that are not necessarily funny in and of themselves, but are a statement of being human. Janet Evanovich takes us into the world of Newark working class families where the struggle to find a job propels our heroine into fighting crime by doing bail bond work. Ms. Plum lives on the financial edge, but does so by clinging to what is important to her: family, love and supportive friends.
While plots provide the ride in a mystery, characters often develop out of the themes of the book. Would we love Parker’s Jesse Stone as much were it not for the demons he struggles with, alcohol and love? Regardless of the case, Stone comes home to confront himself. Despite his tough guy persona, part of his salvation is reaching out to help others. Under tough, Parker seems to be saying, is vulnerable, a recognizable theme in his Spenser books also. Why else would we find someone as violent as Spenser so appealing?
Whether the reader is consciously aware of the themes in a book, because they are intertwined with the characters, it is often the reliability of the theme that brings a reader back again and again to a character. It’s why we love a series. Sue Grafton has created a character who searches for love and connection and finds that others seek it too. Although Kinsey is quite unlike most of us on the surface, tough, single-minded, divorced, without family and with ninety plus year old Henry as her closest friend, we relate to her because we believe she is seeking the same things we are. We feel we can count on that underlying search to be present in all of Grafton’s books in the series.
As a writer of mysteries do you consciously or unconsciously use a theme or themes in your work? When you read mysteries, do you look for themes or do you find they sneak up on you after you finish the book, and you say, “hmm, how about that?”
Lesley Diehl retired from her life as a professor of psychology and reclaimed her country roots by moving to a small cottage in the Butternut River Valley in upstate New York. In the winter she migrates to old Florida—cowboys, scrub palmetto, and open fields of grazing cattle, a place where spurs still jingle in the post office, and gators make golf a contact sport. Back north, the shy ghost inhabiting the cottage serves as her writing muse. When not writing, she gardens, cooks and renovates the 1874 cottage with the help of her husband, two cats, and, of course, Fred the ghost, who gives artistic direction to their work.
She is author of several mystery series, all featuring country gals with attitude: the microbrewing mystery series set in the Butternut Valley of upstate New York—A Deadly Draught and Poisoned Pairings; the Big Lake Murder Mystery series—Dumpster Dying and Grilled, Chilled and Killed; and the Eve Appel Mysteries Series(A Secondhand Murder). Untreedreads publishes her short stories as well as a novel length mystery, Angel Sleuth. She invites readers to visit her on her blog and website.