Theme And the Modern Mystery
Copyright 2002 Rob Flumignan
The mystery story has
evolved a great deal in the last ten to fifteen years. Characters have
grown more complex, the writing more sophisticated, and the themes deeper and
more varied. This trend probably started with Raymond Chandler, credited
for bringing the detective story out of the pulps and into the
"literary" world. In Chandler's time deep themes in mystery
fiction may have seemed pretentious at best, but now days it is the norm.
A reader seldom feels satisfied with a simple puzzle story. Mysteries have
grown up...and grown teeth. So much so, in fact, that many people no
longer write mystery stories, but instead "crime stories."
What's the difference?
I think the issue here concerns itself more with the genre's focus, rather than
its content. Calling a story a mystery automatically puts the mystery
element center stage. Many writers rebel against this, and for good
reason. A misconception exists among readers unfamiliar with the
crime/mystery genre that it's only about finding out 'whodunit' and exacting
justice. While this is a key structural element for much of the fiction in
the genre, it rarely stands as the primary one. Thus, labeling a book a
crime novel changes the focus. It's no longer just a mystery to solve, but
a story about characters struggling with a committed crime, about criminals and
victims, and often about how the whole world can change when one person takes
Another reason for the
name change revolves around the simple fact that not all of these stories are
about solving a murder. Some of them are about committing a murder, or
robbing a bank, or the day-to-day moral struggle a cop must face when doing his
job. If you're writing something to do with crime and criminals, you can
call it a "crime story."
How does this relate to
theme? Well, it means the door to the toy store is unlocked and there's
nobody there but you, so start playing. Mystery/crime stories don't have
to harp the same old theme, "Crime doesn't pay." Everybody knows
it sometimes does. And maybe that's a theme you want to tackle in your
Now that we're clear on
the thematic opportunities inherent in the crime/mystery story, here are some
tips for where to find your theme.
Theme = Fate
I've written before
about mystery's "Holy Trinity," and it's a great place to start if
you're trying to develop or discover your theme. The trinity is: Victim,
Killer (or Criminal, Villain, etc.), and Sleuth (or Hero, Cop, etc.). If
you've already written a draft, and you're still not sure what you're theme is,
find these characters and study their motivations. If you're still at the
idea stage, gather whatever sketches, bios, or character charts you might have
(or are kicking around in your head) and find these players.
Theme, to me, is about
fate. Where an author's characters end up at the story's conclusion says a
lot about that author and his beliefs. Gather your trinity and ask
yourself where these characters start, and where they end up.
Obviously, if you're
looking at your victim, in many cases the victim ends up dead, often right on
page one. Okay. Why did she die? What was it about her that
made someone want to kill her? Maybe you based this character on your boss
or ex-girlfriend. Why'd you do that? What does that say? Here
you're starting to look to yourself for thematic ideas. I'll discuss this
in more depth in the next section.
A lot depends on the
killer's motivations in developing theme, so let's look at him. The killer
acts because he feels no options remain to solve his problem. He (or she)
must kill. Why? (Again with that pesky question.) What makes a
person that desperate to kill? Greed, jealousy, lust, revenge? Those
sound like theme words to me. And maybe we're starting to get a picture of
why our victim is a victim. Maybe she wasn't as innocent as we think?
Or maybe she was innocent, and that's your point. Yours may be a story
about perception, and how you can never really know a person. Perhaps the
killer had a certain perception of the victim (totally wrong), and killed her
because of it. This is a rough version of the theme in a mystery novel of
No thematic ideas there?
Okay, think about where your sleuth ends up. Does he solve the crime?
(He probably should.) Get the girl? (Doesn't have to, and if
not maybe there's a reason for that . . . and a theme.) If and when he
does solve the crime, what does he decide to do about it? Read Dennis
Lehane's A Drink Before the War (Harper Torch, ISBN 0-380-72623-8) for a good
example of how this decision can affect theme. I don't want to give it
away, but the entire novel is about the right to pass judgment, and how blurry
that line gets. Lehane is also a fine example of how "literary"
a mystery novel can get. I recommend all of his novels.
Don't assume that the
solving of the crime is where the theme comes from, though. While the
crime is no doubt important to the story and its theme, how the characters react
and struggle because of that crime is where you'll find the juice.
Why is your sleuth
involved in this case? Is it personal or professional? If it's
personal, start looking at the relationship between the sleuth and the victim.
If you can tell yourself why it's so important your hero find the truth behind
the victim's murder, you can start formulating a theme. The next step
would involve asking yourself what he finds out, and how it affects him.
Remember, Theme = Fate.
As an example, suppose
your sleuth's wife is the victim. What was his relationship with his wife?
If he loved her deeply, you could have a theme that deals with that love.
The crime creates the struggle; the character creates the theme. So in
this case, the struggle is with the loss of his wife and the things he discovers
as he searches for the killer. What's great about mysteries is that once
the sleuth starts digging, he can find all sorts of secrets about the story's
characters. What will our character uncover about his wife? Was she
cheating on him? Is her lover the killer? Or maybe the sleuth has to
team up with the wife's lover to find the killer. That situation reeks of
Now bring it home.
What is the character's fate? If he teams up with this other guy, they
find the killer, and the killer goes to jail, what then? Does he forgive
this guy, and his unfaithful wife, in the process? A story about
forgiveness can be a powerful one. Maybe forgiveness isn't the theme you
want to pursue. What other possibilities might work for your characters?
While looking at your
"Holy Trinity," and discovering and analyzing your characters' fates,
certain elements will probably ring true to you. Theme truly comes from
what an author believes. The reason I suggested looking to your story and
its characters is because you created them, they are reflections of yourself.
When looking for a theme, look to your characters, decide their fate, then look
to yourself and ask if you believe this is how the world works (or should work).
You'll know you've hit pay dirt when visualizing your climax and the fate of
your characters gives you little chills. The novel I'm working on now does
that for me. It's a great feeling.
The Murderous Art
I hope you can start to
see the endless possibilities for themes in the crime/mystery genre. There
are a thousand and one ways to approach any single idea, and each of those ways
can lead to several different themes. When the themes start to suggest
themselves from your characters (the "Holy Trinity"), looking into
yourself and finding your dreams and beliefs will help you decide which theme is
right for you.
Finally, keep in mind
that you don't have to over-think your theme. Theme is a natural part of
the storytelling process; it will develop as long as your characters struggle to
determine their fate.
Remember that the
crime/mystery story of today can dig deeper than the traditional whodunit;
asking the toughest questions and reaching deep into your soul for the answers
is yet another grand part of this murderous art form.