Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

A Murderous Art: 
Theme And the Modern Mystery

by Rob Flumignan
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's life.

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 story.

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 my own.

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 thematic possibilities.

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?


Feel Inside

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.