Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The fleeting vogue of crime-fiction themes

I’ve read enough of Tana French’s In the Woods to notice its dreamlike prologue and its initial narrative hook: A detective will wind up investigating something horrible that happened to him and two friends when they were children.

The superficial similarity with Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River got me thinking about other such similarities, and it happens that I’m not the only one doing so. Here's a recent comment from the Oz Mystery Readers site: “Serial killers went through a phase of being genre du jour. Seems to have died down a bit now. And for some reason nearly every second book I read at the moment has the protagonist recovering from injury or illness or a traumatic experience.”

That’s two recurring themes right there: Serial killers, and protagonists looking into their own traumas. What others can you think of? Why do certain themes capture the attention of writers? Why do such themes come into and go out of fashion?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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15 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

Well, maybe it's a subset of the trauma theme, but I see a fair number of these: "Bad guy from past holding grudge against good guy; targets good guy, who initially hasn't got a clue who/why these mysterious incidents are happening to him/her."

October 10, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

That also could overlap with the psychopath theme, but let's call it a type of its own for now. It's not a perfect fit, but perhaps Paul Johnson's The Death List belongs on that list. Any others?

October 10, 2007  
Blogger Barbara said...

Marcus Sakey's The Blade Itself kinda runs that way... but it goes back to a crime the two did in the past; one goes straight, the other one doesn't. Which also reminded me of Mystic River - three children grow up and take different paths that put them on a collision course: a cop, a criminal, and a life-long victim.

October 10, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

However one classifies these stories, the continuing effect of long-ago crimes or other misdeeds is a common element. I wonder when this trend started in crime fiction.

October 10, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I wonder when this trend started in crime fiction.

Um, whenever the first revenge story appeared in the Bible? ;)

Seriously, it may go in and out of fashion, but I can't remember a time when there weren't stories of vengeance for perceived past wrongs.

October 11, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Well, yes, but I suspect the current round is more connected to repressed-memory syndrome and child-abuse scandals. Also, many do not concern revenge at all.

October 11, 2007  
Blogger Juri said...

It's clearly going back to noir. The original noir cycle (or whatever, don't get into arguments about it now) had lots of stories about amnesia, recovering from brain damage, and other stuff that you mention is in vogue right now.

October 11, 2007  
Anonymous Maxine said...

Don't make me give you examples, but a theory is that a blockbuster comes along and publishers copy it in a misguided attempt to emulate its success. Call it the DVC effect, but it has been alive and well for years I imagine. J K Rowling to Lemony Snicket, reissuing of Diana Wynne Jones, translating of Cornelia Funke.....) So when Silence of the Lambs hit the streets, publishers probably all started looking for tough but vulnerable female FBI agent stories susceptible to cannibals, etc. (Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs et al). I stress this is a theory, I know you are going to need evidence, Peter, so I'd need to check out pub dates etc -- and I'm too lazy. So I'll leave it as a theory. "Derivitive publishing trends".

October 11, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the note, Juri. I'd likely not have made that link myself.

I just found this interesting article about film noir: http://www.filmsite.org/filmnoir.html It cites amnesia as a frequent theme, but not many of its examples fit into the category. In any case, I, um, had forgotten about amnesia when I posed my question, perhaps because I was thinking more about crime novels and less about noir. And yes, I know enough to stay away from any discussion of what is and what isn't noir.

I wonder if the author of today's lost- or repressed-memory thrillers feel a kinship with the older noir stories. In the Woods, for example, has nothing of a noirish feel in its opening chapters, but then, I've always associated noir with hopelessness and desperation, and what could be more desperate than the drive to recover one's memory?

But I must correct myself already. In the Woods has some flickers of noir that may intensify. When the protgonist is called to the scene of a child's murder close to where he and his friends had their long-ago ordeal, French inserts tiny flashbacks. There are less than a sentence long, and are general memories of the place and time, not of the ordeal. Still, a flashback is a flashback -- a little piece of memory returning.

October 11, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Maxine, I'd say the most notable current example is all the books that seek to capitalize on the success of The Da Vinci Code. Your theory is as near to fact as a theory can be.

In a way, though, that begs the question. One might still ask (or at least speculate idly) about why Dan Brown's book found such success when it did. A need for connection to the past, and all that sort of bushwah?

It's a commonplace of popular-culture theorizing that the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers reflected American anxiety about invasions and the like in the Cold War era. I wonder (and may the saints preserve me from wasting too much time on such idle questions!) whether one can make similar connections with respect to certain themes in current crime fiction.

October 11, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Leaving aside the question of why Brown's book sold so well, after reading it my question was "how many people actually read it and how many just put it on the shelf to say they had it?"

I reviewed it at my place, and the very next day I found a much more trenchant review from a far better writer than I.

Back to the subject, I think bandwagons are created in the publishing world as much as in the movie world (how many sequels of Saw or Nightmare on Elm Street can one world stand?). So, yes, there's a flavor du jour in books.

October 11, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

My guess would be not that people put it on the shelf to say they had it (that's Stephen Hawking territory), but rather that they bought it to see what the fuss was about.

The question remains: Other thrillers may be almost as badly written as The Da Vinci Code; why did this one sell so well?

Thanks for the links to those two discussions of the book. I especially like Neddie Jingo!'s dead-on analysis of The Da Vinci Code's opening paragraphs. (Neddie showed more patience than I. I got no further than the awful false title that opens the novel before I decided I needed to read no more. That's a record for me: four words.)

Bad prose is a verboten topic at my newspaper as well as among this world's Clive Cusslers. There is probably nothing that so many people do poorly while thinking that they do it so well.

October 11, 2007  
Blogger Juri said...

Maybe it was amnesia then, recovering from child abuse now. There could be some same elements in our Zeitgeist that guide writers to develop these kinds of ideas. (If that indeed happens. I don't think it's clear to anyone who Zeitgeist is born or made or raised or whatever.)

I mean to say that maybe the late fourties and early 2000's share same elements. Maybe there's somethink dark looming behind us at the moment and we don't know what it is. And people seem to accept faith, just as it's being done in the original noir films and novels.

I'm just throwing off some ideas, I don't necessarily mean that this should be taken seriously. But I've noticed the resemblance before. There's something there.

October 12, 2007  
Blogger Juri said...

That's supposed be "how", not "who".

October 12, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Juri, I'm glad you brought up the word Zeitgeist; I was afraid I'd be considered too serious if I invoked it.

I suspect you're right, and I wonder if the current writers recognize the resemblance or have read the older books. If not, I wonder what their take on the resemblances would be.

October 12, 2007  

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