Monday, October 15, 2012

Long as I can see the leitmotif: Recurring themes that lend texture to crime novels

Some time ago discussion here at Detectives Beyond Borders turned to those recurring snippets of dialogue or description that do so much to create a novel's feeling or texture.  I enjoyed the conversation, and not just because I got to use the word leitmotif.

Among my recent reading, Dana King's fine mob novel Wild Bill made great play of its FBI agents' worry that their specialty — organized crime — got short shrift in the bureau in favor of counterterrorism, the menace of the moment. More recently, Adrian McKinty's I Hear the Sirens in the Street is shot through with references to emigration from Northern Ireland in the early 1980s, the time and place of the novel's setting, invoked even when a suitcase turns up with body parts in it. (The suitcase's vendor can't remember having sold that particular item because so many people are buying luggage to pack for their permanent trips away.)

Leitmotifs in fiction are more than quirks, less than plot elements. A leitmotif should, according to a definition of leitmotifs' use in music, be "clearly identified so as to retain its identity if modified on subsequent appearances." Used well, it indicates an author in control of his or her material, with a firm idea of what kind of story he or she wants to tell. Leitmotifs might not come to mind right away if someone asks you what happens in a given novel, but they are part of what a novel is about, part of the world it creates.

What are your favorite leitmotifs, or recurring themes, in crime novels? What do they add? And are leitmotifs a necessary part of a good story? Why? Why not?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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17 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

My favourite bit in Dana's novel (spoiler alert) was the ending. A great bold ending. I think Dana wasn't completely sure about going that route but I thought it was perfect.

October 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Bold is right. The man is not afraid to do something different.

October 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, have you also read Charlie Stella? If not, you ought to.

October 15, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

I remember my aunt talking to me about leitmotifs in Thomas Mann when I just heading off to college. I have to say that I'm really not that kind of reader. You could push a leitmotif as big as a house through your book and I really wouldn't notice.

I hope that the structure of a book feels aesthetically pleasing without my quite knowing why. But that may be being too generous with myself.

I read a lot of literature in college but I didn't read it as a lit major, and that may be the difference between me and the more analytically inclined.

October 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm an analytical type of guy, but I notice these leitmotifs only when they work. If they occur in books I don't like, I suppose I regard them as tiresome repetition. The term originated in music, and I'm probably likelier to notice a repeated musical theme in a symphony than I am a leitmotif in a novel.

I would think of leitmotifs as small, tastefully furnished apartments rather than as something as big as a house.

October 15, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

My aunt told me that the leitmotifs in Buddenbrooks were pretty obvious as it was an early work, but I never read that one. I'm not surprised that Mann would seek to organize a work musically, though.

October 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Discussing the psychology behind leitmotifs requires someone of a more analytical bent than mine -- or someone who knows a lot more, anyhow. What was on Wagner's mind when he invented them?

October 15, 2012  
Blogger Susan said...

If I recall Leitmotif from my university days - and I did a degree in English Literature, so I hope I'm recalling this info correctly! - a leitmotif is a recurring theme in a book or series of books, that has the theme emerging in different levels or patterns. So you could have the main story (unhappy marriage, one person disappears), and then you can have it reoccur when one of the suspects is talking about a friend or a relative who had something similar happen. Or a child dying, leaving home, roses, birds, there are all kinds of things that can be used in a leitmotif.

Of course, now that I want to think of a favourite one in a mystery, I can't think of any! lol Ok - here's one - Erlendur, and how he almost died in the blizzard as a child. His brother is never found in the same storm. Through all of Erlendur's books, the theme of loneliness, of being alone, is used for him, and the feeling of being trapped in the blizzard grows until finally Erlendur's daughter Eva-Lind points out that his marriage failed because he was never there, because he was still trapped back there in the blizzard.

It's not a very good leitmotif, but it's mostly that he wants to find what's missing, which is really his brother, and this idea of him looking for him, of reading all the blizzard reports and survivor stories as a child, is a constant theme in the background. It makes it more real when Erlendur wants to solve a crime, it's not just a sense of justice he wants, but to bring some kind of knowing - resolution - back for the families. Because he knows what it's like to not know.

It would be interesting to study the books more closely and see how often snow is part of each story (if it is), and how many of the characters are solitary like Erlendur is.

Does that make sense, was this something you had in mind? I'm sure there are better ones out there, it's one that popped into my mind. I think it was seeing a review that the latest two books by Indridason doesn't feature Erlendur, who has disappeared.....

October 16, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think that's a fine choice. It marks his character without becoming a plot device, at least until his daughter brings the issue to a resolution.

October 16, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

Susan, I really liked this, particularly the line,"Because he knows what it's like not to know." I hadn't really thought of Erlandur in that way before, but of course that would be true.

October 16, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"a leitmotif is a recurring theme in a book or series of books, that has the theme emerging in different levels or patterns."

Susan, I think that's part of the term's definition, at least in music. Another part is that the leitmotif stands for a given character or idea. Here are Merriam-Webster's definition:

"1: an associated melodic phrase or figure that accompanies the reappearance of an idea, person, or situation especially in a Wagnerian music drama

2: a dominant recurring theme ."


That's what I had in mind.

October 16, 2012  
Blogger Dana King said...

This is awkward, but I'm better able to contribute here to the musical aspects of leitmotif than to the literary.

Wagner came up with them as a way to keep characters and ideas in the audience's minds during operas lasting longer than some Italian governments. (Especially The Ring, which he pretty much thought of as one long opera.) Siegfried has his own bit of music, and it's played--sometimes in the background--whenever Wagner wants to bring him to mind without actually bringing him onstage. With that in mind, it fits perfectly with Peter's use of the term here.

The best example I can give of a leitmotif in popular culture is the shark's music in JAWS. The music never appears unless the shark is resent. This works best in the movie during the fake shark attack, when the kids have the big fin. The music isn't played. Minutes later, when the shark does appear, the music is present.

Adrian and Peter, I don't have the words to express my appreciation for your comments at the beginning of this thread. Many thanks.

October 16, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I'm no Wagnerian, but I do know that he used leitmotifs in "Der Meistersinger" and had a marvelous knack for orchestrating two leitmotifs at the same time to indicate action that combined characters or ideas. He was an execrable human being but an awesomely creative musician.

October 16, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

That Jaws thing is a great example, Dana. And I have had your book on my ereader since even before these guys sang your praises, but like so many things, I haven't gotten to it yet. Shall bump it up a bit higher in the virtual TBR pile.

October 16, 2012  
Blogger Dana King said...

Thank you, Seana. I hope you like it.

October 16, 2012  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

It's sort of a quirk, but I think the sheriff's cutesy aphorisms in The Killer Inside Me are something more. They publicly mask his loathing for people in general, so every time he utters one, it gives me the complete creeps.

October 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If those aphorism give you the creeps, they may indeed fit in with what I think of as leitmotifs. But I'll have to read the book first.

October 17, 2012  

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