Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Recuring Themes in Current Crime Writing


As soon as a novel begins talking about a boys or girls camp, or a sports' team, or the boy scouts, I begin to think it's going to end up being about child molestation. I have read three books in the last year where that turned out to be the case. It ruined all three to various degrees because I was not supposed to figure it out at the first mention-- or in the case of one book within the first fifty pages.

All three were very well written, had a good protagonist and great atmospheric so they almost overcame it. Almost.

And I am sure these novels were all written without knowledge of each other-continents apart even. We're just living in a very small world and it's hard not to zero in on a certain trend in crimes.

Do you find these trends in the crime fiction or regular fiction you read too? Do we write in cycles where a certain abnormality or a particular shows up again and again. Cannibalism, sex slavery, wife abuse, kidnapping, meth labs and so on. If you see it coming, does it ruin it for you?

21 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - I think there certainly are trends in crime fiction. We do go through periods where one or another kind of crime is, dare I say it, popular. And sometimes, especially if it's not handled well, those trends do take away from my enjoyment of a novel. I will say, though, that if there's a good atmosphere and characters, I can still enjoy the book. But yes, there are definitely patterns and trends in crime fiction.

Anonymous said...

Definitely. My wife's reading has gone from romantic suspense to paranormal and you just can't escape them (not in the books, but the bookstores).

Too many "suspense" novels and TV shows are just too obvious; the mminute the biggest-named guest star shows up you can make odds that he (usually it's a he) is the bad guy.

This can totally kill a book for me. When it seems obvious who the villain is and the self-proclaimed "brilliant" hero never even suspects him, then how brilliant is he really? I don't want to ruin it for future readers so I won't name names, but a couple of recent bestselling authors (who might possibly be related) both did this in their last book(s).

Sorry, I'm rambling.

But I did want to thank you (I'm pretty sure it was you, Patti) for recommending a terrific first novel, Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists.

Highly recommended!

Jeff M.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am sure this is a topic you have covered, Margot in your wonderful compendium of themes.
Jeff-so glad you liked the book.
And you are so right about the name star always being the murderer on TV. It's a dead giveaway as soon as I see the name in the credits.

David Cranmer said...

Patterns. I'm not sure we can shake 'em. I do find more originality along the indie route. Like your DISCOUNT NOIR. That is where fresh thoughts and plots occur.

Ron Scheer said...

Just watched SEE NO EVIL about the Moors Murders. This was totally absorbing though you know before you put the DVD in the player who the murderers are and that the victims are children.

Todd Mason said...

Currently a discussion on librarian-heavy Fiction-L, as well.

Endangered children got to be rather tiresome in horror fiction in the early '80s, thanks to the success of THE EXORCIST, THE OTHER, BURNT OFFERINGS, FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, etc.

It's the unfortunate laziness that will out. Stephen King can be a good writer, but he's one of the laziest writers around. While, for example, in the likes of THE PRICE OF SILENCE some five years or so back, Kate Wilhelm was able to do interesting things with the serial rapist/kidnapper trope.

Alec Cizak said...

I know what you mean. In late 2008 I finished a story that would become "The Gimme," which appeared in Beat to a Pulp and you, I believe, pointed out that you knew where it was going ahead of time. Well, as soon as I finished wrting that story, I picked up the latest AHMM (Christmas, 2008) and saw that there was a story in it with exactly the same kind of plot (grifter/s get/s grifted-- though, I'm confident to say, it wasn't nearly as interesting as my story.) Since "The Gimme" appeared in BTAP, I have seen the exact same story line in three stories published elsewhere since then. One of the first submissions to All Due Respect had it as well.

When I worked in Los Angeles I noticed that writers tended to stumble onto the same ideas at roughly the same time (we all remember the flood of 'little kid becomes a grown up overnight' movies in the 1980s.) I think it is some kind of cosmic joke being played on writers, or maybe it's a way to make sure we get the story on paper before someone else does.

One other note, some people say "there are no new ideas," or something along the same lines. I resist believing this, but it is true that ideas seem to get rehashed quite a bit. The question, then, becomes, how is the latest version unique to its specific writer? So, I guess the solution is to worry about the writing more than the plot (that's a tough pill for some to swallow, but greatness and mediocrity are separated by the quality of writing*, in my opinion.)

*With all due respect to Big Steve King, who says story comes first.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes it can be as obvious as the dog-who has-to-die in a rural kid's book. Even when I was 11 I saw this one coming and knew it was gonna be painful.

I think it's also easy to read a writer like his/her own trend. Some writers have a tendency to re-use structures and clues. The reader can tell whodunnit because that's the way the author does it.

Dan Luft

George said...

Diane pointed out to me: "They always kill the woman." And sure enough, book after book, movie after movie, TV crime show after TV crime show, women are always the first to die. A disturbing pattern...

pattinase (abbott) said...

Once upon a time, I thought I wrote a clever story where a guy uses the disposable cameras they give out at weddings to take pictures of his genitals in the restroom. A few weeks later, I saw the same story on King of Queens. So even an unlikely theme can turn up. Mine was sinister; theirs funny but too close to send it out.

Charles Gramlich said...

SInce i don't read a huge amount of currently published fiction, I don't see it that often. I see it in movies for sure, where three or four movies will come out at the same time with the same theme.

Richard R. said...

I seem to recall someone said there are only so many plots and it's a matter of how they are told. It certainly seems that some themes dominate genres and sub-genres, westerns have their rancher protecting his land and family from cattlemen (or vice-versa is a classic. In hard boiled, there's the P.I. hired to find the missing daughter, and we know where that almost always goes, from Chandler to Pronzini. In SF, how many have been written with the world waking up one day to find spaceships overhead?

But the genres themselves can be trite. Just saying "mystery" means there'll be a crime, a crime-solver, a solution of arrest or escape. Seems to me most thrillers involve serial killers (except the ones about world politics and spies). When Poirot goes on vacation, don't you already know there will be a murder" Of course you do.

So, yep, story lines repeat, often based on the kind of crimes occurring around us at the time. I'm okay with that AS LONG AS THE BOOK IS WRITTEN WELL and it's not a topic I refuse to subject myself to in the fiction I read for entertainment.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Anything can be fresh in the right pair of hands. (It used to be just one hand a century ago, didn't it?). But I do tend to drop the book in disappointment if I see it's a serial killer, a hit man, a pedophile. They are either done to death or too alarming. And the last just sickens me at this point unless the action is way off screen. Dexter on TV stands this the first on its head, of course.

Dorte H said...

I think it is true that the summer camp background points towards abuse; I can also remember two examples just offhand.

As Jeff says, the paranormal seems to be a huge trend right now. I posted about ghosts last week because I had reviewed four crime novels in August that inclued ghosts & superstition. Now crime can include ghosts and be very different so it doesn´t matter as such - as long as the denouement does NOT depend on something supernatural. I want proper detection.

Todd Mason said...

Well, hell...Meyer's the bestseller of any sort at the mo', so of course, horror/fantasy angles occur to the opportunistic.

Deb said...

I can't stand a mystery where I'm one step (or more) ahead of the person solving the mystery. A few years ago, I read a book where it was abundantly clear to me by the second chapter that a woman had been molested by her father. It took until ten pages before the end of the book for the "brillian" psychiatrist to say (and I'm quoting verbatim), "Molested by her father? I never would have guessed that."

Suffice to say, I never picked up another book by that particular author.

Deb said...

The psychiatrist was also "brilliant."

pattinase (abbott) said...

Oh the molested by a father theme was big for a long time. I guess there are only so many trends out there. And it was quite apparent early on in a big book of the last few years.

Todd Mason said...

Writers do respond to the news. And sometimes the rhythms of the publishing industry and the process of writing mean that things come forth over the next few years.

Alec Cizak said...

Well, I just realized the story of mine that appears at Powder Burn Flash this week has a pedophile (s.p.?) in it. HOWEVER, in my story, he is clipped (presumably) before he embarks on his evil path.

Sorry to disappoint...

pattinase (abbott) said...

There are only so many stories but in a long novel it becomes more annoying. Don't announce on page 25 that there is a hockey team or a boy scout troop around.