Some crime writers deny there are any underlying themes in their novels. They say it’s all about the story and the characters and that theme is an unnecessary affectation. Nonetheless many successful crime novels features an easily identifiable theme - and many successful crime writers set out specifically to address, through their writing, topics or issues that are of interest or concern to them. These writers don't choose particular themes for purely commercial reasons – it doesn’t work that way. Instead it tends to be the case that the theme is something that they want to, or maybe even need to, write about. It would be wrong to think that the theme is one more ingredient in a cynical formula designed to produce the perfect crime novel.
After all, it’s almost impossible to create a good novel cynically, no matter what some people think. A collection of events can be arranged into a pre-ordained order and characters can be organised to work together to provide those events with cohesion and forward momentum, but these building blocks will only take you so far. There are always other factors at play. Novels are much more likely to connect with readers on a deep and meaningful level if the writer has something to say about a matter that the writer really cares about - and meaningful and deep communication, however ethereal that may sound, is what good reading and good writing is all about.
As it happens, crime novels are very seldom solely about the crime. They’re also, generally, about what caused the crime and why the crime is important to the protagonist. In a confusing and rapidly changing world, crime novels address countless issues as diverse as corruption, racism, the erosion of traditional communities and omnipresent government surveillance, and try to make sense of them. A crime novel may appear to be about a random act of violence but the investigation will probably reveal that the crime relates to the theme that the author wants to explore - and that the theme is something which the author cares deeply about.
On the other hand, the theme may not always be visible to the reader. I was struggling with my last novel – The Twelfth Department – and was conscious that it was missing something. Inadvertently I’d allowed it to become very – well - formulaic. It needed something going on beneath the surface to give it depth. At the time my son was only a year or so old and, as it happened, I really wanted to write about that relationship. My detective has a son who lives apart from him, so I decided to arrange for him to come and visit and see where that would lead. Almost immediately the novel became a very different entity. I don’t think readers are necessarily aware that The Twelfth Department is about my son but the choices that my deciding to write about him forced on me may well be the reason why they enjoy it, if they do.
So how do you set about identifying a theme that will make your novel meaningful for you to write - while appealing to your readers as well?
A good starting point is to ask yourself what angers you or what moves you. We all have things that infuriate us and we all have things which we love and cherish and want to protect. The chances are that if you feel strongly about something it’s likely that a good proportion of your readers will, too. It will certainly change the way that you write the novel and a theme that you really care about bubbling away underneath will give it depth and power. Readers will feel your emotion, reflected through your characters, and react to it.
The thing to remember, of course, that often this isn’t something that needs to be thought out - having a theme is instinctive to narrative. It’s the way we naturally tell stories and also why stories matter. And the strange thing is that those authors I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the ones who deny they have particular themes in their novels, are often mistaken.
William Ryan has written three crime novels set in 1930s Russia, which have been shortlisted for numerous prizes – including the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year, The CWA’s Ellis Peters Historical Dagger and New Blood Dagger, The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award and The Irish Crime Novel of the Year (twice). The Constant Soldier, an historical novel set in 1945 Nazi Germany will be published in May 2016. William lectures on the Crime Writing Masters course at City University. Find out more on his website, and buy his guide to writing crime fiction here.