CSI Crime Book Discussions: Uncovered Secret Text Reveals All

I once asked Sue Grafton what were the themes in her books.  She had to think a minute and then replied, “People should not kill each other.”

For a crime fiction book discussion group, “people should not kill each other” is not sufficient textual content to handle a ninety minute discussion on a title.  The reason is the same for this genre as it is for any:  the main ingredient of the genre is a foregone conclusion when approaching the topic so it has minimal impact on the reader.  In most crime fiction (with rare exceptions), the central core of the novel is going to be a death or a crime and someone is going to be tasked with dealing with that disruption in society.  Readers know this and book discussion participants are going to need more to discuss.

Arguments can be made that if plot is not a major player in the discussion, certainly characters and setting can be.  While that is true, in genre fiction the danger for characters and setting is that they can be used as entertainment devices but not as thematic enhancements.  You can drop into any of the thirty nine Hercule Poirot novels by Agatha Christie and understand the character because he is essentially the same man in each book.  Once you are done discussion Poirot’s cute little peculiarities, there is not much left to discuss about the character.

The same can be said for the use of setting by some authors.  If the setting is a cruise ship, a hat shop or an Amish farm in Pennsylvania and those settings are used to entertain but not to educate, then setting will fail to enhance a book discussion as well.

Entertain vs. educate.  When I wrote the book Read ‘Em Their Writes in 2006, I did a duck and cover because I was upfront about my opinions on this topic and nothing has really changed over time.  My intent is not to disrespect entertaining works of fiction (or to be accused of being a cozy hater!!!) because there is no greater joy that spending a few hours inside an entertaining book of fiction.

I still believe that there are two types of genre writing:  those titles written to provide a wonderfully entertaining reading experience and those that are written to provide a wonderfully entertaining reading experience and send a message. 

For book discussion leaders, I believe you need to use those that are written to provide a wonderfully entertaining reading experience and send a message.  The exception is when your group is reading an entertainment-only effort because you are doing a genre study of that author or character.  I belong to a local crime fiction book discussion whose montly topic is the author and their character with members reading multiple titles in the series.  The multiplicity of our attack on this author’s works can easily fill the time required even if the books are entertaining only and lack strong thematic content..

In the main, a crime fiction title with a strong theme is going to work best.  My sure bet recommendation and my personal all-time best crime fiction novel is Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River.  This novel is set in a working class neighborhood in Boston and the setting is integral to the story because the fascinating characters are steeped in the traditions of their environment.  But more important to this discussion today, the multiple themes of the novel are significant and compelling.

Ironically, one of the core themes in Mystic River is people should not kill each other.  Sue Grafton might have been put on the spot when I asked her that question because a number of her books have themes that extend far beyond the worry over murder.  She deserves more credit than she gave herself.

The good news is that I believe that this is true of a vast majority of contemporary crime and mystery novels.  Read ‘Em Their Writes lists discussion questions for 100 novels I believe would work and since that publication I have accumulated another 100.  If I can find them, so can you.  Watch Book Group Buzz this month for many helpful suggestions for a crime and mystery book discussion titles that work.

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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