Morality in Mysteries

I’m speaking on several panels at two upcoming conferences. One of the topics concerns morality in mysteries, and how fractured relationships might lead to the crime when the criminal gives in to his baser instincts. Hmm, this isn’t something I’ve thought about much up until now. I write my tales  to entertain. Might there be a morality lesson in there somewhere?

Certainly, the Bad Hair Day series as a whole has a moral or a theme, if you will. I see the two as one and the same. So here’s one moral you can take away from my books: You can move on from past mistakes. Redemption is the theme here. When the series starts, Marla—my hairdresser sleuth—is still atoning for a tragedy that happened when she was nineteen. A toddler in her care when she was babysitting drowned in the backyard pool. Guilt drives her. It motivates her to solve the crime in Permed to Death. But when she meets handsome Detective Dalton Vail, this guilt prohibits her from progressing in their relationship. He has a teenage daughter, and she doesn’t ever want children. She has to forgive herself before the future can blossom for her.

So here’s another lesson she learns: You can still be a good person even if you’ve done wrong. The accident that happened in the past wasn’t really her fault, but she blames herself. Deep down, she knows she is a good person. She strives to be better and solving mysteries is one way she does this. She also volunteers for the Child Drowning Prevention Coalition.

As Marla and Dalton grow closer, Marla comes to care for his daughter, Brianna. Their relationship still has its bumps, because Dalton also has some past baggage to let go before he can move ahead. But finally, by Shear Murder, Marla has accepted that she’s stronger with Dalton and Brianna for a family. Wait! Another moral is coming: Finding love can strengthen you, not cause dependency.

But Marla is still nervous. As their nuptials approach, she buries herself in solving another case rather than face wedding details and bickering relatives. Finally, she finds the courage to accept her new family with enthusiasm and love. She sheds her fears and looks forward to a new tomorrow. So here we go again: No matter how glum today looks, tomorrow is a better day.
I guess you could say that the morals in my stories involve my sleuth and her character growth. The focus isn’t on the criminal and how he evolved, or what effect the crime has on the victim’s family or on society in general. My cozy whodunits are centered around the sleuth and her life, not on the crime. That’s why I like reading cozies, too. They’re about someone like you or me who is a lot braver and who has the guts to chase down the bad guy. Along the way, we live vicariously in her world and see how her relationships grow and change.

How about you? Do you consciously determine the theme ahead of time, or does it emerge from your writing as you develop the story? Do your tales focus on the criminal’s motivations and the repercussions of the crime, or more on the sleuth’s life in general?

18 thoughts on “Morality in Mysteries

  1. Hi Nancy,

    I think we write to teach ourselves things we need to know. I think theme develops organically as I write, whether I know it or not.

    I know violence exists in our world and I’m not interested in glorifying it, the news does enough of that without my voice adding to it.

    I wanted to look the bad guys in the eye and have my characters stand up against it and say enough is enough.

    Great post Nancy,

  2. Taking Paula’s thought one step further, “We write to teach ourselves things we need to know.” I would further say for me the goal of is that is becoming a better person.

    So by extension I always have a theme in mind before I write the book. But other themes do emerge in the course of the writing.

    It’s how I try to make sense of the world around me.

  3. My stories are more in the noir vein, which by definition means that just about everyone is screwed up, and badly so. I like happy endings; I just don’t always find them believable.

  4. I tend to put a face on the victims of crime & write about how that crime radiates out to affect others, including law enforcement or those weilding justice (in the case of my covert vigilante organization). I don’t necessarily think of themes in my adult thrillers unless I want to explore something through my writing, but with my young adult books, I definitely use them. Thought provoking post, Nancy.

  5. Paula, like you, my theme develops organically as I write. Probably a lit professor could find all sorts of deeper meanings in my work but I write to entertain.

  6. BK, good for you in determining a theme ahead of time. Doing this probably allows you to add symbolism to reflect the theme. I think those of us who take the opposite approach may do this subconsiously.

  7. Joe and Jordan, sounds like you write in a darker vein. Isn’t the variety of subgenres wonderful? I can see why you’d want to have a theme or morality lesson in mind for YA.

  8. My books are rarely about what I intended to write, and it doesn’t usually occur to me they’re different until near the end of the first draft. (The Beloved Spouse pointed out what the WIP is about the other night. It hadn’t occurred to me, but as soon as she said it, I knew she was right.)

    I tend to look at the ripple effects of my crimes, though my first-person PI stories are also character studies of the PI.

  9. Morality implies adherence to a code of “right-minded” conduct, so it’s no surprise that mysteries and thrillers abound with characters who deviate from that standard. Many novels also have a moral theme or challenge, such as your heroine who is trying to redeem herself from her past failure.

    Speaking of theme, I think it’s worthwhile to identify one’s theme early on in the writing process. Once a theme is identified, we can strengthen it by reflecting aspects of the theme in secondary characters and subplots. Even colors and settings can be used to underscore theme, as long as it’s not written on-the-nose.

  10. My themes tend to gear towards redemption. Must be from my rigid Catholic upbringing from which, I must say, I’ve managed eek a more palatable credence. A have a thing for triumph of the human spirit.

  11. Redemption is an important theme in my novel, which you might guess from its title (Tainted Souls). Cynical as I am (and as the protagonist is), I like to think that beyond all our corruption, hypocrisy and other disorders and dysfunctions, humans are capable of great things, and doing the right thing.

  12. I’m doing a twist on a somewhat common theme which is a lawyer discovering the legal system has a dark and flawed side.

    As I put it, she has to face a lawyer’s biggest nightmare (and headache), an innocent client. When her appeals are blocked politically, she and her partners decide the only way to save their death row client is to solve the murder themselves.

    Of course she wins, but a lot of cherished ideals get trampled along the way. Definitely not a cozy.

    And today, while shredding old files at work I came across a great old case that has given me a bright shiny new story idea! (Yay!)


  13. My good guys are all pretty strong moral types, albeit violent warrior types, but with a soft place. That having been said, I don’t go for the shining knight in armour wins with only a few scratches, and often my heroes are in the hospital in the last chapter, usually because they just wouldn’t give up due to adhering to the afore alluded to warrior ethos. Sacrificial love I guess is another way to put it.

    speaking of hospitals, I may not be on TKZ for a while due to a surgery that I don’t know how extra loopy will leave me. Don’t worry, I’m not dying, just a foot thing thats going to have me on strong meds for a few weeks. So if I am on, and ramble more than normal or make less sense than you might expect, or make more sense than you might expect just be aware…its probably the drugs.

  14. Lindsay, my books focus on the crime solving too, although they deal mainly with relationships among the suspects.

    Terri, that’s so cool to find an idea while shredding papers. You never know what will trigger the next story!

    Basil, good luck with the surgery. Here’s wishing you a speedy recovery with minimal discomfort!

Comments are closed.