Not often do we think about the hidden metaphors and themes of the novel we’re reading, but if you consider that most crime fiction centres around a specific offence and a particular “type” of offender you can see how the author came to discover who the assailant is and how their personality developed through the who (antagonist) and why (motive) once you get to the end. However, the sub-plots often delve deeper into the psychology of the characters, the detective whose wife was murdered, or daughter disappeared, the killer/kidnapper never caught, how that’s affected them (gambling/drink/emotional distance). Or consider the heroine who has moved out of town to escape a violent ex-boyfriend, or discovered a dead body in the park, the victim recognisable as the man they had an affair with months before. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, anxiety or depression can manifest themselves after experiencing life adversity. Perhaps the sister of a socially awkward teenager with a lack of impulse control and a love of fire setting suddenly became a drug addict after a fight with his school bully whose now been charged with murder. Crime fiction allows the average individual to explore the concept of a crime realistically without having to experience the awful aftermath themselves. Learning how and why a crime was committed, allows the reader to guess who the culprit might be, and is often thrilled to learn they have been wrong-footed. Crime fiction is often doused with red herrings and seemingly unrelated material to the plot of the serial killer or local bomber but read between the lines and you will capture subtle instances of apparently useless information that sounds interesting and is possibly plausible. It is within the narrative explanations of dialogue and the gently building tension of conflict between characters that offer an insight into mental health disorders, the effects of poverty, loss, childhood trauma, everyday stress, and revictimization that accumulate to draw up a theme that tends to run concurrently throughout a title. But it is also something many readers struggle to articulate.
A blurb acts as a brief glance at the possible underlying themes you should expect to read in a novel. Here is mine:
Colorado Springs, US:
My girlfriend is missing.
I think she’s having an affair.
Her name’s not Kristen.
Her car was found abandoned on Route 66.
The cops think I’ve killed her.
Detective Jackson is investigating the potential murder of a woman who has been registered missing. But according to her false ID Kristen has been dead for twenty-three years. Without a body she cannot disprove Taylor’s innocence. That is until new evidence suggests Kristen’s Irish past played a higher role in her disappearance than the secrets, lies, and betrayal present in their relationship.
But one question remains: how do you find a woman who is unidentifiable?
What can you deduce regarding the themes, from this alone?
Why don’t you flick through a title from your bookcase and see how many themes are covered within its pages? I’m positive you’ll find a few.
I looked at several crime fiction titles in my bookcase and here are just a few of the themes I picked out: trust, secrets, betrayal, deceit, abuse, loss, grief, obsession, guilt, jealousy, identity, loneliness, death, mental health disorders (PTSD, OCD, phobias, anxiety, depression, addiction, PTSD), and friendships.
What use is this knowledge? I hear you ask. Put simply, humans are fallible creatures, we like routine, order, and structure, but we hate rules. We dislike change, we enjoy reading similarly plotted crime novels for instance, but dislike knowing what will happen, who did it, why they did what they did, and what the twist will be despite always attempting to guess. But if you take any crime novel, police procedural, psychological thriller, every one of them will have a hidden metaphor, a moral, or aid to assist us in our ever-growing need to acquire information, our desire to feel the adrenaline rush of fear, the thrill of knowing we, genius of gritty literature got the denouement wrong. We like to feel less alone, understood, and relate to our hero or villain. But we also like to experience a horrific situation in a safe environment, knowing it could happen, but probably won’t, at least to us. When we are reminded how challenging it is to bring up a child while holding down a job, to stand by someone we no longer trust, or how dark and painful it is after the unexpected death of someone we love, we remember, we feel, we acknowledge, we reflect. And when we are thrown into a situation we’ve never experienced, we learn, we develop psychological resilience, and we understand a little better what such a situation may cause us to do or how certain circumstances can bring out parts of us we are aware exist, but often deny.
Take for instance my latest novel. Lost in America is the second in a six-part series, which can be read as a standalone. Kristen uses various pseudonyms throughout her life for one obvious reason, as revealed partway through the book. However, by the end it is obvious that not only has she chosen to do this to protect herself and someone she cares about, but also to adopt her sisters surname, and at the end, in a bid to ditch her past altogether for various reasons. Reading this does not give away the plot in case you’re concerned. But it does provide you with a glimpse into the use of themes in storytelling. The novel includes the themes of identity and selfhood (how our personal histories affect the people we become). But it also explains how trauma and drug addiction can, not just affect an entire family, but also the community and society at large. As well as offer hope that humans are resilient enough to withstand even the greatest of hardships by fighting to overcome them. Add to this the overall theme of crime, a single detectives response to the call-out that a woman using false ID has disappeared, and as her car has been found abandoned, may be dead- murdered, I, the author, create a scenario where every piece of evidence contradicts the next, and to discover what happened to the victim, the entire homicide squad need to delve into separate spheres of my female protagonist (Kristen’s) life. Her relationship with her boyfriend Taylor. Her family, friends, associates, work colleagues, their neighbours, and Taylor’s boss, enemies. And all of them have their own secrets, motives for lying, and potential reasons for wanting Kristen to go away or die.
The detective herself, Geraldine Jackson, is struggling to cope with her mother’s dementia, the possibility she won’t live long enough to see her daughter get married and have kids of her own. The case causes her to reflect on her own past, her difficult relationship with her father, her ever-problematic work-life balance, and how her own friends and colleagues help support her. Alongside the characters the plot thickens, but throughout the themes of identity and selfhood remain.
Lost In America is released in Kindle and paperback format 25th June, but is available to pre-order now for just £1.99. You can get your copy here:
Here is a sneak peek at the first chapter. From the first line it's obvious that someone is missing, who, where could she be, why, what's her relationship with Taylor like, why is he so annoyed with her for being late?
As the paragraphs progress you learn things about the characters that may help explain potential reasons for Kristen to have vanished. And further still, how Taylor reacts the possibility his girlfriend is missing makes us question what he's keeping from the reader while he bemoans Kristen's oddly secretive behaviour, dislike of his boss, and inability to enjoy alcohol at his level. Did she crash the car, had an accident, where are her personal items? And by the end of this first chapter, we learn that Taylor is already starting to question Kristen's actions, wondering if she's keeping something from him. What this tells us from the offset is that secrets, lies, betrayal, deception, and trust are introductory themes. And as the novel progresses, these themes advance to bigger questions such as how does our past connect to our present, what makes us the individuals we become through the development of adulthood from childhood, how does our families history affect us, and what connects us to others?
Colorado Springs, US
Now is not the best time for my girlfriend to disappear.
I’ve got my cell phone pressed to my ear, held in the crook of my neck as I scrunch a towel around my hair with one hand and rub it damp while rummaging through the drawers in my closet for a pair of socks with the other.
I’ve no idea when Kristen last used her hair dryer or where she keeps it. I’m starting to wish I paid more attention to her when the call diverts to answerphone for the eighth time in ten minutes. My memory draws a blank when I try to remember her mumbled words as they attempted to filter through the headset as I played Call of Duty on the PlayStation last night. Did she tell me she was working late? If she did it would be the first. Her routine is as predictably dull as mine.
By the amount of times I’ve rung, I’m starting to look desperate but tonight is important to me. It might not be to her but the least she could do is answer my damn calls. All of which I know she’s going to yell at me for making when she scrolls through the notification list to find thirty-six of them, all made within the last hour.
What excuse is she going to come up with for not showing her face in the restaurant this time?
She doesn’t like formal dinners or executive lunches. She scrunched her face up at the mere suggestion she accompany me tonight, but it won’t look good to the company director if his next in line for promotion arrived alone for the second time. Paul is a gossip and the entire office will think there’s trouble brewing at home if we don’t attend dinner together.
I’m inspecting the wicker wash basket she likes to keep in the bathroom when I notice the time on the stupid wonky clock on the wall above the front door. She bought it in a gadget shop in the New Year.
I hurry down the stairs to the kitchen where I find the whites wet inside the machine. She didn’t come home for lunch then, because if she had she wouldn’t have been able to leave the house without putting a wash on.
In fifteen minutes, I’m suited up, my hair is waxed, my shoes are polished, and I’m stood in the hallway staring at the door, occasionally glancing down at the cell phone in my hand watching the battery level decrease as it edges closer to 7:30pm.
‘Where the fuck are you?’
Half an hour has passed, and I haven’t moved from the bottom step of the staircase. My back aches and my ass has gone numb. I’m no closer to knowing where Kristen is or why she’s late, but I’ve already decided to call my boss and accept the inevitable ear-bashing. He likes to drill my head all day, and I know he’ll be just as pleased to reprimand me for my many masculine failures now that Kristen is missing, presumed.
I’m tapping the iPhone with frustrated fumbling fingers when I hear a diesel engine crawling along the street, edging towards the house. My first instinct is to fling the door open and leap out, demanding to know what she’s playing at, but by the time I’ve sprung the latch and stepped outside, the vehicle has already parked up next door and I growl in frustration. Mrs Sprig is ushering her five noisy, snotty kids out of the Chrysler wagon and bundling them inside for dinner. I’m guessing she had a problem with after-school childcare again and took the fifteen-mile trip to her folks to collect them. I feel sorry for the grandparent’s, knowing how rowdy and boisterous those boys can be, especially at night. You hear every-fucking-thing through these paper-thin shit walls.
I’m procrastinating again I realize, hitting speakerphone so I can grab a bottle of crisp ice-cold beer and rip the top off with my teeth, hoping I can manage a sip before Paul picks up. Unlike Kristen, when I call to check in on her once a day – except today because I had twelve emails from potential clients to sift through – he sounds glad to hear my voice. ‘You’re late, Taylor.’ He laughs but there’s an edge of irritation to it.
‘Kristen’s gone walkabout.’
‘Finally left you has she?’
‘She finished work two hours ago and she’s not answering her phone.’
‘Forget to dry your socks, did she?’
The asshole knows me too well.
‘I’ll ask the waiter to hold on to your meal until you get here.’
‘I don’t think I’m gonna make it.’
‘Give her arse a slap from me when you find her,’ he says, ending the call before I can reply.
Paul is not the most sensitive of men. His lack of empathy has increased in recent months. He’s having a mid-life crisis. A month after we celebrated his fifty-fifth birthday – Kristen wearing a tight fitted rose gold dress that made me hard just knowing what was underneath – Paul divorced his wife of twenty-five years, bought a red open top Ferrari and drove it here with a blonde seated beside him. Sally-Ann is twenty-one years his junior and looks like a high-class hooker.
Since the divorce Paul’s become a womanizer. Or perhaps he always was. He certainly has a thing for Kristen. He kept giving her cleavage an eyeful over the dinner table, and when I walked into the kitchen to collect another bottle of vintage vino to refill everyone’s glasses, he fell silent. The room was strained with an undercurrent of secrecy. Whatever they were discussing left a fizzling charge in Paul’s wake when he returned to the dining room without a word, though I don’t think his wife noticed. I could tell Kristen was pissed, but I suspected it was guilt leaving a blush to spread across her pale cheeks. She tugged me close and kissed me awkwardly before stumbling away, heels teetering as though she was going to fall into the wall. She was never any good at holding her liquor, which was why we argued after our guests had left and she vowed hungover the following morning not to drink again until Easter. As far as I know she’s kept her word. I can only imagine he made an advance and she blew him off.
It’s 9:20pm when exhausted and no longer angry I allow myself to switch on the television, unzip my trousers so I can breathe when seated, pull the shirt away from my damp skin, rest my feet on the edge of the coffee table, and enjoy my second bottle of beer, positive Kristen will arrive soon with a decent excuse for failing to return home on time.
I’m awoken by singing. A perfume commercial. The actress is coy, flaunting her wares as she walks barefoot through soft sand. Eyes sultry, movements seductive as she saunters towards the tall, oily, olive-skinned hunk whose abs fill half the screen. She reminds me of Kristen.
I jump off the couch, spill beer down my trouser leg, and almost slip over the bottle I finished earlier that has fallen off the table.
The battery on my cell phone has died and flashes a warning red light every five seconds. The clock in the hall almost looks straight but I’m sure it says 1:13am. The beer on an empty stomach wasn’t a good idea.
My heavy footsteps echo as I ascend the stairs. When I reach the empty master bedroom I stare straight through the window at the pitch-dark February sky.
Kristen regularly accuses me of being possessive and says I don’t give her enough breathing space, often accusing me of being too tense, too serious, and suggesting I need to lighten up. I wonder what she’d think of me now, the images I’m conjuring of her mutilated corpse lying in a ditch somewhere?
If she wanted to break up with me, forcing me to do my own laundry, wouldn’t she have left a note, taken her things, sent me a text message, answered my incessant calls?
I flick the switch and plug the lead into my cell phone, willing it to charge enough to turn on. It takes an age, despite being marketed as the fastest USB lead available. It cost e-fucking-nough.
I’m not sure if I should be this worried for her. Kristen’s the most self-sufficient woman I know. It’s late, I’m too tired to search for her, but even if I hadn’t drunk two bottles of premium strength beer and could drive without worrying about getting pulled over for being above the limit, where would I look?
Kristen has a car, she could be anywhere.
What if she’s broken down? The car is due a smog test soon.
What if she’s had an accident? She said the tracking was a couple of degrees out.
I start opening drawers in the bedroom, sifting through her wardrobe, then crossing the hall, knocking makeup out of the bathroom cabinet she fixed to the wall herself, further validating the belief she didn’t need me. Perhaps she felt sorry for me. I don’t know why we ended up together, or how we’ve lasted this long.
That’s a lie. We met in a bar four years ago. We have an amazing, varied sex life. Is it bad to suggest our high sex drives are the only thing we have in common?
My cock stiffens in my trousers, and I think of something ugly to keep me focused. Paul and Sally-Ann. But it’s no good because Kristen’s there, kneeling at his feet, and . . . my paranoid brain tells me she could be with another man.
My cell phone springs to life. But there are no missed calls, no texts, and when I dial Kristen’s number for the thirty-seventh time it goes straight through to voicemail. Which means she’s either turned it off, frustrated with the constant sound of Sia’s latest hit as it rings at full volume, or her battery’s dead.
It’s 3:08am when I make the call to the Colorado Springs Police Department. The woman who answers has a distinct sing-song Denver pitch to her voice. ‘You are?’
‘What seems to be the problem?’
‘My girlfriend hasn’t come home from work.’
‘When were you expecting her to return?’
‘Eight hours ago. She leaves work at 6:00pm. She normally arrives home by 6:30/7:00pm. We had a meal reservation booked for 8:00pm.’
‘What’s your address?’
‘3236 Carmel Drive, CO 80910.’
‘I need her full name, date of birth, and a brief description to pass onto the missing persons team.’
‘Kristen Walters, May the 4th 1984, neck length jet black hair, blue eyes, 5’6, weighs approximately 126lbs.’
‘What is she wearing?’
‘She was working so she must have worn a shirt and smart pants. She usually wears black below and white up top.’
‘Where does she work?’
‘What does she do?’
‘Uh . . .’
‘When was the last time you saw her?’
‘This morning. No, she’d left by the time I woke up. Thursday evening?’
‘Have you contacted her place of work?’
‘I’ve no idea what their central address is.’
‘That’s okay. What’s the company name?’
‘I . . . I don’t know.’
‘Have you contacted Kristen’s family and friends to ask if anyone’s seen or heard from her?’
‘Okay. Sit tight, Mr Morgan. I’m sending officers to your property. They should be with you in the next hour. While you wait I suggest you ring around to see if anyone’s heard from her.’
‘Sure.’ I end the call.
My legs turn to lead, and it takes me a while to get them to move towards the couch where I slump with my head bent over my knees, forcing myself not to panic.
I’ve never met Kristen’s family. She doesn’t talk about them. I didn’t ask why. She must have friends, but I’ve never been introduced. Their numbers will be kept on her cell phone. The one she has with her. I don’t know exactly what Kristen does for a living, but she’s always got money. Lots of it. Enough to cover the expense of stockpiling the cupboards with health foods and to fill her wardrobe with overpriced clothes and shoes. I have a vague recollection of a conversation early in our relationship where I think she mentioned a call centre but it’s blurry and I can’t say with absolute certainty that my memory of that evening is as sharp as it would have been if I hadn’t consumed half a bottle of malt.
She doesn’t talk about her boss in the same way I divulge Paul’s many defects to her every evening in the hope that it will release the stress that sits on my shoulders, convinced that without something to alleviate the pressure it will one day boil over and I won’t be able to control the rage. She scoffed when I told her I was a financial executive which made me suspect that she came from a well-off family.
Kristen isn’t a social media fanatic, but she must have an email account. She uses my laptop for late night online shopping fixes. The one I can’t seem to find as I hurry around the lounge in search of it.
My face is hot, and my hands are clammy when I open the door to two burly cops. The laptop, like my girlfriend, is gone.
The men – indistinct from any other officers of the law I’ve spoken to – decline a seat on the leather couch and begin asking me the same questions I gave to the call handler. I note their perplexed expressions when I admit I have no idea where Kristen could be, where she works, what she does all day, where her parents live, who her friends are, or when I last saw her.
‘What’s the vehicle’s registration?’
That I do know so I’m not a total asshole. I give them the make, model, and number.
‘We’ll call you the second we receive any information.’
‘But you’ll find her? I mean this is so unlike her.’
‘We sincerely hope so, Mr Morgan.’
I follow them to the door and stand for a while staring at it once it’s closed, convinced they suspect me of foul play. If Kristen was here she’d tell me I was being paranoid, but I know how these things operate. The cops always suspect the husband, boyfriend, or forlorn lover. And in most cases, they’re right.
I type our address into the search bar of White Pages on my cell phone, exhaling in annoyance when I appear as the only listed resident of our address, because she’s anti-public voting and doesn’t like the idea of her name being visible online. ‘That’s how thieves steal your identity.’
Kristen might pay the rent, but it leaves my account. And for a sudden heart-stopping moment I realize nothing in the house is registered in her name. Not the bills, not the home delivered groceries she forces us both to eat. I don’t know how she earns a living or where she was born. And the longer I think on it, the more convinced I am that there’s a lot I don’t know about her.