Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Suffer the Children...

Children are an essential part of most of our lives. We raise them, we love them, and we hope that they go on to become successful adults. One of the traditional views of childhood is that it’s a time of innocence and naiveté, so most of us don’t want to think about children being mixed up in crimes. We certainly don’t want to think of them as being crime victims, much less perpetrators. Yet, in real life, the sad truth is that children can be and are involved in crimes, both as victims and as perpetrators. They’re also important sources of information, too. Children are an integral part of crime fiction, as well, as victims, as perpetrators, as important sources of clues, and as sleuths.

While Agatha Christie didn’t explore child murders very often, there are some interesting examples from her novels. For instance, in Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot investigates the strangling murder of fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker at a fête. He’s called in by his friend, detective story author Ariadne Oliver, when she’s asked to arrange a Murder Hunt as a kind of scavenger hunt as an event for the fête. As Poirot looks into the case, he finds that Marlene Tucker knew too much about some old secrets that the killer is keeping, and that’s the reason for her death.

Twelve-year-old Alexander Parkinson dies for a similar reason in Christie’s Postern of Fate, the last novel she wrote (although not the last Christie novel to be published). In that novel, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford have retired and moved to the village of Holowquay. As they’re unpacking, Tuppence discovers a book containing a cryptic message left there by Alexander Parkinson, who lived in the house around the time of World War I. The message hints that one of the local residents, a maid named Mary Jordan, had been murdered. Tuppence gets curious about the message and begins to ask questions. Later, Tommy, too, gets involved in the investigation. When they find that Alexander also died suddenly, they realize that he was also murdered, and that the reason for it is that he knew too much about Mary Jordan’s death.

Christie’s Hallowe’en Party also deals with the death of a child. In that case, twelve-year-old Joyce Reynolds is drowned at a Hallowe’en party. Adriadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional detective novelist, is attending the party, and, badly shaken by the murder, calls in Poirot to find the killer. Before he does, another child also dies, and a third nearly becomes a victim. As it turns out, these children, too, know more than is safe for them, and this knowledge is what puts them at risk.

There are many other novels, of course in which children are the victims, and those novels can be especially moving, because we don’t want to believe that someone would kill a child. For example, in Elizabeth George’s With No One As Witness, Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers and their team investigate a series of child murders that hasn’t gotten a great deal of police and press attention, largely, or so it’s argued, because the victims have all been non-white. When a young white boy becomes the next victim, Lynley and Havers are put on the case and under pressure to solve it as soon as possible, so as to avoid any claims that the police are prejudiced.

In Martha Grimes’ Winds of Change, Inspector Richard Jury is called in when an unidentified five-year-old girl is found dead – shot in the back. To make matters worse, an autopsy reveals that she’s been sexually abused. Together, Jury and Melrose Plant are able to connect this death with a pedophile ring, and with another young girl who’s been missing for three years.

Children aren’t always victims. As shocking as it may seem, they can also be perpetrators. For example, in Stuart McBride’s Broken Skin, DS Logan McRae is working on several cases. One of them is the shooting death of seventy-two-year-old Jerry Cochrane. The perpetrator in this case is eight-year-old Sean Morrison. There’s an Agatha Christie novel, too, in which a child turns out to be the murderer (I won’t name the title, so as not to spoil anyone’s reading). It’s always interesting, of course, in cases such as this, to think about how the law handles younger murderers.

In many crime fiction novels, children provide very helpful clues. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, which I mentioned just a moment ago, Hercule Poirot gets a very important clue from the younger sister of the murder victim. From her, he learns that Marlene Tucker had a habit of finding out people’s secrets; that knowledge helps Poirot figure out why Marlene Tucker died, and later, who killed her. In The Clocks, Poirot helps Special Agent Colin Lamb and DS Dick Hardcastle find the killer of an unidentified man whose body is left in a house in a quiet neighborhood of the village of Crowdean. Lamb and Hardcastle visit the neighbors near the house where the body was found, and in two cases, they get very helpful information from children. Two neighborhood children find an important clue in the backyard of the house where the victim was found. A third child, who lives nearby, provides an important clue about how the victim ended up in the house.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes makes use of children to help him find clues, too. His Baker Street Irregulars is a group of young boys, mostly street children, whom he hires to be his “eyes and ears” and find things out. Since they’re just “street urchins,” no-one pays much attention to them, and they’re often able to find useful evidence. For instance, in The Sign of the Four, Holmes engages the Baker Street Irregulars to find out where the boat Aurora is docked. Holmes uses that knowledge to find out what happened to a missing treasure and the four men who’d made a pact to share it. That knowledge leads Holmes to the killer of Bartholomew Sholto, son of a wealthy retired army major. It also leads him to the solution of the mystery of Miss Mary Marston, whose father disappeared ten years ago, and who’s been mysteriously receiving one pearl each year for the last six years. In the end, all of the threads of this case are pulled together and the identity of the murderer is revealed.

Because most people aren’t as “on their guards” around children as they are around adults, children can make very effective sleuths. That’s the case with eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, Alan Bradley’s unusual sleuth. Flavia lives with her father and two sisters in the village of Bishop’s Lacey. Not your typical eleven-old-old, Flavia is a passionate amateur chemist and loves the Victorian-style laboratory in the family’s old house, Buckshaw. In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Flavia’s debut, a mysterious man visits her father, and the two end up in an argument. The next morning, Flavia finds the stranger dead in the family’s cucumber patch. The police suspect her father and arrest him for the murder, but Flavia knows he isn’t guilty. So she sets out to clear his name.

In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, we meet ten-year-old aspiring sleuth Kate Meaney. As the novel begins, Kate’s practicing to be a full-fledged detective and has started her own business, Falcon Investigations. She dreams of Falcon becoming a top investigation firm. She keeps notes on what she sees, and haunts the newly-built Green Oaks mall for signs of suspicious people and activity. Abandoned by her mother and not close to her father, Kate has few friends. One of them is twenty-two-year-old Adrian Palmer, who works at his father’s newsagent shop. One day, Adrian and Kate are seen boarding a bus together, but Kate disappears. Everyone thinks that Adrian’s responsible for her disappearance, and he’s soon more or less hounded out of town. He continues to keep in contact with his sister, Lisa, though. Twenty years later, Lisa has a dead-end job at Your Music, a store at Green Oaks. There, she strikes up an unlikely relationship with Kurt, a security guard at the mall. One day, by chance, Kurt’s watching a mall surveillance tape when he sees a girl who looks just like Kate on the tape. The child even has a backpack with a stuffed monkey in it, just like Kate’s monkey, Mickey. Lisa, who’s been haunted by Kate’s disappearance and Adrian’s departure, decides to work with Kurt to find out what happened to Junior Detective Kate Meaney.

Children do play integral roles in real life and in crime fiction, and it can be utterly engrossing to read about them, chiefly because of the tradition of viewing children as innocent and to be protected. What do you think of children in crime fiction novels? Do you enjoy reading books where children are sleuths (or at least help the sleuth)? Do you read books where the victim is a child? Or do you find that too disturbing?


  1. I can't read books where children are victims--it's just too upsetting to me since I have kids in the house.

    Now I don't mind kids being KILLERS...I think you know the Christie novel I've got in mind, Margot. :)

    And I don't mind them sleuthing. Actually, I've got a little girl as a sometime-sidekick in the Memphis books.


  2. Elizabeth - I know *exactly* how you feel about reading books where children are victims. I've done it and it does shake you to the core when you have your own kids. I think it's so interesting that you have a child as a sidekick in your Memphis series - what a terrific idea! I'm all excited to dive into that series when it's ready, anyway, and that's just whetting my appetite even more : ).... and yes, I know which Agatha Christie novel you mean : ) : )

  3. Rebecca Cantrell's A Trace of Smoke[set in Weimar Germany on 1931] has a wonderful child character Anton. His manner of speaking like an "Indian brave" from the American west is based on a character in the 1931 movie Emil and the Detectives. Anton's favourite author is Karl May, the best selling German author of all time, whose books are set in the Wild West.
    Among the German schoolchildren who read and admired Karl May were Albert Einstein, Ernst Rohm [who plays a big part in the book] and Adolf Hitler.

  4. I know you don´t want to spoil the novels you blog about (and I agree that you shouldn´t), but as I am not refering any book in particular, I can give you the ´rule´ my daughter and I have come up with: "we don´t kill children we have come to know".

    What we mean is of course that crime writers who don´t just want to harrow their reader may kill a child early in the novel, or use a child as a new victim which we don´t really hear about until someone finds the body, but if a child is threatened or captured, it will survive - at least in the kind of crime fiction I read and write.

    There may be modern writers who break this rule, but they run the risk of losing readers, especially female, because most of us have a limit there; we just cannot enjoy reading about it.

    Another point that matters to me when authors write about children: I really loathe when they make up characters who just speak and act like daft grown-ups. Children are not as educated and experienced as adults, but many of them are extremely observant and articulate about the areas of life they know about. So authors: please give them proper voices if you have to include them :D

  5. I don't have a problem reading about children as victims, but I suppose I transport to a complete place of fiction when I read. That's not to say that it doesn't disturb me. There have been books I have put down because they were TOO graphically written, gratuitous in their violence (toward children or otherwise) or just offensive. But that, in my opinion, is just bad writing.

    As for children sleuths, they honestly don't appeal to me. I was given an early reader's copy of 'Sweetness' and I didn't read it because of the age of the protagonist. However, I am rethinking that due to all of the acclaim the book is getting. (I am also learning to overcome my prejudices, thank you Elizabeth Spann Craig's article today. It wasn't very long ago I didn't even read female authors! For shame!)

    Gret post!
    Writing Prompt Wednesdays today on my blog!

  6. Norman - Anton does sound like a wonderful character. It's interesting when we get to see how the world works through the eyes of children, and it sounds like A Trace of Smoke is a good example of this. I'm fascinated by this book already - it features a child, it's historical fiction and it blends the plot in with other literature. Thanks : ).

    Dorte - I could not agree with you more on both counts! Killing a child that readers have come to know crosses a line for many people (including me). That's especially true if the author is gory about it. As you say, if a child becomes a victim early in the novel, before we get to know her or him, that can be compelling. Otherwise, it can be so gratuitous and really does put readers off. I like your rule.

    I agree with you 100% about the way child characters act and speak. Children have their own perspective, intelligence and so on, and authors who write young characters should respect that. To me, that's no different from any other authenticity when one writes.

    Michele - Isn't Elizabeth a great blogger?! I know what you mean about novels that are graphic, etc. just being bad writing. To me, a novel should, first and foremost, be a well-written story with a solid plot, strong characters, and the like. Without those elements, no amount of violence, sex or anything else will save it. And a well-written novel doesn't need to be gratuitous.

    I'm glad you're considering reading Sweetness.... It's true that it's told from a child's perspective, but it really does have a strong plot, good characters and a good mystery. Admittedly, that's my opinion, but I recommend the book.

  7. I don't mind having children as victims if it's not too graphic. It IS fiction, after all. I also have no problem with a child as the murderer; somehow it makes it even more chilling. Child as a sleuth? I don't think it would appeal to me; although I'm sure Elizabeth is doing a fine job.

  8. Elspeth - You are absolutely right. Crime fiction is fiction, so it is easier to imagine even a chilling scenario than it is when we read true crime. I hadn't thought deeply about it, but you make a well-taken point. It is somehow much more chilling when a murderer is a child than when s/he's an adult. Interesting.....

    Funny you would mention that child sleuths wouldn't appeal much to you. It's not a common scenario, and I think a lot of people might agree with you. There are some well-done stories, though, where a child is a sleuth, and they seem to work (at least for me). I'm looking forward to seeing Elizabeth's take on that scenario. Like you, I'm sure it's terrific.

  9. I don't mind reading about crimes involving children but I don't include many children in my own writing. I'm writing fantasy but violence tends to happen frequently so children tend to be either absent or very peripheral to the action so that we can all rest happily in the knowledge that no children or animals (more or less) were harmed during the writing.

  10. this is kind of where my line gets drawn as far as reading or watching crime fiction goes. I just can't take it, just as I have a really hard time with women victims. It seems to me that both are used far too often, but that probably mirrors the real world. Give me a mystery where we meet a terribly obnoxious fellow and then he is murdered! Unrealistic, but that's okay with me. :<) Flavia is my on deck book. Can't wait. And I want to find out more about the child sidekick.

  11. Cassandra - I really respect writers like you who write fantasy and create your own unique worlds; that's quite a skill. I can understand, too, why you don't include children very often. As you say, violence is an integral part of a lot of fantasy writing, and enjoying a good fantasy novel is much more pleasant if one knows that the violence isn't done to the most vulnerable...

    Nan - I know exactly what you mean. There is an awful lot of crime fiction in which children and women become the victims. Researchers and knowledgeable crime fiction fans go back and forth about why that is and whether it's a problem. But the beauty of it is, there's enough of a variety of crime fiction that it's possible to enjoy a corking good story without having to read one that crosses one's personal lines. I think we all have those lines, too, although they vary by person.

    In my opinion, you won't be sorry you put Sweetness... on your TBR list : ), and I agree; I'm looking forward to learning more about what Elizabeth does with her child sidekick : )