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?