Saturday, October 2, 2010

It's Only Teenage Wasteland*

Do you remember your teen years? For better or worse, most of us remember those years vividly. That’s because they are such an important time in most people’s lives. There are lots of different views of adolescence, and that makes sense. Teens are not really children (although they are young and immature). They can think in the abstract, they are physically mature and they are often quite capable. So seeing them as simply older children doesn’t really capture adolescence. On the other hand, teens are also not adults. They don’t think in the same ways that adults do, they don’t have adult perspectives and they often don’t consider the long-term consequences of what they do. So thinking of teenagers as simply young adults isn’t accurate, either. Perhaps it’s because adolescence is such a formative time in life that it can also be such a poignant time. Because teens are so complex, they can also be interesting characters if they are written well. And that complexity, vulnerability and at the same time new –found strength can add a real layer of interest and even suspense to a crime fiction novel.

Agatha Christie includes several teenage characters in her novels. Two in particular focus quite a lot on adolescence. In Hallowe’en Party, thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds is helping to set up a Hallowe’en party for the local teens. Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional detective story writer, is present at the preparations, and Joyce asks about her writing. Then, Joyce Reynolds claims that she has seen a murder. At first, no-one believes her because Joyce has the reputation for telling lies and embellishing stories. But that evening at the party, Joyce is drowned in a bucket of water that was used for an apple-bobbing game. A distraught Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to investigate the murder, and he agrees. Throughout this novel, we see the various sides of adolescence. For instance, at the party, the young people are still “child” enough that they enjoy activities like the competition for the best-decorated broomstick and the party games. But they also enjoy the dancing, and there’s one party game in which the teenage girls are given mirrors in which they’re told they will see their future husbands. There’s talk of pop music stars, too. Although Joyce’s death is not related to her being a young teenager, adolescence is a theme in this novel. In fact, two teens in particular, Desmond Holland and Nicholas Ransom, play a role in the solution to the murder.

Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons takes place mostly at an exclusive girls’ school, so we meet several teens there. Two in particular prove to be important characters in the novel. When games mistress Grace Springer is found shot in the school’s new Sports Pavilion, the police begin an investigation. Then, another mistress, Eleanor Vansittart, is killed. Gradually, it becomes clear that these deaths are related to international espionage, a cache of stolen jewels, and a revolution in a Middle Eastern country. As the story unfolds, we get to know two of the students in the school. One is Jennifer Sutcliffe, a tennis enthusiast who is in the Middle East with her mother at the time of the revolution. She and her mother are taken out of the country in time to avoid being caught in the crossfire, so to speak. At school, Jennifer meets Julia Upjohn. The two quickly become good friends, and together, try to make sense of what’s going on at their school. When Julia figures out an important piece of the puzzle, she visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to help solve the mystery. Jennifer and Julia are interesting examples of both the maturity and the egocentrism that we often see in adolescents.

In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Jim Chee, one of Hillerman’s sleuths, works with a brave and fascinating Navajo teenager, sixteen-year-old Margaret Billy Sosi. Margaret leaves the school she attends when she gets a cryptic note from her grandfather Ashie Begay, warning her not to trust anyone and to be careful. She goes searching for her grandfather, but he’s disappeared. The trail leads to Los Angeles, so that’s where Margaret goes. Chee’s assigned to find her, and sets out to do so. He believes that her disappearance is related to another case, the death of Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who had recently moved to the Reservation. Chee locates Margaret, and as we get to know her, we see both her courage and intelligence and her impulsiveness and, you could argue, her short-sightedness. It’s an interesting portrait of adolescence.

There’s a very interesting teenage character in Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph. Deborah and Simon St. James take a holiday in the village of Winslough. While they’re there, they find that the vicar, Robin Sage, recently died of what turns out to be water hemlock poisoning. At first, Sage’s death is put down to a terrible accident. His last meal was served by Juliet Spence, a local herbalist who claims she mistook the water hemlock for wild parsnip. St. James doesn’t think Sage’s death was accidental, so he asks Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley to investigate. As the case is examined more closely, we get to know thirteen-year-old Maggie Spence, Juliet’s daughter. Maggie has always wanted to find out who her real father was, and despite all obstacles, she continues her search. That search leads her to the heart of some dark secrets in the village. Maggie’s in love with Nick Ware although her mother has forbidden her to date him. As Maggie and her friends discuss her relationship and theirs with their boyfriends, we get a look at the way those teenagers think about sex and dating. We also get a look at teen logic as they discuss Sage’s death – and at teen cruelty as Maggie’s friends taunt her when her mother is accused of murdering him.

We get another “inside look” at adolescence in several of Mark Richard Zubro’s books. Zubro is a former Chicago teacher, and his classroom experience comes through in several of his novels. For example, in Another Dead Teenager, Chicago police detectives Paul Turner and Buck Fenwick investigate the murders of Jake Goldstein and Frank Douglas. Goldstein and Douglas are both star athletes who seem to have been popular, well-respected and with clean records. They don’t seem to have made enemies, and they aren’t drug or alcohol abusers. As Turner and Fenwick probe more deeply into the boys’ lives, they get to meet the boys’ friends, girlfriends, former friends and others at their school. Through those interviews, we get a look at modern teenage life. The same thing is true of Why Isn’t Becky Twitchell Dead? In that novel, part of Zubro’s Tom Mason/Scott Carpenter series, we meet Jeff Trask. He’s a sports star who’s in Mason’s remedial English class. Trask is accused of murder when his pregnant girlfriend, Susan Warren, is murdered after a quarrel they have. Jeff asks Mason to help him clear his name and find out who really killed Susan Warren. As Mason and his lover, baseball star Scott Carpenter, investigate, they meet several of Susan’s friends and enemies at the school she attends. Through their conversations, we find out that Susan’s murder is only a small part of a schoolwide drugs ring that involves some powerful people.

There’s a very chilling look at adolescence in Simon Lelic’s Rupture (AKA A Thousand Cuts). That’s the story of history teacher Samuel Szajkowski, who brings a gun into a crowded assembly one day, and shoots three students and a fellow teacher before turning the gun on himself. DI Lucia May is assigned the case. She’s expected to quickly file a report that shows that Szajkowski was probably unbalanced and simply “snapped.” But as May begins to interview the other teachers and the students at the school, she finds that Szajkowski’s death doesn’t have such a simple explanation. As May learns more about the vicious bullying that went on at the school, she becomes aware that these deaths are really the terrible consequences of a culture that tolerates bullying. This novel shows the vulnerability and the cruelty that can be characteristic of the teen years.

In my own current work in progress, Joel Williams and two research colleagues uncover more than they bargained for when they conduct a study of an alternative school program for Philadelphia teens. The team’s curiosity about the two-year-old death of a student in the program leads to some hidden secrets and another murder.

And then there are novels such as Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know and Simone van der Vlugt’s The Reunion, that deal with remembered adolescence. In those novels, too, we get a sense of the complex lives of teenagers. At once capable and awkward, adult-like and childish, reckless and terrified, adolescents can be fascinating characters. Which novels have you enjoyed that focus on this time in a person’s life?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Who’s Baba O’Reilly.


  1. That's a hard question. Teenagers are not featured a lot on the mysteries I read. I remember reading mysteries as a teenager: Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew. And I guess they were teenagers. I think teenagers in modern fiction like Edward Martin's book Cipher Garden are pictured as more severe. Not as youthful as when I was a teenager. I wish I had more ideas for you.


  2. Clarissa - I think you have a very well-taken point. Interesting.... Teenagers are certainly not portrayed in as carefree a way in modern books like Martin Edwards'The Cipher Garden as they are in the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys series. It may be because society has changed, so that teenagers are less protected than they were. Or it may be that today's crime fiction is more unflinching, in some ways, than earlier crime fiction. Really interesting point you bring up!

  3. It's interesting to me that you should bring the issue of age just now as I've just finished a book in which the main character is a 22-year old and I found her extraordinarily annoying (probably quite realistic mind you but irritating none the less). I've been mulling over how to write my review without coming across as a grumpy old woman :)

    When I read the Simon Lelic book you mention I couldn't help but be grateful all that teenage stuff was behind me - ugh! As for other books featuring teenagers one that always comes to mind is Jo Bannister's Reflections in which the mother of two teenage girls is murdered, police think by their father and he goes on the run. The way these two girls manipulate the people around them for the bulk of the story is quite fascinating and their switching between child-like and adult behaviour is quite realistic.

  4. Bernadette - I know exactly what you mean about being grateful those teen years are over. I know I feel that way. They are so difficult in a lot of ways, even for people who aren't bullied, etc. You put it quite well, too, that teens switch between child-like and adult behaviour. A character like that can be at once appealing and thoroughly annoying. But if written well, it's quite realistic and believable.

    I haven't read Reflections yet (so thank you very much for adding yet again to my TBR list! Not fair, sez I!!! ;-) ). But when you mention how manipulative those teen characters are, it reminds me of two teens who play a role in Minette Walters' The Breaker. They don't have major parts in the novel, but we see how they manipulate their father and step-mother and it's so, well, adolescent!!

    I look forward to your review, although I don't envy you the job. It's a tricky balance to review a book where a major character is annoying, but also realistic and therefore, possibly well-drawn.

  5. I can't recall any books (other than the Tony Hillerman one that you mention) where teenagers were featured. Seems there was a J.D. Robb mystery that I read that had Det. Eve Dallas dealing with teenagers or possible a bit younger in trying to determine why a couple was killed. Another great post that gets my mind thinking.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - Thank you :-). I think that J.D. Robb novel you mentioned does ring a bell. I'm going to have to go back and look for it. Thanks for jogging my memory :-).

  7. Well, while Elizabeth George may know a bit about (modern) teenagers, I am not quite convinced that Agatha Christie did. But to be fair, I have never been a real teenager, and neither have my daughters, so we can all sympathize with Julia Upjohn, the intelligent young sleuth :D

    I don´t know how often mature writers are able to pull it off, but getting the voice and behaviour of a teenager right is a terrible challenge. Small children are much like they´ve always been, and so are adults, but teenagers seem to change every month. And if you *do* get their slang right today, your book will sound outdated tomorrow.

  8. Dorte - You do bring up such a well-taken point!! It is very, very difficult to get the teenager's behaviour, slang, mannerisms and so forth just right. And, as you say, even if one does, so much about teens change over time that a book that focuses too much on them can seem outdated almost by the time it's published. It's a very, very tricky business.

    Perhaps Agatha Christie didn't always have a realistic portrait of teens in her books. Still, she makes them interesting and not insufferable ;-).

  9. "Body in the Library" had the silly aspirations of a teen who could be easily manipulated at the core of the crime. More than any other book, that should be a must read for kids entering that difficult age.

  10. Rayna - Oh, thank you for that good idea! Yes, you are so right that The Body in the Library is an example of the dreaminess, you might say, and false hopes that are often a part of the teen years...

  11. There is a really sweet teen character, a 15 year old boy, in the book I have just finished, Audition by Ryu Murakami. I was very impressed with the way he was portrayed.

  12. Maxine - Thanks for your suggestion. I'd heard that was a good one, 'though I haven't read it yet. You've now done it again to my TBR list!!!!! ;-).