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.