Using child characters in crime fiction involves navigating land mines. This is something I wrote about a couple of years ago on EQMM’s website, but as I’ve had a few additional thoughts about it since then, here’s an update to that post.
EQMM has always been reluctant to publish stories in which children are the victims of murder or other violent crimes. I’m told that under our founding editor, Fred Dannay, it was strictly taboo. I too tend not to like stories in which explicit harm is done to a child; mostly that’s because I don’t like to see crimes against children trivialized by becoming the stuff of entertainment. The subject will generally only become palatable to me in the hands of a very sensitive writer, or else when told from the perspective of an adult looking back at the childhood situation, so that there is a sense of distance from the horrific events, and less “on-camera” torture or abuse.
My disinclination to publish stories with graphic violence towards children certainly has not been shared by many others in the publishing industry over the past decade or so. In fact, child victims of crime, and in particular of sexual abuse, have become so common in crime fiction that it’s easy to feel there can’t be many interesting perspectives relating to such characters remaining to be explored. That’s one trap an author writing a story involving the sexual abuse of minors has got to get around; the story’s intended audience—especially the first part of that audience, the editors to whom the manuscript will be submitted—likely think they already know everything there is to know about the subject after being exposed to so many published stories and/or unpublished manuscripts in which it occurs. And beyond that, the villain of such a piece, the child molester, inspires such automatic antipathy that the author skirts one of the crime writer’s hardest but most important jobs: creating a multidimensional culprit. There are no shades of gray in such a story when it comes to the perpetrator, and in fiction that’s a definite minus, since most readers—and editors—find shades of gray a lot more compelling than stark portrayals of good and evil.
Different kinds of tripwires exist when a child appears in a story not as a victim but as a sleuth. Too often, I find, child sleuths are portrayed either as precocious (in which case I wonder if an adult might have served better in the role) or as having a truer moral sense than the adults in the story. The roots of the idea that children have a surer connection to what is good or moral in human life than adults do is found at least as far back in history as Rousseau, who famously thought that children are naturally innocent and that society is their corrupter. A corollary to this, for Rousseau, was that the human moral sense—this faculty he thought children were born with—weakens as children are socialized. I’ve never found this convincing; it doesn’t square with what I think are common, very widely shared observations about the behavior of children. And it’s certainly not a point of view I find convincing in fiction.
Far more convincing to me than the view of Rousseau and the Romantic movement is the portrayal of childhood found in a wonderful 1929 novel by Richard Hughes. If you’ve never read A High Wind in Jamaica, and you intend to write about children, I highly recommend this book. I came upon it back when I was a student interested in the philosophy of mind. What an eye-opening book. It stripped away that idealized view of childhood and opened the door for me to another way of seeing how morality forms. There’s a bit of a spoiler in what I’m about to say: In that novel, a child becomes a killer—and no, the killing doesn’t arise from the child having suffered abuse (as we might expect to find in a contemporary novel). The killing—or murder, if that word applies—arises partly from the child’s way of perceiving events, which is very different from how an adult would perceive the same circumstances, but also from the disposition children have, in the absence of controlling adults, to act on emotions and impulses that are more animalistic than human. In Hughes’s novel, the children are not evil, certainly. But they’re essentially amoral beings. They’re feral; they haven’t yet been molded to a sense of morality. Hughes’s depiction of that feral state is nothing at all like Rousseau’s happy state of innocence. We find these children very unsettling, and in much the same way we might find a dangerous wild animal so.
One of the best stories I’ve ever read with a child central character is David Dean’s December 2012 EQMM story “Mariel,” which is the tale of just such a feral child, in contemporary suburbia. I think it won’t be much of a spoiler if I say that Mariel is no killer, and she certainly isn’t the villain of the story. Nevertheless, the attitudes, emotions, and feelings that we associate with morality are disturbingly absent in her, and I think the reader comes away from the story thinking that Mariel might very well commit a serious crime some day if an adult doesn’t step in soon.
What David Dean’s “Mariel” touches on, with a light and entertaining hand, is something you can see played out to disastrous consequences nearly every day now in the real world—the failure to parent and socialize children. Hanna Rosin’s article “Murder by Craigslist” in the latest Atlantic illustrates this perfectly (though the piece is really focused on a different point). It’s an account of serial murders committed by the sociopathic adult Richard Beasley with the aid of a teenager, Brogan Rafferty, whose attachment to Beasley seems to have been motivated, at some primitive level, by the need for a strong adult presence in his life. It’s anything but a unique story: Think of the Beltway Sniper attacks of 2002, in which John Allen Muhammed recruited minor Lee Boyd Malvo in his killing spree.
Children who kill are perhaps the hardest of all child characters to depict convincingly in fiction. Romanticism’s view of childhood is so deeply entrenched in our culture that I think many writers feel they have to incorporate some history of abuse to explain (and excuse) the villainy of children. Almost always, the explanation or excuse chosen is previous sexual abuse. But often, real child killers have no such history. Brogan Rafferty, for instance, had never been abused, sexually or otherwise; the only complaint he articulated about his background appears to have been that his father was “too strict”—and what teenaged boy doesn’t think that? Nor was he a victim of neglect—at least not of the sort a parent might be arrested for. His father worked hard to make sure he had a roof over his head, enough to eat, went to school, and so forth. What the father couldn’t do, apparently, was deliver on the less tangible—but so important—aspects of parenting; he was a single dad, overworked and tired. Those appear to be the facts; whether the father’s inability to provide adequate parenting was determinative of the course his son took is something I’m sure not everyone interested in the case would agree about. But either way, this case is in direct conflict with Romanticism’s notion that it takes some violence, abuse, or criminal neglect to turn an otherwise good and innocent child bad. Jettisoning that idea opens the door to the very different view that in the absence of the strong guiding and shaping presence of adults, children have in them—naturally—a potential for violence. It’s that potential for violence in the feral child and the ways it can be (but often isn’t) diverted that I find interesting in many of the true crime cases I’ve read about involving children. And there are interesting treatments of this theme in fiction too. Patricia Highsmith’s “Summer Doldrums” (EQMM April 1994) about two teenaged boys who decide to commit murders to alleviate their boredom, comes to mind. (It was, incidentally, Highsmith’s last story for EQMM and probably her last story full stop.)
I said at the beginning of this post that there are a lot of land mines to be circumvented when writing of crimes involving children, especially in fiction. I think it takes courage to write truthfully about children when the subject is crime. There are so many unspoken expectations; so many taboos. Nearly twenty years ago Batya Swift Yasgur wrote a story for EQMM that I thought brave. “Me and Mr. Harry” (from our Mid-December 1994 issue) is a tale that deals with child sexual abuse, but in telling the story from the young girl’s point of view—a point of view that is as different from an adult viewpoint as are the thoughts of the children in Richard Hughes’s “A High Wind in Jamaica”— the author was able to bring something very thought-provoking to the situation. (The Edgars judges that year must have thought so too, because the story won the Robert L. Fish Award.) If I were to summarize what I like to see in stories like these, that ability to make us see things from a different angle—even if that angle is uncomfortable—would be right up there near the top.
Given the large and continually increasing number of children now committing murders and other violent crimes, I think it’s probably only a matter of time before a fiction writer of note emerges to shine a light on these killer kids in the way that Dickens, for example, took up the cause of the economically exploited children of the Victorian era. (And maybe that writer is already out there now; I don’t get much chance to read anything except EQMM’s submissions, so it’s possible I’ve missed a relevant author.) But if such a voice does appear, I hope it will be an unflinching one, free of any romantic or sentimental gloss.—Janet Hutchings