A professor and a former journalist, Meenakshi Gigi Durham made her debut as a fiction writer in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in December of 2004 with the story “The Drum.” Like many of her subsequent stories—including 2008’s “Storm Surge” (EQMM) and her upcoming EQMM story “Magic Beans” (November/December 2022)—it was told from a child’s point of view. In this post the author explores the role of the child in mystery fiction. As a college professor her work centers on media representations of children and adolescents, and she tells EQMM that she is currently exploring issues of vulnerability and violation as a starting point for social justice work. —Janet Hutchings
To paraphrase Shrek, my favorite mystery stories are like onions, layered and pungent: each narrative lamina discloses new surfaces that give way to others, until I am jolted by a revelation at the core; and so often, at least in the mysteries I love the most, that final revelation involves a child, usually a child who has been hurt.
I’m not sure what it is about childhood vulnerability that compels mystery writers and readers, but trauma in childhood is a motivating force in a great deal of contemporary mystery fiction. Of course, children have played pivotal roles in mystery writing for a long time. One rather keen insight regarding a child appears in the Sherlock Holmes short story “The Copper Beeches,” first published in 1892. A particularly nasty 6-year-old sparks Holmes’ awareness that a seemingly happy family is not as beatific it seems. “I have never met so utterly spoiled and so ill-natured a little creature,” the child’s governess Violet Hunter tells Holmes. “He is small for his age, with a head which is quite disproportionately large. His whole life appears to be spent in an alternation between savage fits of passion and gloomy intervals of sulking. Giving pain to any creature weaker than himself seems to be his one idea of amusement, and he shows quite remarkable talent in planning the capture of mice, little birds, and insects.” She adds, “But I would rather not talk about the creature, Mr. Holmes, and, indeed, he has little to do with my story.”
“I am glad of all details,” Holmes responds noncommittally, “whether they seem to you to be relevant or not.”
The child’s monstrous behavior turns out to be very relevant, although he is but a blip in the overall tale. His parents, a seemingly genteel upper-class English couple, are villains, too. “The most serious point in the case,” Holmes observes after their misdeeds have been revealed, “is the disposition of the child.”
“What on earth has that to do with it?” demands Watson.
“I have frequently gained insight into the character of parents by studying their children,” Holmes explains. “This child’s disposition is abnormally cruel, merely for cruelty’s sake, and whether he derives this from his smiling father, as I should suspect, or from his mother, it bodes evil . . . ”
This notion of a “bad seed” is actually fairly rare, however. In most mysteries involving children as a key plot device, the children are sympathetic characters whose vulnerability to evildoers both animates and exposes the dark underside of family life as it connects to criminality. We all doubtless remember that in another classic mystery—Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934)—the kidnapping and killing of a toddler catalyzes the vicious murder of the millionaire/gangster Samuel Edward Ratchett. “It wasn’t only that he was responsible for my daughter’s death and her child’s and that of the other child who might have been alive and happy now,” explains Mrs. Hubbard, the murdered girl’s grandmother, at the novel’s denouement. “It was more than that: there had been other children kidnapped before Daisy, and there might be others in the future.” Revenge for the murder of a child as well as the safekeeping of all children motivates the murder, as Hercule Poirot, with his usual uncanny brilliance, understands.
In more contemporary fiction, I find that true darkness in the form of the emotional and/or sexual abuse of children lurks in the shadows of the plot. For example, in Tana French’s haunting In the Woods (2008), the mysterious disappearance and (bloodstained) reappearance of three children is intertwined with the murder of a 12-year-old two decades later, and the ongoing torment of the victim in her home upends the reader’s assumptions. Ann Cleeves’ wonderful Shetland series begins with the murder of a teenage girl and backtracks to an earlier child’s murder (Raven Black, 2006). Dervla McTiernan’s debut novel The Ruin (2018) begins with the removal of two children from a derelict dower house in which their mother has apparently died of a drug overdose, and the children’s early life—which includes sexual abuse at the hands of a religious zealot—plays out in a murder when they are adults. PD James’ Innocent Blood (1980) pivots on the protagonist Philippa Palfrey’s discovery that her birth parents were child rapists and murderers; Ruth Rendell’s masterpiece The Vault involves a child who witnesses a murder and is later psychologically abused by a mountebank “therapist.” Her 2006 novel The Water’s Lovely involves a stepfather whose accidental drowning unleashes dark truths about incestuous sexual predation. Kate Atkinson’s debut novel Case Histories—declared by Stephen King to be “the best mystery of the decade,” with which I’d concur—focuses on the disappearance (and, we learn, the murder) of the young daughter of a math professor, and sexual abuse is a factor here, as well.
The theme ripples through Nordic noir, as well, perhaps most famously in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, particularly in the childhood sexual and physical abuse of Lisbeth Salander, the tattooed, playing-with-fire, hornet’s-nest-kicking girl of the book’s titles. It surfaces in other books in this genre, such as Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess.
The children in question are almost always girls, almost always white, and almost always middle-class (Salander is an exception to the last category). They are, in the scholarly literature, “ideal victims,” damsels in distress. The Swedish criminologist Tea Fredriksson writes that such victims depend “on the simultaneous construction of equally ideal villains and saviors.” But in fact, in a number of mystery novels, the children themselves grow up to be the saviors, or are later disclosed to have taken matters into their own hands. They are not reliant on the police, or on their frequently malfeasant parents or guardians, or some other external force: they deal with their assailants themselves, though not always in ways that are safe. Of course, in other cases, they are just victims, plain and simple.
Why, I wonder, is the victimization of children such a frequent trope in murder mysteries? In part, I believe it is because the safeguarding of children is a societal norm. In most cultures, there is a common agreement that violence against children, especially sexual violence, should not happen. The revelation of such abuse in a mystery novel usually comes as a shock, especially when it is as graphically described as in the Millennium trilogy, and it cries out to the reader This should not happen. This must not happen. This is wrong. On the other hand, the norm of protecting children from abuse is, in real life, constantly abrogated: the physical and sexual abuse of children is far too common, a dark secret harbored in many homes and communities and institutions, and the mystery novel reveals what is too often concealed, rupturing our complacency about our societies’ commitments to children and underscoring the far-reaching effects of those betrayals.
A friend once confided to me that whenever she hears an ambulance siren, she wonders if something has happened to one of her children. Indeed, as parents, harm to children strikes at some deep chord within us, speaking to the not-so-secret fear we all harbor, that some danger might befall our own child. The hurt children in mystery novels connect viscerally with that fear.
I realize, in reflecting on this topic, that novels by mystery writers of color don’t seem to hinge on childhood abuse—or at least I haven’t encountered it, though children’s vulnerability to violence is still a theme in some stories. For instance, in Attica Locke’s powerful first novel Black Water Rising, the Black protagonist Jay Porter is left fatherless when a gang of white men murder his father while his mother is still pregnant with him; this is not a vital aspect of the plot, though it figures into Jay’s backstory. In the novel’s conclusion, after becoming ensnared in high-level political and corporate corruption and escaping all manner of violent villains, Jay imagines himself back in the womb, trying to feel his father’s caress; he is both vulnerable and protected in that moment. We think, of course, of Emmett Till, of Tamir Rice, of other Black children and their vulnerability to violence.
I am always both saddened and reassured by the persistence of themes of violence against children in mystery novels. Saddened because children ought not to be targets of violence; as the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child asserts, children need “special safeguards and care,” nurture, love, and safe spaces in which to grow and thrive. But reassured because, in reminding us of children’s vulnerability and the pure evil of those who commit violence against these most fragile members of our societies, we can recognize and embrace the moral imperative of an ethics of care, not only for children but for all vulnerable people.