Did you play games when you were a child? Perhaps you rode your bicycle, or played card games or board games, or perhaps Hide-and-Seek or Treasure Hunt. Children’s games are a big part of young people’s learning. They inspire creativity and they can be good exercise. They can be a lot of fun, too. They can also play important roles in crime fiction novels. Let me just give you a few examples to show you what I mean.
Several of Agatha Christie’s stories make use of children’s games. One of them is Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts). Hercule Poirot has been invited to a cocktail party at the home of famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. Not long after the party gets underway, one of the guests Reverend Stephen Babbington suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. There doesn’t seem to be any motive for the murder but at the same time, there seems no reason Babbington should have taken his own life. The investigation into that death is ongoing when there’s another death. This time, medical specialist Sir Bartholomew Strange is killed, again by poison, at his Yorkshire home. Then there’s another death. Poirot gets an important clue about this case from a child’s card game Happy Families and a comment made about it by one of the witnesses to both Babbington’s and Strange’s deaths. I know, I know, fans of Christie’s Hallowe’en Party…
D.H. Lawrence’s short story The Rocking-Horse Winner is admittedly more psychological suspense than crime fiction. In that story, we are introduced to a family that manages to keep up decent social appearances. Yet,
‘There was never enough money. The mother had a small income, and the father had a small income, but not nearly enough for the social position which they had to keep up.’
The children are aware of the situation and one of them, Paul, decides to find a clue to what the family can do about getting more money. He finds the answer by riding his rocking-horse. He tells his family that he’s ridden his rocking-horse to the place he wanted to go, where he’d find the secret to money. Everyone thinks that’s a little strange. There are also a few raised eyebrows about Paul’s interest in riding a rocking-horse when he’s a little too old for that. Paul persists though, and he begins to come up with names of winning horses in real-life races. In fact, his rocking-horse rides start to produce an unexpected amount of money for the family. But they lead to tragedy, too…
In Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman, Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte goes undercover as a stockman in the town of Merino, in rural New South Wales. He’s in the area to investigate the murder of another stockman George Kendall. In order not to alert the murderer, Bony arranges to have himself arrested for vagrancy. He’s given ten days’ jail time and the job of painting the police station. In that guise, he starts to ask questions and look around. Then there’s another death that at first looks like a suicide. Bony, though, is sure that it’s murder. As he investigates, Bony finds that the two deaths are, as you might suspect, related. One of the clues that lead him to the killer is a set of innocent-looking games of Noughts and Crosses (Tic-Tac-Toe), just like the games you might have played as a child.
Or perhaps you preferred to ride your bicycle instead of playing at cards or games. A yellow bicycle proves to be an important clue in Karin Fossum’s Black Seconds. In that novel, nine-year-old Ida Joner decides to ride her brand-new yellow bicycle to Laila’s Kiosk for a magazine and some sweets. The trip is only expected to take a short while, so when Ida doesn’t come back, her mother Helga starts to be anxious. She becomes frightened when she calls the shop a few hours later only to find that Ida never made it there. Now faced with every parent’s worst nightmare, Helga begins a more thorough search for her daughter. She calls everyone, including her sister Ruth, to find out if anyone’s seen Ida. No-one has. Finally, the police are called and Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre begin a professional search. If Ida was abducted, one possible suspect is Emil Johannes, an odd sort of man who never speaks to anyone. He won’t say whether he’s seen the girl or not, but he’s the classic ‘weird guy’ everyone suspects when this sort of thing happens. Sejer is interested in anything Johannes can tell him, but it turns out that this case isn’t nearly as simple as it seems on the surface. One interesting clue turns out to be Ida’s bicycle.
Gail Bowen’s The Nesting Dolls sees political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her family involved in a very difficult custody case. Shortly before Christmas, Kilbourn and her husband Zack are attending a holiday concert performance at their daughter Taylor’s high school. They’re leaving the event when an unknown young woman approaches Taylor’s friend Isobel and gives her a baby. Not many hours later, the woman is found raped and murdered, her body left in her car. The question of the baby’s identity becomes very important, since someone will need to take custody of him. So one plot thread concerns identifying the dead woman and the baby. Another of course is the question of who killed the victim and why. An important clue to both mysteries is found in a set of Russian nesting dolls that take on a particular meaning for one character in the story.
And then there’s Andrea Camilleri’s Treasure Hunt. Vigàta Police Inspector Salvo Montalbano makes the news during a very strange case that involves him climbing up a building. The case is bizarre enough, but what is even stranger is what follows it. Soon afterwards, Montalbano receives a cryptic note that contains a very bad poem and an invitation to take part in a game of Treasure Hunt. It’s an odd note but seems harmless enough. It doesn’t turn out to be that way though. Instead of a childish game of Treasure Hunt, this is a dangerous battle of wits between Montalbano and a very unusual killer.
Childhood games can be a lot of fun, and can teach children all sorts of thinking and strategy skills. They can be good exercise too, and most people would say they’re better than being addicted to television or video games. But as crime fiction shows us, they can take on a whole new meaning…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Gabriel’s Games Without Frontiers.