Most children are cared for by at least one of their parents. When that’s not possible, they’re sometimes cared for by grandparents or other relations. And in some cultures, it would be unthinkable for any other kind of arrangement to be made. But there are also plenty of situations where there really isn’t anyone who can care for a child, especially when both parents have died and there are no near relations. That’s one reason for which orphanages were established.
If you’ve read Charles Dickens or Charlotte Brontë, you may think of orphanages as horrible places of abuse and neglect. And some of the literary (and real) ones have been just that. But like most places, orphanages aren’t all alike, and they’re not all portrayed in the same way in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Marie Morisot suddenly dies during a flight from Paris to London. It turns out that she was murdered, and that the only possible suspects are her fellow passengers. So Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same flight, looks into each one’s background to find the killer. The victim was a well-known moneylender (she did business as Madame Giselle) who used secrets about her clients as collateral, so there are several possibilities. One is Jane Grey, a London hairstylist’s assistant who, as it turns out, was raised in an orphanage. Here’s what she has to say about it:
‘I don’t mean that we were the type of charity orphans who go about in scarlet bonnets and cloaks. It was quite fun, really.’
The mystery of who killed the victim doesn’t hinge on the fact that Jane was brought up in an orphanage. But it’s interesting to see that her experiences weren’t the melodramatic horror stories that sometimes come from such places.
There’s a very different portrait of an orphanage presented in Jonathan Kellerman’s When the Bough Breaks. In that novel, child psychologist Alex Delaware is asked to assist in the investigation of the murders of psychiatrist Morton Handler and his lover Elena Gutierrez. The lone witness to the murder is seven-year-old Melody Quinn, and her account is neither complete nor coherent. Milo Sturgis of the LAPD is hoping that his friend Delaware will be able to get Melody to open up and tell everything that she knows. In the process of trying to work with Melody, Delaware finds himself getting more and more drawn into the case. And one part of the trail leads to La Casa de los Niños, an orphanage/residential facility for children with special needs and behaviour issues. As it turns out, the murders, as well as other events in the story, have everything to do with past history. And one part of the truth lies in what’s going on at the orphanage.
One of the ‘regulars’ in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is Mma. Silvia Potokwane. She’s a good friend to Mma. Precious Ramotswe, who runs the titular agency, and she plays an important role in the local community. Mma. Potokwane runs an orphanage to which she devotes all of her energy. She is a tireless advocate for ‘her’ children, and is always looking for ways to make their lives better. She depends on Mma. Ramotswe’s husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to keep the orphanage’s machinery and appliances running, often long after they really should have given out. She also sponsors several events in aid of the orphanage. But her dedication goes beyond those administrative matters. She knows that the ideal situation for each child is a loving home, so whenever possible, that’s what she tries to arrange for each of the children in her care. In fact, she persuades Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to take in two orphans, Motholeli and her brother Puso. So when Mma. Ramotswe marries him, she actually gets a sort of ready-made family. For the children who can’t so easily find homes, Mma. Potokwane works hard to create the most loving atmosphere she can, given a limited budget and the realities of caring for a large group of children. In this series, the orphanage is presented in a very positive way, and it’s largely because of Mma. Potokwane’s efforts.
And then there’s Fred Vargas’ Seeking Whom He May Devour. In that novel, the villagers of Ventebrune and Pierrefort, in the French Alps, are unsettled when nine sheep are found with their throats slashed. Everyone thinks at first that it’s a pack of rogue wolves. But then, a sheep breeder named Suzanne Rosselin is found dead in one of her sheep pens, murdered in the same way as the sheep. It’s unlikely that this would be the work of a wolf, and some locals say a werewolf is responsible for the killings. What’s more, they think they know who’s responsible: a loner named Auguste Massart, who seems to have disappeared. Three locals decide to go after Massart and see if they can find out what exactly happened to the sheep and to Suzanne Rosselin. But they’re not particularly good at tracking and they end up contacting Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. Adamsberg travels to the French Alps to find out the truth about the mysterious events in the area, and discovers that the cause isn’t a werewolf at all. The motive goes back into the past, and what’s interesting is that as Adamsberg puts the pieces together, he discovers that one of the characters spent time in an orphanage. Here’s a bit of the conversation about it between Adamsberg and another commissaire:
“He was in a home, a sort of state orphanage.’ [Adamsberg]
‘No, it seems to have been a reasonable place…’
I think I can say without spoiling the story that in this case, the orphanage was a better choice than home life would have been.
That belief – that certain children have a better chance at an orphanage than they would elsewhere – also motivates Frank Harding, whom we meet in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Harding runs the New Life Children’s Centre, located in Pattaya, Thailand. One of New Life’s goals is to match the babies and young children who live there with adoptive families. Once they are matched, volunteers prepare the little ones for their new homes by speaking English (or whatever the child’s new language will be), interacting with them and so on. When one of those volunteers, Maryanne Delbeck, suddenly dies, her father Jim wants to know why. According to the police report, she committed suicide by jumping from the roof of the building where she lived. But Delbeck is convinced that his daughter didn’t kill herself. So he hires Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney to find out what happened. Keeney agrees and goes undercover at New Life to see whether there might be a connection between the victim’s volunteer work and her death. As Keeney learns more about New Life, readers learn about the process of matching children in a orphanage with prospective adoptive parents. We also learn about the intricacies of foreign adoptions.
Orphanages may not be the ideal situation for a child. And some of them are unspeakable. But as crime fiction shows us, they’re as varied as the people who run them and live there are. Which fictional orphanages have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charles Strouse and Martin Chamin’s Hard Knock Life.