Sometimes it happens as early as eight or nine years old, and sometimes not until the mid-teen years. But there’s usually some point in life where we come of age – where we begin to see others’ perspectives and see the other people in our lives differently. We stop seeing life through the eyes of little children and begin to see it with more maturity. A lot of people think of ‘coming of age’ stories as being either ‘literary’ or perhaps YA stories but the fact is, coming of age plays a role in crime fiction too. And when it’s done well, we can get a real sense not just of the crime that’s featured in the plot, but also of the fundamental changes that happen to us as we start to cross that threshold.
We see that combination for instance in James W. Fuerst’s Huge. Twelve-year-old Eugene ‘Huge’ Smalls has his share of challenges. He has trouble making friends, he isn’t really good at controlling his anger and his relationships with his teachers are not exactly productive. And yet, he’s a brilliant boy. Huge’s real dream in life is to be a detective like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. Huge gets his chance when his grandmother hires him. She wants him to find out who defaced the sign at the retirement home where she lives. Huge agrees and immediately begins looking for suspects. Among them are several of the people he knows at school and as Huge considers each of them, we watch as he slowly begins to grow up. He learns more about them and himself than he imagined he would.
In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, we meet ten-year-old Kate Meaney. Kate wants more than anything else to be a detective, and she’s even started her own agency Falcon Investigations. Kate doesn’t have a lot of friends, but that doesn’t bother her. She has her agency, her business partner Mickey the Monkey (a stuffed animal who rides along with her in her backpack) and she has Green Oaks Shopping Center, which has just opened. Kate suspects that Green Oaks will be a very good place to look for suspicious characters so she spends as much time there as she can. In some ways, Kate is very mature for her age but in a lot of ways, she’s still very much a child with a child’s imagination and a child’s refusal to see the dreariness of much of her Midlands town. Then her world changes. Her grandmother Ivy believes that Kate would be better off going away to school so she arranges for her to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon school. Kate is reluctant to go but she’s finally persuaded by her friend Adrian Palmer, who even promises to go with her to the school. The two go to Redspoon but Kate never returns. Her body isn’t discovered but everyone suspects that Adrian is responsible for her disappearance. In fact, he leaves town swearing not to return. Twenty years later, we learn what really happened to Kate when Adrian’s sister Lisa and a Green Oaks security guard Kurt form an unlikely friendship and begin to look into the past.
Pablo De Santis’ The Paris Enigma introduces us to Sigmundo Salvatrio, the son of a Buenos Aires shoemaker. Salvatrio is enthralled with detection so he is overjoyed when he gets the opportunity to attend the exclusive Academy for Detectives run by world-famous sleuth Renato Craig. Craig is the co-founder of a group of other world-famous detectives known as The Twelve that is slated to do a presentation during the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. However, shortly before he’s scheduled to leave Buenos Airies for the fair, Craig falls ill and cannot attend. He sends Salvatrio in his place and that’s when the boy’s coming of age really begins. One of the other members of the Twelve is murdered and Salvatrio works with the group’s other co-founder Viktor Arkazy to find out who the killer is. Then there is another murder and Salvatrio learns plenty of lessons about adult reality.
Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce is also at the crossroads between childhood and adolescence. On the one hand, she’s very knowledgeable about chemistry, quite observant and intelligent. On the other hand she’s still got a child’s way of looking at life in some ways. She’s got two older sisters who are the bane of her existence and a father to whom she’s devoted. She’s at the same time both savvy and imaginative. For instance, in A Red Herring Without Mustard, she has an encounter with a Gypsy who starts to tell her fortune. Flavia begins to think that the Gypsy may have been able to connect with her mother Harriet, who died when Flavia was a baby. Here’s a bit of their conversation:
‘‘Tell me about the woman you saw on the mountain,’ I said. ‘The one I shall become.’…
‘Cross my palm with silver,’ she demanded, sticking out a grubby hand.
‘But I gave you a shilling,’ I said. “That’s what it says on the board outside.
‘Messages from the Third Circle cost extra,’ she wheezed. ‘They drain my batteries.’
I almost laughed out loud. Who did this old hag think she was? But still, she seemed to have spotted Harriet beyond the veil, and I couldn’t let skepticism spoil even half a chance of having a few words with my dead mother.’
It’s that mix of childhood and a more mature outlook that makes Flavia an interesting sleuth and in this case, she puts her skills to work when the Gypsy who seems to know so much about her life is found murdered.
Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything is the story of the tragic coming of age of thirteen-year-old Lizzie Hood. She is best friends with Evie Verver and the two girls tell each other all their secrets. Everything changes when Evie doesn’t come home from school one afternoon. At first, no-one worries that much about her absence but as evening wears on and she still hasn’t come home, her parents get worried. They and later the police ask Lizze for all of the information she has. As Evie’s best friend, she may know something Evie never told her family. But Lizzie doesn’t remember much and isn’t able to be of any help. But she is desperate to find her best friend so she decides to do her own investigation to try to get some answers. As she does so, she learns that a lot of the childlike beliefs she had about Evie may very well not have been accurate. And as she really confronts the tragedy of Evie’s disappearance, Lizzie has to look at things with a different and painfully more mature perspective.
William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace tells of one terrible summer in the life of Frank Drum. In the summer of 1961, Frank Drum is thirteen years old and mostly occupied with playing baseball, going to the local river and finding adventure where he can. His best friend is his younger brother Jake, although as the book begins he isn’t usually willing to admit it. The summer begins to pall when a boy Frank and Jake knew is killed on a local railroad track. Everyone thinks at first that it was an accident, but it might not have been so accidental. There are other deaths too. But the most tragic event, and the pivotal event for Frank Drum, is when there is a murder in his own family. Now he has to grow up quickly and look in a different way at people he’s always known. Little by little he learns the truth about what happened as he and Jake find some evidence, listen in on conversations and so on. As Frank begins to make sense of the events around him, we see how he starts by thinking in a fairly childish way but matures as the summer goes on.
Not all of these novels are what most people think of ‘typical’ crime fiction novels (as though there were such a thing). But they all have an interesting mix of the coming-of-age theme and of course, crime. It’s not easy to tell a story through the eyes of a young person coming of age but when it works well the result can be a really innovative perspective.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s My Little Town.