Of all of the topics that crime fiction treats, one of the most difficult is when harm comes to children. For most of us, there is an instinct that children must be protected and that makes sense. For one thing, that’s how our species keeps going. For another, children are among the most vulnerable among us and they can’t protect themselves the way adults can. That’s part of the reason I think for which many crime fiction fans don’t want to read novels in which children are the victims. I don’t blame them. We can keep a certain amount of emotional distance from a mystery novel in which the victim is an adult, especially if the violence described isn’t gratuitous or brutal. But it’s a different matter altogether when it’s a child. Because of that I think it takes a special skill for a crime writer to create a story that features the loss of a child.
Agatha Christie explores just that point in Murder on the Orient Express. Wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is stabbed on the second night of a three-day trip across Europe on the famous Orient Express. Hercule Poirot is on the same train and is persuaded to investigate the murder. He soon discovers that this death is linked to the kidnapping/murder of three-year-old Daisy Armstrong a few years earlier. In this novel, Christie doesn’t go into lurid detail about the kidnapping and murder and the story is more effective for that. She shows very, very clearly though just how devastating the loss of a child can be.
We also see how devastating that kind of loss is in Johan Theorin’s Echoes From the Dead. Retired sea captain Gerlof Davidsson suffered a terrible tragedy twenty years ago when his grandson Jens disappeared. No trace of the boy was ever found – not even a body. Davidsson’s daughter Julia was so torn apart by her son’s disappearance that she left Øland hoping to pick up her life again. She hasn’t been successful but life has gone on for her and for her father. Then one day Davidsson receives an unusual package – a sandal belonging to Jens. This brings back the tragedy for both Davidsson and his daughter, but it also raises questions that need to be answered. So Julia reluctantly returns to Øland to help her father try to find out what really happened to Jens. Theorin doesn’t dwell in this novel on exactly what happened to the boy but the havoc his loss wrought on the family is woven through the novel.
Even fans of Martha Grimes’ Inspector Jury series find it difficult to read The Winds of Change. Not because it’s not well-written – it is. But this novel deals with the murder of an unknown five-year-old girl who’s found shot in the back. Jury and his friend Melrose Plant look into the case, each in his own way. They find that this murder may be connected to the discovery of the body of a dead woman on the property of wealthy Declan Hughes. It turns out that Hughes’ daughter Flora disappeared three years ago, leaving no trace. As Jury and Plant work to connect these tragedies, we see the effect of the loss of these children. In my opinion (so feel free to differ with me if you do) that fact makes this book especially sad to read.
In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, Saskatchewan political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn gets drawn into a case of multiple murders when her daughter Mieka discovers the body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin in a garbage can. Bernice’s death is possibly related to a series of other murders and Kilbourn investigates them when her son Pete’s former girlfriend Christy Sinclair becomes a victim. Little by little, Kilbourn finds out the truth about the murders and how they are connected to Christy’s upbringing at remote Blue Heron Point. One element that adds a level of suspense and real sadness to this novel is that what’s happening near Blue Heron Point has to do with harm to children. Bowen doesn’t describe what happens in gratuitous detail. Instead, she shows just how awful harm to children really is through Kilbourn’s reactions. And this subtlety makes the novel that much more gripping and sad.
That theme of the dreadful effects of the loss of a child is handled very effectively in Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. One afternoon, Minna and David Anderson and their four children attend a school picnic at Lake Wanaka. During the picnic four-year-old Gemma Anderson disappears. A massive search is undertaken, but no trace of her is found – not even a body. The family is shattered by what’s happened, and Gemma’s loss has several profound effects. But everyone keeps living as best as possible. Then, seventeen years later, Gemma’s older sister Stephanie makes the choice to find out what really happened to her sister. Stephanie is just beginning her career as a psychiatrist when she starts to work with a new patient Elizabeth Clark, who tells her a story that’s eerily similar to Stephanie’s own family story. Years ago Clark’s younger sister Gracie was abducted and, like Gemma Anderson, was never found. Stephanie decides to face her own ghosts and find out the truth about both girls’ disappearances. Throughout this novel, we see just how terrible it is to lose a child and Richardson shows us this in an umber of ways, none of which is gratuitous.
That’s also true in Wendy James’ The Mistake in which Jodie Evans Garrow has to face a haunting part of her past that she’s never told anyone, not even her family members. When she was nineteen, Jodie gave birth to a baby girl Elsa Mary. When circumstances bring her to the same hospital years later, a nurse remembers her and asks about the baby. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption but there are no adoption records to support that. On the other hand, no child’s body was found and there’s nothing to indicate that the baby was killed. So what happened to the baby? Is Jodie somehow responsible for the child’s disappearance? These questions begin to haunt Jodie as everyone begins to turn against her. People are so horrified at the thought that she might have killed her child that she becomes a pariah. Her family is torn apart and we can see as the novel moves on just how much of an impact Elsa Mary’s loss has had on Jodie although she never spoke of what really happened to anyone. The impact of this novel is all that much stronger because Elsa Mary was a child.
Arguably one of the most powerful depictions of the loss of a child (well, in my opinion anyway) is Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. Ten-year-old Kate Meaney wants to be a detective. In fact, she’s already started her own detective agency Falcon Investigations. She spends quite a lot of time at the recently-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center looking for potential crime. But her grandmother Ivy believes she’d be better off going away to school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon school. Kate doesn’t want to go but her friend twenty-two-year-old Adrian Palmer persuades her to at least do the exams. In fact, he even goes with her on the bus to the school. Tragically, Kate never returns from Redspoon. A thorough search for her turns up nothing, but everyone thinks Palmer is responsible. His life is made so awful that he leaves town, planning never to return. Twenty years later his younger sister Lisa is an assistant manager at Your Music in Green Oaks. One night, she makes an unlikely friend Kurt, who’s a security guard at the mall. Kurt tells Lisa that lately he’s been seeing something odd on the security cameras: a young girl carrying a backpack. The girl looks a lot like Kate Meaney and that brings up very painful memories. But each in a different way, Lisa and Kurt work to find out the truth about the security cameras and the truth about what happened to Kate. In this novel O’Flynn explores, among other things, the deep scars that are left when a child disappears, and how that loss affects even the most unlikely people.
It’s hard to write about the loss of a child. It was even hard to write this post because of that. So I can see why people don’t want to read about that topic. I give a lot of credit to authors who can handle it well.
This post is dedicated to the memories of those who were lost in the 14 December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Many of those killed were children. There aren’t any words to describe the sadness and grief that their loss has left behind, so I won’t try. I truly wish their families the strength, peace and hope that they need to rebuild. I also wish for them the privacy they deserve at this time.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Hooters.