Where do the Children Go?*

ChildrenOf 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.


In Memoriam




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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Gail Bowen, Johan Theorin, Martha Grimes, Paddy Richardson, Wendy James

28 responses to “Where do the Children Go?*

  1. I find it very hard to read novels that involve violence against children, and when tragedies like the Newtown, CT shooting occur, I’m so sad. Children should never have to face this kind of trauma, and neither should their families.

    • Pat – I couldn’t agree more. Children shouldn’t have to face such horror, and their parents shouldn’t either. As for books with that theme, a book has to be very well-written for me to be willing to read it, and even then, it’s hard.

  2. Margot: I pass on my sympathy to Americans grieving the deaths of the 20 children and 8 adults. From a northern neighbour I struggle with how your nation approaches guns. I am not trying to create controversy though any comment on guns stirs strong passions in America.

    On your post concerning children I will read books that involve their deaths. Whether violent death comes to adult or child it is wrong. I dislike any approach which characterizes a person’s murder as worse than another because of race or age or sex.

    I do have my own personal reading and watching aversion. I avoid books, movies and television about custody disputes. I have never watched Kramer v. Kramer. Part of my practice involves disputes over custody and access. Fiction in this area is too real for me. I can compartmentalize myself from my practice for crime fiction but not for parental issues with regard to children.

    • Bill – Don’t get me started on the whole gun controversy. I don’t want to stir up a lot either, but let’s just say I agree with you completely. You make a well-taken point too about how we think of some deaths as ‘worse than’ others. Any life lost, especially through murder, is a tragedy. But I do think that some people find books where children are the victims very hard to read at times, possibly because they tap the deep instinct that most parents have to protect their children.
      I don’t blame you one bit for shying away from stories of custody disputes, especially if you’ve seen to much of it in your practice. I’ve known about of those situations among people I know and they are ugly and wrenching. And I can well imagine that if you deal with that sort of case in real life, it’s hard to have to deal with it in your fiction too.

  3. Margot, I was so upset about what happened in Newtown that I cried when I tried to tell my nearly seven-year-old about it. I got as far as explaining that not so many people are allowed to own guns in our country, but in other countries, many people do — before I broke down.
    Crimes, fictional or otherwise, involving the death of children tap into our primal fears and mess with the natural order that should never see a parent faced with the grief of outliving their child. The Convention on the Rights of the Child protects a child’s right to life, health and education. I don’t know how you protect these rights without gun control.
    It was actually a conservative government in Australia that succeeded in enacting tighter gun control laws and implementing a gun buy-back scheme, in the wake of the tragic Port Arthur massacre in 1996 in which 35 people were killed and 28 injured. The buy-back scheme was funded by a tax many of us were happy to pay to secure a safer community.
    We’ve never looked back.
    Heartfelt sympathy to all in Newtown who have lost loved ones, children and adults.

    • Angela – You’ve really got a well-made point here. It’s part of the natural order of things that children outlive their parents. But parents outliving their children goes against that order. I think there really is that deep-seated fear that inspires parents to try to protect their children. When they can’t…well, I can completely understand why you got as choked up as you did about the shootings in Connecticut. I still can’t quite get my mind round them, but every time I do I have the same reaction.
      And as for gun control, I completely agree with you. Keeping the community safe, and especially its children, is not consistent with easy gun ownership. I’m very glad your gun buyback program was successful; I’d love it if we had something here like that on a national level. I know that sort of thing has happened on a local level, and it’s been successful. I remember reading about what happened at Port Arthur – so awful! But if it led to safer communities where that sort of tragedy is much less likely, then at least something positive happened.

  4. Beautifully and sensitively done, Margot. I’ve been trying to avoid letting my children hear about this in the news, as I don’t know how I can answer their inevitable question: ‘Why? Why would anybody do that to children?’ Very upsetting.
    To come back to crime fiction, however: one of my favourites in the Martin Beck series ‘The Man on the Balcony’ deals with a series of sexual assaults and murders of young girls. I like the way it is handles, because there is a deep sadness there, no sensationalism or gory details, just clear-headed examination of the consequences of such a crime on a community.

    • Marina Sofia – Thank you – I don’t envy you the task of telling your children about this. I’m fortunate that my daughter is a young adult now, so discussing it with her is easier. I remember going through the same thing as you are when the Columbine murders happened in 1999. She was a child then, and I found it very hard to tell her what had happened.
      And thanks for mentioning The Man on the Balcony. You’re quite right that in that novel, you have a really authentic portrayal of the sadness and loss that comes from the murders. You don’t have gratuitousness but it really does show how a community is deeply affected.

  5. Skywatcher

    It’s interesting that you mention Christie in this post, as she did deal with the murder of children more than once. In HALLOWEEN PARTY a young girl is found drowned in a tub being used in a ‘bobbing for apples’ game. THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY also touches on the death of children, and if I remember correctly NEMESIS also has a girl on the verge of adulthood being murdered. Christie generally manages to keep a distance from these killings, but you still end up feeling that the killers are nasty, selfish and brutal people who thoroughly deserve to hang. In the first of the recent MARPLE adaptions they attempted to make the killers in BODY IN THE LIBRARY somehow sympathetic but still retained the child murder, which made the whole thing thoroughly tasteless.

    My sympathies go to those who have suffered in Newtown. I’m not sure what needs to be done about this, but something certainly has to happen now. Norway is pushing through legislation to make their already tough gun laws even tougher, and though it isn’t really for me (as a foreigner) to comment on the USA, I do wonder if America needs to reconsider its gun laws.

    • Skywatcher – Thanks for those reminders of those Christie novels. You’re quite right that she handles child murders in more than one novel and in all of those instances, we really see just how terrible it is to lose a young person. You’re right too that that aspect adds to the reader’s feeling that the killer really ‘has it coming’ when that person is caught. And I couldn’t agree more about the terrible television adaptations. It’s one reason I dislike it as much as I do when the makers of adaptations stray too far from what the author intended.
      About gun control laws? I couldn’t agree with you more. As I ‘said’ to Angela in another comment, I do not see how protecting communities and especially children is consistent with easy gun ownership. I remember writing my first letter-to-the-editor kind of thing about this when I was a teenager and my feelings haven’t changed.

  6. I was reading a statistic on facebook (so I’m not sure it’s accurate) but it was comparing gun deaths in various countries and it’s astounding how many people have died in the US (10,000+) compared to countries such as Britain (6) and Canada (52).

  7. This is such a thought provoking (and emotion provoking) post, I had to go away and think about it before responding. As far as fiction, it really depends on the author’s handling as to whether I want to read about a sensitive subject like the death or mistreatment of a child. In real life, I do respond more emotionally to children being the victims of crimes, at whatever level. And I cannot imagine having to explain that to a young child.

    I work for a community college, and our college recently had “Active Shooter” presentations for staff with information on how to handle the situation if you are caught in it. It was very appreciated, but left me so aware of how little control one has.

    I am definitely in favor of gun control, but not sure it would make much difference in cases where the shooter is psychologically damaged. Possibly the statistics prove me wrong.

    • Tracy – Thanks for your thoughtful response. I’m an academic too, so the thought of this kind of havoc being wreaked is close to home in several ways (I’m a parent too). You’re quite right that one learns quickly how little control one has. Still, it’s important to be aware and prepared. It’s just wrenching that one has to be if you understand my point. I’m glad your employer has taken the time to work with you folks on this issue.
      As for fiction, I agree with you that an author’s handling of the issue has a lot to do with whether I can even read a book that treats this topic, let alone finish it. Some novels handle it in a sensitive way that allows the reader to process the story. Others…don’t. So I’m particular when it comes to that kind of thing. I really am.
      The question of how to work with people who are psychologically damaged is an important and difficult one. There are so many issues involved and so many big questions to consider. How do we keep society safe while at the same time preserving the basic human rights of those who represent a danger to others? So much to think about and honestly, I don’t have the answers. But we need to figure this all out; there’s no doubt of that.

      • I am not really an academic, I work in Information Technology at the college. But I love the academic environment, where learning and helping students is primary. My son is grown (and takes classes and works part-time at the college), but none of us is truly safe and that is sad.

        • Tracy – Hey, in my book, you’re in an academic environment. And it is a terrific environment I think. You’re right, too; none of us is completely, 100% safe. And that really is so sad…

  8. I can’t help but think if we had passed the legislation we should have passed in the eighties, after James Brady was injured, how many lives might have been saved. Although along with that must come better help for the mentally ill. I feel quite certain, that boy thought he was saving those children from the demons he faced. Too bad his mother collected guns and didn’t get help for him in time.
    I disliked the latest Robotham book because it featured way too much violence against children in it. I was disappointed in how much time he lingered on it, in fact.

    • Patti – I agree with you. We should have insisted that our legislators passed and the president signed that legislation. It might have saved so many olives. But as you say, that in itself isn’t enough. We also need to reconsider how we work with those who have mental illness. There are so many big issues here, but we have to face them.
      It’s interesting you’d mention Say You’re Sorry. In general I like his work but I haven’t read that one and simply may not for just that reason.

    • I note Michael Moore’s comment on Twitter that ‘The way to honor these dead children is to demand strict gun control, free mental health care and an end to violence as public policy.’

      Also, in the 18 years before Australia banned semi-automatic weapons in 1996, there were 13 mass shootings. Since 1996, none.

      I sincerely hope Americans can some day soon enjoy a reprieve from gun-related massacres, too.

      • Thanks, Angela, for that well-taken couple of points. I really do agree with Moore and with the policy of strict gun control. Your examples from Australia show it more clearly than anything I could say.

  9. My thoughts go out to all families, friends and emergency service workers over there right now. Everything else is beyond words for me.

  10. Brave choice of topic Margot, i really mean that – I am going to look again at this post in the New Year perhaps as finding a book that deals with the topic with the right level of intelligence and sensitivity would be of interest, no question. I remember being stunned by John Irving’s subtlety in WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP when you suddenly, chillingly, realise why a certain character has not been mentioned for a long while.

    • Sergio – Oh, yes! I’d forgotten about The World According to Garp. And you’re right, that was done brilliantly. Thanks too for the kind words; it was not an easy topic for me to write about, and I know it’s not easy for authors to treat in novels. Few and far between are the novels that do a good job of it.

  11. It’s a difficult subject to write about but when it’s done well (such as in ‘Echoes from the Dead’ it is very poignant. The sad fact is that children are harmed – there is an ongoing hunt in West Wales for a girl who has been abducted, a person charged, but no sign of the body. I think it is a subject that needs to be written about but with restraint.

    • Sarah – I’ve been reading a bit about that case in West Wales and you’re right; it’s so very sad but it does happen. So I agree that it does need to be addressed in books. But there is no need to be sensationalistic or gratuitous about it. In fact, when the topic is handled with restraint, a novel is all the more powerful for it.

  12. A touching tribute and some heartfelt comments, Ms. Kinberg. All one can do is pray, and pray hard, for the innocent who lost their lives and especially for their families who must bear the burden of grief for years together. People in India often ask spiritual teachers why bad things happen to good people to which even they don’t have the answer. Pressed further, they will say “It’s the will of the Lord.” Try telling that to the parents who lost their kids. And yet, He is the only one we can turn to in our hour of crisis.

    • Prashant – Thank you for your kind words. You’re right that the families who lost loved ones will need all of our support, well wishes, prayers, and strength. I truly wish them well as they cope with this tragedy. You also make a good point that at times like this, we often do look for spiritual guidance. The hardest answer though is the truthful one – we don’t always know exactly why these things happen. I really do hope those families find some peace…

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