With so many households made up of adults who work full-time, many people make use of child care providers. Sometimes the solution is to have someone live in or come in on a daily basis. Other families leave their children in the care of a person who cares for children in (usually) her own home. Child care issues can add tension to family dynamics. For one thing, there’s always the fact of leaving a child in someone else’s care; that can bring feelings of guilt and second-guessing. There is also of course the issue of trust in one’s caregiver, especially when it comes to children, since they are so vulnerable. But millions of people do use child care, so it makes sense that we would also see it in crime fiction.
Of course, child care is not a new phenomenon. People with the means to do so have had nannies and governesses for a very long time. For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Violet Hunter asks Sherlock Holmes’ help in deciding whether or not she should take a position as governess to Jephro Rucastle’s six-year-old son. On the one hand, the pay is more than generous. On the other, she’s a little unsettled about some of the odd requests Rucastle makes of her. They don’t seem like much at first; it’s just a matter of what Rucastle calls ‘whims,’ such as wearing a dress of a certain colour. But when he asks Violet to cut her hair, she gets concerned. So does Holmes, but when Rucastle increases his salary offer, Violet feels she has no choice but to take the position. Holmes assures her that if she is in need of his help, all she has to do is send word and he’ll be there. It turns out that Holmes’ instincts are right; Violet is only there for a short time before odd things begin to happen. It turns out that the Rucastle family is hiding some secrets that could prove very dangerous for their governess.
In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), ten people receive an invitation to Indian Island off the Devon coast. Each accepts and they duly arrive on the island. Just after dinner on the first night, everyone is shocked when each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Not long after that, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Late that night, another person dies. It’s soon clear that someone has lured everyone to the island and is killing them one at a time. The survivors now have to find out who the killer is and try to stay alive themselves. One of the guests is Vera Claythorne, games mistress at a girls’ school. Before that though, she was governess to Cyril Hammond, a young boy who drowned when he swam out too far into the sea. As we learn about what happened to Cyril, we see that the event isn’t quite as clear-cut as it first seems…
Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski takes place, for the most part, at the Bella Vista hotel in Santa Chiara, in the Italian Alps. Scotland Yard’s Henry Tibbett and his wife Emmy have gone to Santa Chiara for a skiing holiday, but they soon get mixed up in a murder. One of the hotel guests Fritz Hauser is shot one afternoon and his body found in a downward-running ski lift chair. The local police in the form of Captain Spezzi begin to investigate, and Spezzi soon settles on a suspect. She is Gerda Braun, governess to Baron and Baroness von Wurtburg’s two children. She’s accompanied her charges and their mother to the hotel for an annual visit to Italy, but Spezzi is sure that there’s more to it than that. She has her own past history and secrets, and a good motive to have murdered Hauser. Although Tibbett doesn’t immediately discount her at first, he’s not nearly as sure as his colleague is that she is the killer. So he investigates further and finds that just about everyone at the hotel had a good reason to want Fritz Hauser dead.
Reginald Hill’s Recalled to Life also features a nanny. Cissy Kohler has spent years in prison for her involvement in the 1963 murder of Pamela Westropp, her employer’s wife. At the time, she was nanny to their twin children. She’s released after her sentence and goes straight to the U.S. before really talking to anyone. In the meantime, there are hints that the wrong person was convicted of the crime. There are also hints that the investigator Wally Tallantire might have tampered with evidence. Tallantire is no longer alive to defend himself, but Superintendent Andy Dalziel, whose mentor Tallantire was, is very much alive. He is eager to defend Tallantire’s memory, so from two different perspectives, he and Peter Pascoe re-open the case. They find out that much more was going on in the Westropp family and their ‘circle’ than it seemed on the surface.
The Davies family is the focus of Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory. Twenty years before the main events of the novel, two-year-old Sonia Davies drowned. Her nanny Katja Wolff was arrested in connection with the incident and imprisoned. She’s recently been released from prison and her release roughly coincides with some other tragic events. First, twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies, a world class violinist, finds one night that he cannot remember how to play. Terrified, he consults a psychologist to find out what is blocking him. In the process, he delves into the family past. In the meantime, Davies’ mother Eugenie has been fatally struck by a car in a hit-and-run incident. Inspector Thomas Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers investigate the death and they find that what has happened in that family has everything to do with the events of decades earlier.
Of course, not all child minders get mixed up in murder. For example, there’s Sandra, who acts as child minder to Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway. Galloway is the single mother of Kate, and has decided to raise her alone. But she is also Head of Forensic Archaeology at North Norfolk University. That means she has a full-time position and a lot of obligations. And there’s the fact that the police consult her when there are cases involving deaths that aren’t recent. So Galloway needs someone she can depend on to help look after Kate. That’s where Sandra comes in. She is a dependable, caring friend and a careful child minder.
Governesses, nannies, child minders, whatever you call them, the people who watch over children play crucial roles in our lives. Little wonder they do in crime fiction too.
Oh, you’ll notice that I didn’t mention any of the many crime fiction novels that feature day care facilities. That’s the stuff of another post…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Au Pairs’ Set-Up.