She’s Here to Look After You*

NanniesWith 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth George, Elly Griffiths, Patricia Moyes, Reginald Hill

18 responses to “She’s Here to Look After You*

  1. Skywatcher

    I seem to remember that Conan Doyle had sisters who worked as governesses, so it’s not surprising that Sherlock Holmes had strong feelings about them. He is very impressed with Violet Hunter and makes this plain, so that Watson is very disappointed that Holmes seems to lose interest in her after the case. In THOR BRIDGE he discovers that the mega-rich Neil Gibson has attempted to seduce his children’s governess. Holmes totally loses his cool, making it plain how much he despises him “Some of you rich men have to be taught that the whole world cannot be bribed into condoning your offences”. Come to think of it, Holmes gets very gooey about Violet Smith, the governess in SOLITARY CYCLIST, making comments about her spirituality. There’s probably enough in the canon for a full length monograph!

    • Skywatcher – You’re quite right. In fact, I debated between The Solitary Cyclist and Copper Beeches, so I’m very glad you mentioned the former. It’s really quite clear in more than one story as you point out that Holmes has a special, dare I say, fondness for governesses. Not surprising given Conan Doyle’s background. And you’re right; that’s worthy of some study.

  2. As a mother who’s had to leave my children with others at times, I’m very familiar with this anxiety. I’ve resisted having an au pair even when the going got really tough, perhaps because at the back of my mind I do have too many crime-fiction-making tendencies.
    One chilling book on the subject of leaving your child with neighbours and other Mums is Louise Millar’s ‘The Playdate’. It plays very cleverly on parental fears and the impossibility of knowing people well.

    • Marina Sofia – Thanks for that recommendation. I’d heard of that one but hadn’t yet read it. It really does make one anxious to leave a child in the care of someone else, even for a short time. Even when you think you know/trust that person. And I don’t blame you for not wanting to have an au pair. It’s a really risky decision, no matter what the recommendations/references are and no matter how safe you think the situation is. Honestly, not something I wanted to do when my daughter was young.

  3. Everybody loves Lucy Eylesbarrow in Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington – inside the book and out of it I think. It’s a pity she didn’t become a regular character. She’s not a nanny, she’s a housekeeper, but I’m putting her forward because she does help with the 2 schoolboys, doesn’t she? She’s a wonderful investigator, but I think the reason readers like her is because they’d like her in their own lives….

  4. Margot, your post brings to mind yet another of Arthur Upfield’s novels about Bony, “Murder Must Wait.” In the midst of a series of kidnapping of infants, a woman is murdered – and Bony and the rest of the police agree (for once) that, this time, murder must wait, for the kidnappings must be their primary focus. I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that a common thread in the kidnappings has to do with the quality of care the infants have been receiving. And it is a case that can only be solved because of Bony’s half-white, half-Aborigine heritage…

    • Les – Trust you to think of a great example of what I had in mind with this post. And it’s interesting how many different kinds of topics Upfield discussed in this series. On the surface of it, it seems like it ought not to, but Upfield found a way, didn’t he, of really exploring lots of different themes. Little wonder his series is so well regarded.

  5. Margot, your post inspires me to give a shout out to all the real-life carers, paid or otherwise, who make it possible for us to be both writers and mothers.

    • Angela – I couldn’t have put it any better myself. There is no way we could do all that we do without being able to depend on child carers. They deserve our loyalty, gratitude and a lot else.

  6. Margot: Your post set me to thinking about indigenous cultures where child care often involves generations and extended families. In the Alaskan books of Stan Jones with his sleuth, Nathan Active, and the Canadian Arctic books of Scott Young with Matteesie Kitigolak the Inuit peoples would wonder why you would hire people to care for children.

    I think it puts unfair pressure on working parents if we suspect child care givers. As well there are unfortunately parents who have harmed children.

    • Bill – Your comment makes me think of several other groups of people who have a similar view of taking care of children. You see that kind of social structure among the Navajo in Tony Hillerman’s books, for instance. The concept of someone other than a family member caring for one’s children is just not part of those cultures.
      And you’re right; it puts an unbelievable amount of pressure on parents when they’re not sure of their caregiver. And it is so sad but parents harm their children too. So there is sometimes mistrust in the other direction as well.

  7. kathy d.

    What a dilemma! I haven’t had to face this since I am not a parent, but I would worry if I had to leave children with someone I didn’t know. This is why so many parents prefer to leave their offspring with relatives — but this isn’t possible in so many situations.
    Communal care-taking happens all over the world, even here in some situations. But in the States and other industrially advanced countries, so many people work or families are separated geographically or grandparents are ill or disabled that child care workers are needed.
    Most of the time it’s fine and it works out well. At least this is what my friends have said, with the rare awful story. It’s the bad stories that make the news headlines; unfortunately, the successful situations are rarely reported to the public.
    However, this makes me think of the three top private women detectives in U.S. crime fiction: V.I. Warshawski, Sharon McCone and Kinsey Milhone. They are all child-free, although nieces and nephews pop up. It might be hard to weave children into their lives — or the plots. Australian-born detectives like Jayne Keeney and Ella Marconi and other global private eyes don’t have children either.
    Ruth Galloway is a prime example of an independent single mother who has help from friends and a carer for her daughter, Kate, although she has plenty of anxieties along the way.
    Irene Huss has teenage daughters, and her spouse, a chef, took care of them earlier. Helpful spouses feature in Asa Larsson’s and Anne Holt’s books.
    It would be interesting to look into the lives of fictional women detectives to see how many don’t have children and if they do, how the childcare arrangements have worked out.

    • Kathy – It’s interesting the way our culture has developed, so that it’s no longer as easy as it once was for a family member to take care of children. As you say, families often don’t leave near one another. What’s more, even when they do, a lot of people have full-time jobs. It’s true that in many cases, it works out with few if any problems. Perhaps that is the reason for which when there are tragedies, they make the headlines. But those headlines are enough to make any parent nervous.
      You make an interesting point about female sleuths who don’t have children. I need to think about that for a while – thanks for the idea.

  8. Col

    My wife works in this field and has some tales to tell re parents etc. It does make you wonder sometimes why some people have children…a box-ticking exercise maybe?
    I’ll try and read a Hill/ Dalziel novel one day.

    • Col – Oh, I’m sure your wife has quite a lot of stories to tell. You raise an interesting question about certain parents. One does wonder about them. Really interesting point… And I hope you get the chance to read one of Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels. That’s one of the fine crime fiction series in my opinion.

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