But Will You Always Stay Someone Else’s Dream of Who You Are?*

ProdigiesWe all have talents and abilities. Some people though have a very special gift, be it extraordinary intelligence, musical ability, artistic ability or something else. Sometimes that gift shows up very early in life and when it does, families have to decide what they’ll do about it. We may envy people with those special kinds of gifts, but their lives are not always easy. In fact, sometimes it’s even more difficult for them than it is for ‘the rest of us.’ Certainly that’s true in real life, and when you look at what have often been called child prodigies in crime fiction, you see some of the challenges they and their families face.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we meet Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his family. Christow has two children, Terence and Zena. Terence is a very interesting twelve-year-old child. He’s a turning into a science prodigy and is always interested in, especially, chemistry. This can be difficult for both him and his mother Gerda. Gerda loves her children, but she finds Terence hard to raise because she can’t keep up with him intellectually. It scares her a little. One weekend, Gerda and John Christow are invited to visit Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell at their country home. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has taken a cottage nearby, and was invited to lunch. He arrives just in time to see the murder scene, which he thinks at first is a tableau in very bad taste. When he realises that the murder really happened, he immediately begins to take notice of the people there, and he and Inspector Grange work to find out which of them killed the victim. One of the sadder aspects of this novel is Terence’s reaction to the murder. He wants to know exactly what happened to his father and why, and no-one will respect him enough to tell him the truth.

In Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers look into the history of the Davies family. One night, Eugenie Davis is killed in what looks like a tragic hit-and-run accident. It’s no accident though, and soon enough Lynley and Havers are trying to discover who killed the victim and why. At the same time, Eugenie’s son twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies is facing a crisis of his own. He is a world-class violinist, who has been a prodigy nearly all his life. One night, to his shock, he finds that he can’t play. Terrified, he visits a psychologist to try to find out what is blocking his ability. It turns out that both Gideon’s mental block and his mother’s death are related to a long-ago tragedy. Twenty years earlier, Gideon’s sister Sonia was drowned. Her then-nanny Katja Wolff was arrested and imprisoned in connection with the death. She’s recently been released from prison and that event plays a role in the novel too.

Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine introduces us to self-styled medium Ava Garrett. She’s wanted to be famous all her life, but has never been anything but mediocre at best. She puts on quite a show though, and is invited to lead séances from time to time. One day she is leading a gathering when she begins to make pronouncements about the recent tragic death of financial consultant Dennis Brinkley. Brinkley’s friend Benny Frayle is convinced that he was murdered, so she’s quite excited that this medium is saying the same thing. Benny tries to get Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby to believe this is a case of murder, but so far, he believes the police report, which puts the death down to accident. Later on the evening of the séance, Ava Garrett dies of what turns out to be poison. Now Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy have two untimely deaths on their hands, and they finally investigate Brinkley’s death more thoroughly. As it turns out, the deaths are related and both have to do with one of the most common motives of all: greed. In all of this, the character of Ava Garrett’s daughter Karen proves to be important. Karen is shy and quiet, but she is an unusual child and we find that she has particular gifts of her own that play a role in the story.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn also has experience with a child who has special gifts. She is a political scientist and academic who with her attorney husband Zack Shreve is raising a truly gifted artist in their daughter Taylor. Murder at the Mendel gives readers the story of how Taylor came into Kilbourn’s life and why Kilbourn adopted her. Since the time she was a very young girl Taylor has been sensitive to and fascinated by art, and has created some world-class work. Her ability isn’t the reason for the murders Kilbourn investigates. But it plays its role in a few cases and it does complicate the family’s life. When Kilbourn marries attorney Zack Shreve later in the series, the two of them face the daunting task of nurturing Taylor’s extraordinary ability without sacrificing her childhood. Part of the appeal of this series is in the way Bowen weaves that domestic side of Kilbourn and Shreve’s lives into the larger plots of her novels.

Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red tells the story of Connor Bligh and his sister Angela Dickson. Bligh is a brilliant child – quite gifted intellectually. But he is not supported either at home or at school. Time goes on and Bligh finally gets a chance to excel. He moves on in his career and although he has setbacks he can at least use his gifts. Then the unthinkable happens. One awful night, Angela, her husband Rowan and their son Sam are brutally murdered. Only their daughter Katy survives because she’s not home at the time of the attacks. There’s evidence against Bligh and he is arrested, charged and convicted. But there are little hints that Bligh may be innocent. If he is, then he’s been in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and the real killer is on the loose. That’s just the kind of story that Wellington television journalist Rebecca Thorne is looking for, so she begins to ask questions. As she starts to search for the truth, Thorne finds that there is a possibility that Bligh may be telling the truth when he claims he isn’t guilty. Thorne’s search for answers gets her much closer to the case than is wise, but it gives readers a fascinating portrait of a character whose gifts have not been supported.

And then there’s Jean-Pierre Alaux and Nöel Balen’s Treachery in Bordeaux. Noted oenologist and vintner Benjamin Cooker gets a new assistant Virgile Lanssien.  Lansssien has some things to learn, but he is extremely gifted when it comes to wines and wine making. So he makes a very effective partner for Cooker when the two are asked to solve a crime. Someone has sabotaged four barrels of vintner Denis Maissepain’s wine. He is worried for his vineyard’s reputation, so he wants to find out who is responsible and stop that person. Lanssien may be young, but he is gifted, and Cooker learns that he can be relied upon as they investigate.

It’s not easy to be what people sometimes call a prodigy. Especially when one’s a child, it’s all too easy to have one’s skills exploited with no support for the rest of one’s life. Prodigies don’t have easy lives, but they are fascinating, and they can make for interesting fictional characters.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s James.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Elizabeth George, Gail Bowen, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Nöel Balen, Paddy Richardson

10 responses to “But Will You Always Stay Someone Else’s Dream of Who You Are?*

  1. Wow, this time I have three of these books (Elizabeth George, Caroline Graham, and Gail Bowen). That kind of character in a mystery is always interesting.

    Flavia de Luce (in the Alan Bradley books) is not exactly that kind of character, but she is certainly very intelligent and very self-directed for a pre-teenager in the 1950’s.

    • Tracy – She certainly is! In fact I thought of including Flavia, but didn’t. I’m glad you filled in that gap that I left. And you’re right; prodigy-type characters can be fascinating.

  2. I’ve been reading some Margery Allingham recently, and she writes well about very talented people doesn’t she? Artists, actors, fashion designers – she does a real novelist’s job in explaining how talent works and what a strange gift it can be.

    • Moira – You know you’re right. I hadn’t thought about Allingham in particular when I was preparing this post, but you’re right. She had real insight into the nature of unusual levels of talent and skill.

  3. Margot: Your post is very timely in my reading having just finished The Gifted by Gail Bowen. The book features Taylor’s talents. At 14 she creates a sensation with a painting of a 19 year old young man that is full frontal nude. Taylor’s relationship with the young man is not predictable.

    Maisie Dobbs in the series by Jacqueline Winspear is a prodigy we see grow up in the opening book. From a maidservant devouring literature to a young woman at university she soaks up knowledge.

    • Bill – Right you are about Maisie Dobbs. She is most definitely a prodigy isn’t she? And it’s recognition of that on the part of some people in her life that give her the support she needs. Thanks for reminding me of that.
      And thanks also for mentioning The Gifted. I am very much looking forward to reading that one. Taylor’s art gift is such an important part of her life that I’m eager to see how it plays out in this novel.

  4. Ms. Kinberg, I’m amazed by your depth of knowledge of crime-fiction that you should find so many examples for this unusual theme. When I think of child prodigies, I can only think of the movies.

  5. Col

    I’ll bow to your greater knowledge, I’ve drawn a blank!

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