I Am a Child*

Child WitnessesAn interesting comment exchange has got me thinking about the way children observe and learn all sorts of things, even when they’re not deliberately trying to find something out.  Children are naturally curious and observant for the most part, and they make their own sense of what they see and experience. On the one hand, their immaturity and lack of experience can make them unreliable as witnesses. On the other hand though, they can be very keen observers and they can often ‘fade into the background’ so people aren’t always aware they’re there. So it makes sense for fictional (and real) sleuths to be open to listening to what children have to say.

You’ll notice as you read this post that I won’t be mentioning novels or series (e.g. Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, or Fireside Publications’ Leaders & Legacies series) in which a child is the sleuth. To me that’s a different sort of role for a child. It’s probably post-worthy in and of itself. Instead I’ll be looking at stories where what children observe is very helpful to the sleuth.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that Holmes often makes use of the services of a group of boys called the Baker Street Irregulars. Led by Wiggins, this group of ‘street boys’ regularly prowls London’s streets and docks to find out information Holmes wants. They’re in a good position to observe, because no-one pays much attention to them. And what’s interesting is that Holmes doesn’t ask them to do much analysis of what they observe. Rather, he asks them for factual information (e.g. whether a certain ship is docked, or what time a shop actually opened as opposed to when it was supposed to open). Holmes does the deduction himself. Of course that’s characteristic of him even when working with adults. But it also happens to address the issue of children’s immaturity.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot gets information from children in more than one story. For instance, in Dead Man’s Folly, detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver asks Poirot to visit Nasse House, where she’s staying. Oliver has been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt for an upcoming fête, but she suspects that something more sinister is going on at the house. Poirot respects Mrs. Oliver’s judgement, so he agrees to look into things and travels to Nasse House. Sure enough, on the day of the big event, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker is found strangled. Poirot and Inspector Bland investigate, and of course, one of the important avenues to explore is Marlene’s background. So at one point Poirot pays a visit to her family’s home. That’s where he meets Marlene’s younger sister Marilyn. After speaking to the girls’ parents, Poirot’s getting ready to leave the house when Marilyn gets his attention:


‘‘Mum don’t know everything,’ she whispered.’


Marilyn then gives Poirot some important information about her older sister. It doesn’t solve the case, but it does help Poirot make sense of what happened.

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Gossip, John and Heather Cartwright have opened the Lochdubh School of Casting: Salmon and Trout Fishing. They depend on summer visitors who want to learn angling, so when their new class assembles, they’re hoping that everything will turn out well. It doesn’t though. One of the participants is Jane Maxwell, gossip columnist for the London Evening Star, who’s masquerading as a society widow. Her plan is to get new fodder for her column by uncovering nasty secrets since, as she claims, everybody has a proverbial skeleton in the closet.  When she is found strangled with a fishing line, Constable Hamish Macbeth investigates. One of the other members of the class is twelve-year-old Charlie Baxter, who lives in the village. He’s had a difficult time of it in his life, and is a little hard around the edges as the saying goes. What’s more, he had more than one run-in with the victim. So besides being a witness, he’s a possible suspect. But Macbeth also learns that Charlie is observant and bright. He’s able to get some useful help from the boy, and it’s interesting to see how Charlie fits in with the rest of the group.

Minette Walters’ The Breaker begins when two boys Paul and Daniel Spender are exploring near Chapman’s Pool in Dorsetshire. They’ve ‘borrowed’ their father’s expensive binoculars and are enjoying their adventure when they see the body of a dead woman on the beach. They’re so shocked that they drop and break the binoculars, so on the one hand, they don’t want to tell anyone what they saw, because they’d have to explain themselves. On the other, they know that a dead body needs to be reported. Besides, they’re scared. They tell Stephen Harding, an actor who’s also out that morning, and he alerts the police. P.C. Nick Ingram is soon on the scene. He knows that what the boys say may be very important, but at the same time, they may not know exactly what they saw if I can put it that way. So Ingram works carefully to get as much information as he can from them. They can’t of course name the murderer, but some of the things they say turn out to be very useful.

In Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel, we meet gifted artist Sally Love, her husband Stuart Lachlan and her four-year-old daughter Taylor. Years ago, Sally was a friend of academic and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, so when the Mendel Gallery plans an exhibition of her art, Kilbourn decides to attend and perhaps renew their friendship. Instead Kilbourn gets caught up in a case of multiple murders that relates to her own past. And one of the other people caught up in that case is Taylor. She’s bright, observant, and has a good memory, but she’s only four years old. So it’s not easy to get information from her without making matters worse. Her perspective is helpful though, and as the series goes on, she becomes a permanent part of Kilbourn’s life. In more than one of the novels too, she witnesses something or is a part of something and Kilbourn has to rely on what Taylor says. Like other children, Taylor doesn’t have a mature perspective; she’s a child. But she notices everything.

And that’s the thing about children as witnesses. In some ways, they aren’t reliable. But they are often observant and bright. And they have a way of going places and learning things that would be very difficult for adults to do. Little wonder they appear so often in crime fiction. What do you think?



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Neil Young song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gail Bowen, M.C. Beaton, Minette Walters

22 responses to “I Am a Child*

  1. So true – one thing adults never due is listen carefully enough to children. Obviously there is also that whole subcategory of stories in which youngsters turn out to be the surprise villains (shan’t mentioning any here but there are fine examples by Christie, Queen and McBain that immediately spring to mind) – but that’s a whole different plot!

    • Sergio – That’s a very good way of putting it. Adults don’t always listen to children, and sometimes, they should. Perhaps children aren’t mature, and don’t have an adult’s ability to make sense of things, but they know what they see and experience.
      And yes indeed, there are several examples of novels (and you’ve named some good ‘uns!) where children turn out to be murderers. That sort of novel isn’t easy to do either. If I can think of a way to take up the topic without spoilers, I shall. Psychologically speaking, it’s really interesting even as it makes the hairs on the back of the neck go up.

  2. I can think of a number of mysteries, Margot, which hinge on the observant nature of some children. One in particular which stays with me is Arthur Upfield’s “Death of a Swagman.” DI Napoleon Bonaparte – Bony – is investigating the murder of an itinerant worker, a case with very few clues. A little girl who calls herself “Rose Marie,” although her real name is Florence, witnesses something whose significance she doesn’t understand. Because of what she witnesses, she is nearly killed. But her life is saved by Bony, and his understanding of what Rose Marie saw – and why it was a danger to the killer – prove essential to his ability to solve the case.

    • Les – Oh, trust you to come up with the absolute perfect example! I like the scene in the beginning of the novel too where ‘Rose Marie’ acquaints herself with Bony. Upfield wrote her character quite effectively considering especially that he was neither a female nor a child. And the way Bony takes care of ‘Rose Marie’ also shows the ‘parent’ side of him, which I think adds to his character.

  3. I won’t mention Emil and The Detectives, because that’s a book where obviously the children are actually conducting their own investigation, but it was probably the book which, more than any other, got me hooked on crime fiction.
    Child (or teenager) witness that I’ve just recently seen on TV is ‘Raven Black’ – the adaptation of Ann Cleeves wonderful Shetland Island series. I read the book a while ago and it brought it all back to me. The friend of the dead girl keeps saying ‘She didn’t tell me everything’ and this is true, because she is the daughter of a schoolteacher and too much of a goody-goody, but she nevertheless knows more than she lets on (and more than she actually thinks).

    • Marina Sofia – That is a good example indeed. In my opinion, Cleeves wrote that character very well. She has a real ear for teenage speech I think, and the character development there is quite interesting. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Margot, you make a wonderful point here. Children, while not always the best witnesses, do see far more than we adults give them credit for sometimes. It reminds me of the old saying about little ones have big ears in that children often hear a lot of things adults think they can’t hear.

    • Mason – Oh, that’s quite true. That old saying has some wisdom to it. Children really do often hear things that people don’t know they hear. They see things that people don’t know they’ve seen. As you say, children aren’t mature, so there are things they can’t understand. And they aren’t always reliable witnesses. But they can see and hear a lot.

  5. I come back, as so often, to Five Little Pigs: the child (now grown-up) is the person who sets off the new investigation. She was quiet, and didn’t get noticed much. And there was also a teenage girl in the household, whose observations and actions are key…

    • Moira – A pitch-perfect example of what children think, see and perceive! Thank you. I’m so glad you mentioned that one. And you’re quite right; the perception of the teenager and what she sees and does is really important. You filled in an important gap.

  6. Another inspired topic, I thought the child witnesses in The Breaker was exceptionally (and realistically) handled.

  7. kathy d.

    What about our favorite Welsh child, Gwenni Morgan, age 12 1/2, who lived in the 1950s. Mari Strachan’s book, The Earth Hums in B-Flat is just terrific. Yes, it’s seeing the world through Gwenni’s eyes, but she sees so much and is learning about greater issues than herself. Her voice is beautiful and very worth reading about.
    I wish fervently for a book two about Gwenni, but I am now reading about her grandmother, Rhiannon (Non) Davies, who is set against post-WWII Wales. The ambience is very interesting, post-war, PTSD, struggling families, women having to go back to laundry, housework, after working outside the home.
    And there is a mystery.
    Although slow-moving, I can’t put it down.

    • Kathy – I’m very excited to read that book myself. And you make a well-taken point about Gwenni. We see the world through her eyes and that really does add to the charm of the story. It also adds power to the narrative. Gwenni Morgan is an unusual child, but she is a child, and it’s fascinating to see how she looks at the world.

  8. I recently read a non crime novel (shocking I know) and was struck by the way its fictional narrator had observed the different way society treats children in her present day (the 1970’s) versus when she was born (the 1890’s) – so we probably are getting better at listening to children even if we’re not perfect yet.

    And sometimes children don’t even realise the significance of what they’ve seen – Louise Phillips’ THE DOLL’S HOUSE shows this with an adult character who has lost the memory of something significant she saw as a child but didn’t understand what she was seeing. A fascinating concept really.

    • Bernadette – What? A non-crime novel? In all seriousness I think we do listen to what children say more than we used to do. Perhaps it goes hand-in-hand with the fact that we also have a better understanding of psychology and children’s thinking and perceptions. It’s one way in which our society is making progress.
      And thanks for mentioning The Doll’s House.I’m very interested in reading that one after your excellent review of it. That sounds like a very fascinating plot point.

  9. In David Liss’ Spectacle of Corruption, Benjamin Weaver is able to gather intel from a gang of street kids who have been ill-treated by the bad guys. I’m not sure kids play an important part in all the Weaver books, but in this one, things the street kids have observed and discovered, turn out to be crucial to the conclusion of the book.

    • HWGO – Thanks – that’s a very clear example of the kind of thing I had in mind with this post. And it reminds me of William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev novels, in which a gang of Moscow street children play roles in investigations. It’s very often those kinds of kids who see things and know things that are worth heeding.

  10. Can’t come up with any examples, but I agree children often notice more than adults, and are often ignored. Useful in a mystery plot. Can put them in danger too.

    • Tracy – Now that’s a well-taken point. Sometimes what children see and know does make things risky for them. But that plot thread can add an interesting layer, and it can be realistic.

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