An 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.