Baby, We Were Born to Run*

RisktakingIt’s common among young people (and sometimes, not-so-young people) to believe in the ‘it can’t happen to me’ myth. That myth of indestructibility is arguably part of the reason for which many young people take the kinds of risks that they probably wouldn’t take if they were older. You see this myth playing out in a lot of crime fiction, and it can be both compelling and poignant. After all, young people are not indestructible. I’m only going to be mentioning a few examples here, but I’m sure you’ll be able to think of lots more than I could anyway.

Agatha Christie includes several characters in her stories who seem to believe in their own indestructibility. I’ll just mention one. In And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), we meet Anthony Marston, a young man who’s received an invitation to spend some time on Indian Island, off the Devon Coast. He accepts the invitation and travels to the island, where he finds that a group of other people have received and accepted invitations. After dinner on that first night, each person is accused of having been responsible for at least one death. In Marston’s case, he’s accused of having killed two small children in a reckless driving incident. Later that evening, he suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night there’s another death. Then there’s another. Now it’s clear that someone lured these people to the island and seems bent on killing them one by one. The survivors will have to find out who that person is if they hope to stay alive. More than once in this novel, Marston’s youth, apparent strength and seeming invincibility are mentioned, and that gives his death all the more impact. I know, I know fans of The Man in the Brown Suit’s Anne Bedingfield…

Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar is the story of seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman. His parents Ralph and Elaine have placed him at the Laguna Perdida School, a boarding school for ‘troubled students.’ One day Tom disappears from the school. Dr. Sponti, who is head of Laguna Perdida, hires PI Lew Archer to find the boy before his parents discover that he’s missing. But it’s already too late. During their meeting, Ralph Hillman bursts into the office saying that Tom has been kidnapped. Archer returns to the Hillman home and begins to work with Tom’s parents to try to get him back. Almost immediately something seems ‘off.’ For one thing, the Hilmmans aren’t nearly as forthcoming about Tom as you’d expect from parents who were distraught about a missing child. For another, there’s some evidence that Tom may have joined the kidnappers willingly. If so, he may be part of a plot to extort money from them. Archer’s trying to track down leads when one of the people Tom’s with is murdered. And then there’s another murder. Now it’s clearer than ever that this is not an ‘textbook’ kind of kidnapping. Throughout this novel, we see ways in which Tom (and some of the other young people at the school) have behaved in that ‘indestructible’ way. Many of them take risks that they probably wouldn’t if they really contemplated the danger involved.

We see a bit of that perception of invulnerability in Kerry Greenwood’s Devil’s Food too. Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman is concerned when two of her employees Kylie Manners and Gossamer ‘Goss’ Judge begin behaving very oddly. In fact, they behave so strangely that Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen think they may be on a new kind of drug. It turns out that the girls bought weight loss tea at a club one night and were poisoned by it. Now Chapman wants to find out who poisoned the tea and why. At one point, she also makes another discovery. Kylie and Goss are always worried about gaining any weight at all, so instead of reading the instructions and taking the tea as directed, they took a much larger and stronger does than was recommended, so they’d lose weight faster. Their choice to buy this tea from someone they barely knew, and to take it in the way they did, is a reflection of how young people often don’t think through the consequences of what could happen to them. After all, ‘it won’t happen to me.’

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer investigates the disappearance of Andreas Winther. He’s a young man who’s easily bored and likes nothing better than a little adventuring. His best friend is Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe, who goes along with Andreas’ plans more out of a desire for the friendship than any enjoyment he gets out of their adventures. One day the two meet as usual. By the end of that day, Andreas has disappeared. When his mother Runi first goes to the police about it, Sejer isn’t too worried. Lots of young men take off for a few days, and it doesn’t mean anything is wrong. But as more time goes by and Andreas doesn’t return, Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre look into the matter. To do this, they trace Andreas’ movements on the day he disappeared. Although Zipp isn’t at all forthcoming, especially at first, he eventually tells Sejer what happened that day. But even he doesn’t know what happened to Andreas. As it turns out, Andreas was convinced that everything would be all right – nothing bad would happen to him. But the truth turns out to be quite different…

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life, there’s an interesting sub-plot about an upcoming event. Mma. Sylvia Potokwane plans a benefit in aid of the orphanage she directs. One of the attractions is to be a parachute jump, and she wants Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who runs a local garage, to do the jump. Secretly he’s afraid to jump, especially from such heights, but of course he won’t admit that to Mma. Potokwane. Besides, she is strong-willed and persuasive. So he reluctantly agrees. As the day draws closer he gets more and more nervous about it. But his wife Mma. Precious Ramotswe has an idea that works out well for everyone involved. She suggests that Charlie, one of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s assistants, might be glad for the chance to do the jump. That way he can do some good and impress the local girls. And that’s exactly what happens. Charlie is a little nervous, but he feels indestructible enough (and is interested in enough in being admired by the young ladies) that he’s eager to do it. It’s an interesting look at the way young people as opposed to more mature adults view risk-taking.

Mari Strachan’s The Earth Hums in B Flat introduces readers to twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan, who’s growing up in a small Welsh town during the 1950s. Gwenni’s a bit of a dreamer, and doesn’t always fit in. But life goes on for her, her sister and her parents until the day that a one of the locals Ifan Evans disappears. Later, he’s found murdered. Gwenni wants to find out why he was killed and by whom, so she starts her own kind of investigation. She’s not completely heedless as she goes about it, but she doesn’t really appreciate the risks she’s taking nor the danger she could bring on herself.

And that’s the thing about a lot of young people. They have that sort of myth of indestructibility that sometimes leads them to take all sorts of risks. In that sense, they’re both brave and extremely vulnerable. Which characters like that have stood out for you?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Karin Fossum, Kerry Greenwood, Mari Strachan, Ross Macdonald

20 responses to “Baby, We Were Born to Run*

  1. I would point to Dian de Momerie, one of the “bright young people” who becomes involved with drugs and life in the fast lane in Dorothy L. Sayers’s “Murder Must Advertise.” She’s ultimately a rather tragic figure, and it is certainly her sense of being indestructible that contributes to her downfall.

    • Well-put, Les, and an excellent example of what I had in mind with this post. I’m glad you brought this one up, as it’s one I’d thought about including, but in the end didn’t.

  2. Interesting. Islands can be so sinister πŸ™‚

  3. IN Christianna Brand’s London Particular, the young and silly Rosie has been rather foolish, and ends up dead as a result. She hasn’t thought about the effects of her behaviour on herself or on anyone else. She’s a sketched-in character because she dies early on, but strangely memorable in her flimsy high heels, red coat and a silly hat, always cheerfully turning round to say goodbye as she heads off into the darkness…

    • Moira – Thank you. That’s exactly the sort of character I had in mind with this post. And it is interesting isn’t it how those characters can be so memorable, even if they are just sketched in. There are others like that, too – thanks as ever for the ‘food for thought.’

  4. There’s a lot of that kind of thing in YA fiction, I think. Jane Casey’s Jess Tennant is brave to the point of foolhardiness, going after the truth without thinking through the possible consequences to herself or anyone else. Interestingly she developed a bit more caution in the second book – I’m intrigued to see if that continues in the third.

    Megan Abbott’s young girls show the same kind of recklessness – particularly the descriptions of what they go through in ‘Dare Me’ to be the cheerleader who ‘flies’. That one changed my entire opinion of cheerleading – I’d thought it was all fluffy pom-poms and baton-twirling, but she made me realise what a dangerous sport it can be at the upper levels.

    • FictionFan – That’s quite true about YA fiction. And I’m glad you mentioned Jess Tennant. I think one of the things that make her credible is that she does take those chances. And it’s not done maliciously. Rather, it’s because she’s immature in that way. As you say, she doesn’t think through things. It’ll be interesting indeed to see how her character develops as the novels evolve.
      And I think you’ve got a well-taken point about Dare Me too. Those young people do take a lot of risks that we often don’t think about, and Abbott evokes that effectively I think.

  5. I’ve just finished reading a book which featured quite a few young people who thought they were indestructible and therefore ended up making some very bad choices: Tore Renberg’s ‘See You Tomorrow’. It also features some more middle-aged protagonists who still seem to think much the same as the teenagers, and therefore have learnt nothing at all from life, but that’s a different matter. Interestingly, one of the songs mentioned in the book as a favourite of one of the teenagers is ‘Titanium’, which I think is a perfect anthem for youth – they all believe they are invincible. I understand, however, that this song had a bit of a troubled history in the US and was pulled from the radio stations following the Sandy Hook shootings..

    • Marina Sofia – Thanks for mentioning See You Tomorrow. I’ll admit I’ve not (yet) read that, but I’ve heard it’s good. And it’s interesting (and sad) isn’t it how sometimes people don’t learn at all from life… Thanks also for mentioning Titanium. Yes, that song did get pulled after what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But it does express that sense of invincibility doesn’t it?

  6. About every other book I read lately has a missing girl-some have run on their own, others being chased. I wonder if it hasn’t become an obsession of ours in recent years with several real life missing girls.

    • That’s an interesting point, Patti. There are a lot of novels these days in which young girls go missing. And many times it’s because of their inability/unwillingness/etc.. to see the possible consequences of what they do. Perhaps it has become an obsession.

  7. I have been wanting to read Fossum’s books for a while. I have the first two now, so may get to the one you mention, When the Devil Holds the Candle, sometime soon.

    • Tracy – I’ve become quite an admirer of Fossum’s work. I really like the Inspector Sejer series, and this particular one features some real tension as Sejer and Skarre try to find out the truth. I’ll be interested in what you think of it when you get to it.

  8. This is an interesting topic because that belief in one’s indestructibility overlaps with certain types who never seem to figure out they’re not immortal, no matter how mature they are. I’m thinking of the cops who take crazy chances, often getting “retired” from the force as a result. And P.I.s and even amateur sleuths who take stupid risks.

    • Pat – You’ve got a very well-taken point about people who take those kinds of crazy risks even if they are old enough to know better, as the saying goes. It does make me wonder just exactly how people skip that life lesson – that no-one is really immortal. You’d think that cops, who’ve seen more than their share of death, would know that. PIs too. But they don’t always, do they?

  9. Col

    Macdonald is on the pile, though I think it is one of the later ones in his series, so it’s going to be a while before I get there. Sorry no examples of my own!

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