Tough Kids, What Can I Do?*

Juvenile CrimeOne of the hardest challenges for law enforcement, social service and other professionals to face is working with young suspects and young people who are actually guilty of crimes. On the one hand, a crime is a crime regardless of the age of the culprit. On the other, there are real psychological and other differences between younger people and adults. What’s more, there are many people who argue that if you don’t give juvenile criminals genuine opportunities to make lives for themselves (as opposed, let’s say, to putting them in prison, especially with adults), you create repeat offenders who will probably be criminals for the rest of their lives.

There are no easy answers to these questions, and I don’t claim to have the solution. But young people’s involvement in crime is an important social reality, and so naturally, it comes up in crime fiction too. Space permits me only a few examples, but hopefully they’ll suffice.

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall takes a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. With her are her husband Captain Kenneth Marshall and her stepdaughter Linda. Shortly after they arrive, Arlena begins a not-very-well-hidden affair with a fellow guest Patrick Redfern. One day she’s strangled and her body is discovered on the beach at Pixy’s Cove, not far from the hotel. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel and works with the police to find out who the murderer is. One of the people they interview is sixteen-year-old Linda Marshall. She disliked her stepmother intensely and as it turns out, doesn’t have a real alibi for the time. So she is a very real suspect for this crime. It’s interesting to note how the police (and Poirot) view her in light of her age. Saying a lot more would give away spoilers, but it’s an interesting treatment of a young suspect.

In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, we meet Trevor Sharp, an Eastvale, Yorkshire teenager who’s having trouble fitting in at school and getting along. To his father’s dismay, he takes up with Mick Webster, who’s been in and out of trouble for a very long time. Although Trevor’s father warns him to stay away from Mick, Trevor doesn’t listen. He and Mick start getting involved in several ‘adventures’ that get them into real trouble. DCI Alan Banks encounters them in the course of a few cases he’s investigating: a voyeur who’s making the lives of the local women miserable; a series of home invasions; and a murder. As Banks and his team slowly follow the threads of these cases, we see how what starts as an adventure, a rebellious act, or an ‘I want to make my mark’ act can spiral out of control.

Kate Morgenroth’s Jude tells the story of a fifteen-year-old boy’s who’s been living with his drug-dealer father. Jude is a witness when one day, someone shoots his father. So he’s taken away for his own safety. Later he goes to live with his mother, who’s the local District Attorney. Jude is placed in an exclusive private school. He remains under suspicion for his father’s murder, but the police don’t have enough evidence to arrest him. He knows more than he’s telling, too, but his life depends on his not saying anything. Then one day his new friend Nick dies of a heroin overdose and Jude is implicated. He’s not guilty, but he’s persuaded to plead guilty so as to shore up his mother’s campaign for re-election on an anti-drugs platform. Jude is promised that as soon as the election is over, his name will be cleared. Instead, he’s tried as an adult and convicted. Then, a school friend David Marshall, who’s now a reporter, gets wind of the story. Together he and Jude work to find out the truth about Nick’s death – and about Jude’s own past.

There’s also William Landay’s Defending Jacob. In that novel, fourteen-year-old Ben Rifkin is stabbed to death. Before long, his schoolmate Jacob Barber is suspected and in fact arrested. At first, his father, Assistant District Attorney Andy Barber, doesn’t believe his son had anything to do with the crime. But little by little, pieces of evidence begin to suggest that things are not what they seem. Is Jacob guilty of the crime? If so, what led to it? If not, who’s trying to frame him and why? This novel takes a look at juvenile crime from the legal and the personal perspective.

And then there’s Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is in prison for a horrific crime. One night, thirteen members of her family were poisoned, and some stabbed as well. Then the house was set on fire. Only Durga survived, and the evidence suggests she may have been a victim as well, as she was tied up and possibly raped. But the police can’t get very far on the case because Durga hasn’t spoken about that night. The Inspector General for the State of Punjab knows that this is an extremely delicate case. Durga is not an adult, so she can’t really be treated as one. And yet, she obviously knows more than she is saying. So he asks an old friend, social worker Simran Singh, to come to the village of Jullundur to interview Durga, work with her and perhaps get her to open up. Simran agrees and makes the trip from Delhi, where she lives. As Simran slowly gets to know Durga, we see that applying the ‘usual rules’ to certain juvenile cases can do more harm than good. We also see that this is definitely not a case of a teenager who ‘just snapped.’

In Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police is called to the scene of a home invasion. With him goes probationer Lucy Howard, who’s hoping to get some experience. Tragically, White is stabbed to death at the scene of the crime. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in and out of the juvenile justice system for a long time. Since one of their own has been killed, the police are determined to catch the killer. But they know that to do that, they’ll have to ‘play by the rules’ no matter how much they’d rather not. It complicates matters too that Rowley is part Aboriginal, so the media will be very alert to any perceived discrimination. In this novel, there are some really interesting discussions of the protection provided by the juvenile justice system. There are also interesting questions raised about what kinds of crime young people commit, and at what point one considers them adults.

It’s challenging enough to decide what the best way is to deal with criminals. It’s even harder when alleged or actual criminals are (at least legally) children. I honestly don’t have all the answers. I don’t even know if there is just one answer. But it is a very real issue in real life, and it’s raised in crime fiction too. Which novels that deal with this issue have stayed with you?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pete Townhend’s Rough Boys.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Kate Morgenroth, Kishwar Desai, Peter Robinson, William Landay, Y.A. Erskine

28 responses to “Tough Kids, What Can I Do?*

  1. Books with juvenile criminals are always a bit sad because we automatically think of the devastating side effects. Not only is the offender’s life ruined, but his family’s as well.

    • Pat – You have a good point. Juvenile crime is especially difficult because you can’t help thinking that a young person has potentially thrown away her or his whole life. And yes, the devastation to the family can’t be overstated.

  2. As Patricia Stoltey says, it’s sad to contemplate – I think I’ve blocked out any examples for that reason! But still an interesting post (as ever).

  3. handling juvie criminals must be real tough!

  4. Is it too obvious to mention here the interesting case of 15-year-old Betty Kane in The Franchise Affair? Josephine Tey (or perhaps just lawyer Robert Blair, the main protagonist) seems to have a visceral dislike for the girl, but quite a few of the other people involved are prepared to see her point of view and believe her accusations of kidnapping, because of her age, her wide eyes, her sad back story.

    • Marina Sofia – It’s not too obvious at all. I’m glad you filled in that gap. And it it interesting isn’t it the way people react to Betty; there isn’t a lot of neutrality about her. As you say, people either dislike her or believe her.

  5. kathy d.

    You’ve covered the devastating Defending Jacob. That book still haunts me. I wouldn’t recommend it unless the reader is wearing a suit of armor, it’s so emotionally raw and difficult. The parents’ different reactions to the accusations against their son are interesting, but really tough. I don’t want to say more due to spoilers.
    And Witness the Night, which is quite different, is still a tough book. But it isn’t just about one family. It’s about a village, and also some reflections about Indian society, which, hopefully, is changing. It’s a good book, but it’s about the oppression of all females of all ages. That book still stays with me.
    Some friends don’t want to read it because it’s so sad.

    • Kathy – Both books are very difficult, and I think part of the reason is that the people involved are young. And of course as you say, Witness the Night also says some troubling things about society and about treatment of women. That adds to the sadness and difficulty in that novel. They are both hard books to read.

  6. Defending Jacob came immediately to mind and has been well-covered by you. Stabbing is such a personal crime that it made the accusations especially troubling.

    • I think so too, Elizabeth! I think the fact that that murder is a stabbing just makes the story that much more difficult and as you say, troubling. And of course the fact that the victim and the accused are young people…

  7. The Child Who by Simon Lelic was a book that stayed with me. A school boy killing another. Very well done.

  8. I am coming up with THE BAD SEED by William March, WHAT WILL DO ABOUT KEVIN, Lionel Shriver and of course, THE CHILDREN’S HOUR by Lillian Hellman. All chilling.

    • Oh, they all really are, Patti! I’m so glad you mentioned them! And they’re from slightly different eras too, so we get to see these questions explored through different kinds of perceptions.

  9. Creating stories with juvenile offenders would have to be tough. Unfortunately and sadly, in today’s social there are more and more real life cases to pull from.

    • That’s the thing, Mason. There are juvenile criminals in today’s world and although there always have been, today’s press is giving those crimes a lot of attention. It’s sad on so many levels, but it is realistic.

  10. A couple of years ago I read a few books specifically about youngsters who kill most notably The Child Who by Simon Lelic and Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood both of which were fascinating, although disturbing, reads for the reasons you’ve highlighted above. I found Defending Jacob a bit too depressing for a good read though because of the attitudes of the defendants.

    • Cleo – I agree; Defending Jacob really is a depressing read isn’t it? Still, it highlights the whole issue of young offenders. So does The Child Who. I admit I’m not familiar (yet) with Wicked Girls, although I’ve heard it’s very much worth the read, even if disturbing. It’s truly difficult to know how to meet the challenge of young people who are accused of or guilty of crimes. That’s why I respect an author who doesn’t offer easy answers.

      • Very true Margot. I think I struggled with Defending Jacob because the author described a character that it was quite difficult to feel sympathy towards whereas the others I mentioned were perhaps painted a picture with more shades of grey. I really enjoyed Wicked Girls which I’m proud to say I found before it gained popularity.

        • Cleo – Now, that’s an interesting point. When the author creates characters you can at least understand if not exactly like, it’s easier to engage with a book. I think it’s harder when there you don’t have much sympathy for them.

  11. Col

    Can’t recall too much from my own reading, though I have read the Shriver book mentioned. I have the Robinson on the pile and ought to make some inroads into the Banks series.

  12. Strictly speaking not crime fiction, but there is a really good book by Arthur Hailey where a kid was a juvenile delinquent and got convicted many times before his 18th birthday, but after he turned adult, his record was wiped clean, and nothing could ever be pinned on him. Classic case of someone abusing the system which is actually meant to protect
    Witness the Night has been sitting in my shelf ever since you profiled it in a Spotlight about a year back. Maybe it is time to actually read it!

    • Natasha – Yes, that’s exactly the kind of reason some people think juvenile criminals should be treated as adults. I don’t know what the solution actually is, but I don’t think it’s that. Thanks for mentioning Hailey’s work.
      As for Witness the Night, it’s a powerful novel and unsettling. But I think it’s beautifully written, and it does raise questions about how we treat young people who are implicated in crimes.

  13. Having worked with boys with behavioural problems, including crime, I tend to avoid these kinds of books as they often make me froth a bit at the unrealism of some of the stories. But I did enjoy Anne Holt’s ‘Death of the Demon’ which I thought gave a very true picture of what it’s like trying to deal with these situations via state care services.

    • FictionFan – Delighted to see you 🙂 – I didn’t know you’d worked with boys with behavioural problems. Then you definitely have the expertise to know whether a book with that sort of theme is realistic. And I’d well imagine your wall gets dangerously close to thrown-book dents when you read some books with that theme. That’s one reason I think research is really important if you want to write about something that’s not in your area of real knowledge. At any rate, thanks for mentioning the Holt. That’s one that I should have included in this post and didn’t. Appreciate your filling in that gap.

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