It’s almost time for school holidays, whether summer or winter, and the schoolchildren will soon be on break. On the one hand, it can be a lot of fun to have the kids home on holiday. There are lots of opportunities to do family things. And teachers can definitely use the opportunity to ‘recharge the batteries.’ Trust me.
But school holidays can also be frustrating and chaotic. And they do disrupt everyone’s routine. They can be good premises for a crime novel, though, since they allow for all sorts of possibilities. Here are just a few to show you what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington, Alexander Eastley is spending the Christmas school holidays at Rutherford Hall, the home of his mother’s family, the Crackenthorpes. With him is his school friend James Stoddart-West. The boys are happy to have a break from school, and they’re old enough to want some adventure. They get more than their fill of it when a body is discovered on the property. The Crackenthorpes have hired a temporary professional housekeeper, Lucy Eyelesbarrow, to help over the holidays. She does her job well, but she has another mission. Miss Marple has asked her to help investigate a possible murder that a friend saw through the window of a train. Lucy’s happy to oblige, and when she discovers the body, Alexander and James are eager to pitch in and look for clues. It’s not spoiling the novel to say that neither boy is responsible for the murder, but it’s interesting to see how they get involved in the hunt for the killer. There’s also a fun thread of wit as Alexander tries to play ‘matchmaker’ with his widowed father Bryan and Lucy.
Minette Walter’s The Breaker begins when two brothers, Daniel and Paul Spender, decide to go exploring near Chapman’s Pool, Dorset. They’re on summer holidays with their parents, and have gotten a bit bored. So they take their father’s expensive binoculars, planning to quietly return them before he notices. To their shock, they discover the body of an unknown woman on the beach. They give the alarm, and PC Nick Ingram begins the investigation. It turns out that the dead woman is Kate Sumner, whose toddler daughter Hannah has just been found wandering around in the nearby town of Poole. Ingram works with WPC Sandra Griffiths, DI John Galbraith and Superintendent Carpenter to find out who killed the victim, and how Hannah came to be in Poole. The Spender boys end up having quite a story to tell their friends when they return to school after their holidays…
In Gail Bowen’s The Last Good Day, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets a rare opportunity. A friend, Kevin Hynde, has invited the Kilbourn family to spend some time at his summer cottage on Lawyer’s Bay, about an hour from Regina. It’s an exclusive community, so an invitation is a prized thing. At first, all goes well. Kilbourn’s ten-year-old daughter Taylor has,
‘…discovered to her delight that the only other children staying at Lawyer’s Bay were two girls a year older than her, and after five minutes of squealed exclamations over shared passions, the trio had bonded as effortlessly as puppies and gone off in search of food to inhale and boys to taunt.’
Everything changes when one of the lawyers who is staying at Lawyer’s Bay dies of what looks like suicide. Since Kilbourn was the last to speak with the victim, she gets drawn into the investigation.
Chris Grabenstein’s Danny Boyle and John Ceepak know all too well what it’s like when young people are on school holidays. They are police officers in Sea Haven, New Jersey, a magnet for families with,
‘…hyper kids who’d never let mom and dad sleep in on a Saturday…The ones who fling their forks at each other and topple sippy cups and steal their sister’s crayons so they can color in the maze on the Kidz Menu…’
Boyle starts out as a temporary (summer) cop, whose main job is to help direct traffic and otherwise help manage the large crowds. But murder comes to Sea Haven too, and Boyle gets drawn into some nasty cases.
James W. Fuerst’s Huge takes place during the school summer holidays in small-town 1980’s New Jersey. Twelve-year-old Eugene ‘Huge’ Smalls is just as well pleased to be done with school, as he isn’t much of a social success. He is highly intelligent though, and wants more than anything to be a detective, like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He gets his chance when his grandmother offers him ten dollars to find out who defaced the sign at the senior facility where she lives. Huge agrees, and starts looking for answers. As he tracks down clues, Huge also learns a great deal about himself. Throughout the novel, we see what summer holidays were like at that time. We also see the challenges they posed for working parents (Huge lives with his sister and single mother, who works full-time). In fact, school holidays are still a big challenge for parents who have full-time jobs. They don’t always overlap with parents’ time off work.
Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind begins in 1988 Wanaka, where everyone is celebrating the start of school summer holidays with a school picnic at the lake. There’s plenty of food and drink, the weather is perfect, and everyone’s having a wonderful time. Then, every parent’s worst nightmare happens. The Anderson family is packing up to leave when they notice that four-year-old Gemma is missing. At first, her mother Minna simply thinks the child has wandered off somewhere, and sends her fourteen-year-old daughter Stephanie to go look for her sister. When Gemma can’t be found, everyone gets concerned. Concern turns to dread when a massive hunt turns up nothing – not even a body. Gemma is never found, and her loss haunts the Andersons. Seventeen years later, Stephanie has nearly finished her preparation to be a psychiatrist. Now she lives and works in Dunedin, and has tried to put her life together as best she can. Then she gets a new patient, Elisabeth Clark, who tells of the terrible disappearance of her own sister Gracie years earlier. Her story is eerily similar to the Andersons’ story, so Stephanie decides, against her better judgement, to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out what happened to both missing girls. Her journey takes her back to Wanaka, and helps her make sense of what happened to her own family.
There’s also Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. In 1978, Angela Buchanan gets her parents’ very reluctant permission to spend part of her summer holidays with her aunt and uncle, Doug and Barbara Griffin and their children Michael ‘Mick’ and Jane. In some ways, it’s a typical summer, where the kids get bored and look for things to do. For Angela, Mick and some of Mick’s friends, the solution is going to a nearby drugstore to play pinball and spend time together. Jane wants to be accepted in this group, but she’s two years younger, a bit awkward, and of course, Mick’s younger ‘tagalong’ sister. Still, she does go with the group a few times. Then one terrible day, Angela disappears and is later found strangled, with a scarf around her head. At first, there’s a question of whether Mick or one of his friends might be guilty. But there are no clear leads in that direction. Then, a few months later, another young girl, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor, is also found strangled. Now the press is full of stories of ‘the Sydney Strangler.’ The killer is never caught. Years later, journalist Erin Fury decides to do a documentary on the effect of murder on families left behind. She interviews the members of the Griffin family, as well as Jane’s husband Ron. As she does, we find out the real truth about Angela.
Lots of young people look forward to their school holidays (did you ever count down the days yourself?). But they aren’t always peaceful or fun-filled…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Surfin’ USA, with lyrics from Brian Wilson set to the music of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen.