An interesting post from Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write has got me thinking about those early years of adulthood. It can be a stressful time as you’re trying to figure out the adult world. You’re on your own, but at the same time, not necessarily settled. You may be trying out different jobs, dating different people, and in other ways experimenting. It’s an interesting, if sometimes awfully anxious, time of life.
It certainly figures into crime fiction, and that makes quite a lot of sense. For one thing, the background atmosphere of the stress of those years can add tension to a story. For another, it’s often easy for readers to identify with those early-adulthood years. And beginning adults are often not yet settled into their lives, which allows them all sorts of encounters that are made-to-order for a crime novel.
One post is not nearly enough space to mention all of the examples of this sort of character. But here are just a few to show you what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who tells him she may have committed a murder. But she abruptly changes her mind about engaging his services, and even admits that part of the reason is that he’s too old. Then she leaves without giving her name. Through his friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, Poirot learns that the young woman’s name is Norma Restarick. She’s the daughter of a successful business magnate, but she’s grown now, and living in London with two roommates, Claudia Reece-Holland and Frances Cary. Poirot and Mrs. Oliver want to follow up on what Norma said to them, but by the time they start asking after her, she’s disappeared. Her roommates say they don’t know where she is, and her family says she’s returned to London. Now Poirot and Mrs. Oliver have two mysteries to solve. One is, of course, Norma’s whereabouts. The other is the story behind the murder (if there was one). Among other things, the novel gives readers a look at the lives of young adults in London during the mid-1960s. I know, I know, fans of Hickory Dickory Dock.
Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar series features an interesting group of young people on their own. Tamar is a law professor who acts as a sort of mentor/role model to former student Timothy Shepherd, as well as to his friends, Michael Cantrip, Desmond Ragwort, Selena Jardine, and Julia Larwood. These young people do have steady jobs and promising careers. But in some ways, they’re still very young and sometimes quite vulnerable in their ways. So they turn to each other for friendship and support. And it’s interesting to see how they look to Tamar for guidance at times. The series has a light touch, but Caudwell also shows some of the anxiety that young people often feel at this time of life.
Gail Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, is not only an academician and political scientist, she’s a mother (and now, a grandmother). As the series moves on, Bowen follows the lives of Joanne’s children as they finish school and start their own lives. For instance, at the beginning of the series (Deadly Appearances), Joanne’s daughter Mieka has just begun her university studies. It’s a time of real transition for her, and she decides that what she really wants to do is open her own catering company. It’s not what Joanne would have wanted her to do, but Mieka is determined. And she seems to have a sense of what she may be in for, as the saying goes. As the series goes on, Mieka starts to grow into her adult roles, and it’s interesting to see how she slowly develops adult confidence and competence. It’s also interesting to see how her relationship with her mother evolves as she moves from university student to professional.
In Karin Fossum’s Bad Intentions, we are introduced to three young men, Axel Frimann, Philip Reilly and Jon Moreno. All three are more or less on their own, and just getting started with life. Jon has recently been released from a mental hospital, where he’s been dealing with severe anxiety problems. His friends think it might be a good idea if he gets the chance for some ‘down time.’ So the three decide to spend a weekend at a cabin by Dead Water Lake. Late one night, they take a moonlight boating trip on the lake, but a terrible tragedy happens, and only two young men come back. Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer, and his assistant Jacob Skarre, investigate. They know that the two young men who were there that night could probably tell them everything, but they’ll have to get them to open up. In the meantime, another body is discovered. This time, it’s the body of a teenaged boy who’s found in Glitter Lake. As Sejer and Skarre look into the cases, they discover that the two tragedies are connected. Fossum explores this time of life in some of her other novels, too.
Fans of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series can tell you that those novels feature a cast of ‘regulars’ who share the building in which Chapman lives and has her bakery. In fact, two of them, Kylie Manners and Gossamer Judge, are employees at the bakery. These two young women are in those early years of adulthood. They live on their own, sharing an apartment, but they’re not what you’d call really settled. They’re trying to forge acting careers for themselves, so they go to plenty of auditions, and take whatever acting jobs they can get. On the one hand, they do have a certain amount of confidence. But on the other, they’re sometimes quite vulnerable. And the way they live certainly reflects both their youth and their lifestyles (this is taken from Devil’s Food):
‘Those girls had more makeup than a theatre company. It was everywhere, stuffed into every corner of the bathroom. I did find some soluble aspirin, some contraceptives, something called bikini line wax, that made me shudder, and a lot of miscellaneous instruments that I did not recognise.’
And this is a description of their kitchen:
‘They had a lot of dried soups and so on, all guaranteed 150% fat free (and how much sugar?). They did have real coffee and tea, and a lot of herbal teas in pretty packets featuring dragons and unicorns. And a whole box of hangover remedies…There were plenty of cups, but the dishes had not been done recently.’
It’s a very interesting example of the way people in those early-twenties years live their lives.
Sulari Gentill’s Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair series also shows what those early years of adulthood can be like – at least what they were like in Australia in the early 1930s. Sinclair is the third son of the wealthy Sinclair family, with his older brother Wilfrid much the more settled. Rowly is an artist, and although he doesn’t completely live the bohemian life, he has collected a motley crew of friends and acquaintances. His close friends are Elias (who’s usually called Milton, because he wants to be a poet), Edna Higgins (sculptor and sometimes-model), and Clyde Watson-Jones (also an artist). While they’re not in the very earliest stages of adulthood, these four are still not really settled. And while Rowly, at least, has money, none of the group has really created an established life. They’re an interesting mix of optimism and anxiety, and we see both their confidence and their vulnerability.
And then there’s Chad Hobbes, whom we meet in Seán Haldane’s Victorian-Era historical novel The Devil’s Making. Hobbes has just finished his degree in Jurisprudence at Oxford, and has arrived in Victoria, BC. With some help from a letter of introduction, he gets a job as a police constable, under the command of Augustus Permberton. When the body of Richard McCrory is discovered, Hobbes gets a real awakening, and not just about murder. He learns some of life’s lessons about prejudice, religion, politics and philosophy. As the novel goes on, we see how Hobbes shows that youthful blend of energy and optimism with vulnerability.
And that’s the thing about those early adult years. They can be a time of great self-involvement. They’re also a time of idealism, sometimes heartbreak, often vulnerability, and always change.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alphaville’s Forever Young.