Hoping For the Best But Expecting the Worse*

Early AdulthoodAn 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.

Thanks, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration. And now, folks, please give yourselves a treat and visit Marina Sofia’s excellent blog. Fine book reviews, powerful poetry, and great photography await you.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alphaville’s Forever Young.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Karin Fossum, Kerry Greenwood, Sarah Caudwell, Seán Haldane, Sulari Gentill

27 responses to “Hoping For the Best But Expecting the Worse*

  1. Wonderful. Such experiences (of youth) to fall back on. Students are particularly ripe for exploitation in stories. Untidy, unruly, often doing anything other than study and cripes, if you ever have the misfortune to spend a night under the same roof, take plenty of remedies/preventatives with you, just in case. But wonderful for inspiration and great characters. Enjoyed this a lot.

    • Thank you, Jane. Glad you enjoyed this. And you’re right; living under the same roof as a young adult can wreak havoc on the nerves. But it is often an energetic and sometimes very hopeful time. And absolutely, that time of life is a fascinating backdrop for a mystery, I think.

  2. Great post and how wonderful that Marina gave you the inspiration for this post – it seems that right back to the Golden Age that writers have realised that those years of early adulthood are distinct from later life – I know I was surprised by this aspect in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock where a mixture of youngsters lived in a boarding house… petty jealousies and rivalries seemed the order of the day there.

    • Yes, they do indeed, Cleo. It’s actually a very good example of that, so I’m glad you mentioned it. You’re right, too; crime writers have explored those distinctive early adult years for quite a while. And it’s easy to see why. They’re so full of a number of changes, drama, hope, and a much more. Lots of good ‘fodder’ there.

  3. Yes, indeed, the one thing that reconciles me to ageing is the thought that at least I never have to go through the turmoil of the young adult years again! Not that I didn’t enjoy them at the time, but looking back it all seems so exhausting. 😉 I thought Alice Clark-Platts gave a very good picture of student life in her book Bitter Fruits – the pressure to conform, the experimentation of various kinds, the herd mentality, etc.

    • Thanks for that suggestion, FictionFan. That’s been on my radar, but hasn’t moved to the actual wishlist yet. But from what I’ve heard, it really is an excellent portrayal of those years. And they really are fraught with all kinds of anxiety and drama, aren’t they? Little wonder we look back and think about how exhausting they are. Fortunately, young people frequently have the stamina to withstand it all. And that’s a good thing, as I know at my age, I certainly don’t! 😉

  4. Thank you so much for your kind mention – am delighted my post inspired such an excellent one of yours! It’s a wonderful topic for crime fiction, isn’t it? Of the recent examples I can think of, there’s Helen Fitzgerald’s Viral, which looks at the combined impact of drinking, holiday behaviour and online notoriety on young people. I am certainly glad there was no one filming and posting on YouTube some of my antics when I was growing up!

    • I feel the same way, Marina Sofia! And thanks for the mention of the Fitgerald. I like her work, and this one is a really clear example of those coming-of-age years. That time of life is certainly a really effective context for a crime novel, I agree. Oh, and it’s my great pleasure to mention your excellent blog.

  5. Great post, Margot. Our young adulthood can make for some interesting plots as we are sometimes so easily lead astray.

    • Thank you, Mason. And yes, that’s the thing about early adulthood. There’s a vulnerability there that can lead people astray. It’s one of the reasons it’s a really effective context, I think, for a crime novel.

  6. Margot, while I tried to figure out the adult world, I’m glad I had no problems figuring out the books I should be reading in my teens and onward. That was the age when I read in isolation and without a care in the world, as I’m sure most of us did.

    • Oh, you definitely have a well-taken point, Prashant. Figuring out the world, and starting life on your own, is so much better with books! I think people who are readers just have a different perspective on life.

  7. How about the young women in Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night? The students of Shrewsbury College are shown as a very mixed lot, some of them with problems – but Sayers is clear that there is a future for all of them….

  8. Kathy D.

    I love the Corinna Chapman books and wish I lived in her apartment complex so I could mingle with all of the characters there. And the bakery, too.
    Oh, youth, so often do I think of adventures long ago, some I’d like to relive, others not so much. But the energy, zest, hope, optimism, that I’d like to see again — but with the wisdom I’ve acquired and the perspective.

    • Ah, wouldn’t that be great, Kathy? To have that energy, zest, and good health, but also to have enough wisdom to make wiser choices than some young people make. I’d love that! And I agree; Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman books are terrific.

  9. You’re so right. Even though I cherish those young adult years, I wouldn’t want to live them twice. lol It’s a shame we couldn’t have our wisdom in a young adult body. Now that would truly be something!

  10. Kathy D.

    The anxiety and drama of youth we could skip. But if we had the wisdom we had now, some of that would not have existed. Being young and going through things, we thought it was the end of the world. Now we know life goes on and our lives go on. One just puts one foot in front of the other and keeps going.
    I do have the optimism and passion of youth (and I quote a Pat Barker short story where a woman of a certain age looks in the mirror and says, “but I still have the passion I had at 18), but not the energy and stamina. Alas.
    The running around we did in our youth has been replaced by the energy used to find the right book, to read and comment on blogs, to read the newspapers and online media, etc.
    But I have to say that, having spent three days cleaning my house, getting rid of stuff, and doing all that entails for the first time in years — I wish I had my 20- or 25-year-old energy! (And I am taking books to Housing Works, a charity that subsidizes housing for people with HIV/AIDS. Maybe more if I can summon the energy to do it.)

    • It sounds as though you really have been busy, Kathy! It’s at times like those that it’d be really nice to have the stamina and physical energy of youth. But as you say, I’m just as well pleased not to have the drama and anxiety. The key is to keep optimism and mental energy.

  11. Kathy D.

    Jesse Jackson: Keep hope alive! I agree.

  12. I don’t remember much about my early years of adulthood, although my twenties were not the favorite decade in my life, for sure. Life got much better for me in my thirties.

    As far as books, you mentioned two series that I have read the first novel but haven’t read the second one yet. The Hilary Tamar series by Caudwell, and the Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair series by Gentill. One example I can think of is in the Inspector McKee novels by Helen Reilly. The three I have read have each focused on a young heroine, dealing with difficulties in her life along with a troubled romantic relationship.

    • Thanks, Tracy, for mentioning the Reilly series. That’s one I’ve heard of, but haven’t dipped into (yet). I appreciate the reminder to see what it’s like. And I do recommend both the rest of the Caudwell series and the other books by Gentill. Both are really solid series. And you’re by no means the only one who doesn’t have very fond memories of the twenties.

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