An interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about the roles that young people play in crime novels. It’s a bit tricky to have a young person as the sleuth (‘though there are exceptions, such as Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series). It’s also tricky to have a young person as a sidekick. After all, investigating crime is dangerous, even deadly at times, and adult sleuths wouldn’t want to put a young person in harm’s way. What’s more, it can be a challenge to write a convincing young character. Still, there are some interesting examples of young people playing the role of crime-fictional sidekicks.
Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes can tell you that, in several of those stories, Holmes makes use of a group of street children he calls the Baker Street Irregulars. Led by a boy called Wiggins, they serve as Holmes’ ‘eyes and ears’ in some cases. They have an advantage in those situations in that no-one really takes very much notice of them at all. So they can easily follow people, keep watch on a place, and so on. Holmes himself treats them quite the same as he does his more adult informants, and that’s not surprising. For one thing, he respects anyone who helps with his cases. For another, many Victorians didn’t see the need to especially protect children, or shield them from danger. As you’ll know, it wasn’t until late in the 19th Century that laws protecting child workers were passed and began to be enforced. Holmes’ attitude towards the Baker Street Irregulars isn’t strange, considering the era.
By the time Agatha Christie was writing, attitudes towards young people had changed, and we see that as her sleuths encounter young people. Still, there are examples of young people as sidekicks in her work. In 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), for instance, a friend of Miss Marple’s is on a train when she sees a murder. At first, no-one believes her, because nobody’s been reported missing, and there isn’t a body. But Miss Marple doesn’t think her friend was imagining things. She deduces that the body must be on the property of Rutherford Hall, which belongs to the Crackenthorpe family. So she makes an arrangement with professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow. Lucy will apply for a position as the Crackenthorpe’s temporary housekeeper, and do some sleuthing during her stay. All goes as planned, and Lucy settles in. That’s when she meets Alexander Eastley (grandson of patriarch Luther Crackenthorpe) and his friend, James Stoddart-West. The two boys are home for the Christmas holidays, and they’re only too eager to find clues and help solve the mystery. Lucy has concerns for them, because they’re just boys. But they prove helpful, too.
One question we might ask is: at what age does a young person become an adult? The answer to that question has changed over time, and I’m not sure we’d all agree on it. Still, if you look at Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, there’s an interesting example of a young sidekick whom you could argue still falls into the ‘not really an adult yet’ category. She is nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill. When her father, Leander, dies suddenly of a heart attack, she becomes convinced that his death was planned. She visits Queen, who’s staying in a rented home nearby, and asks him to investigate. At first, he’s very reluctant. But then she tells him that, prior to his death, her father had received a series of macabre ‘gifts’ that led to his heart attack. So, says Laurel, did his business partner, Roger Priam. This piques Queen’s interest, and he starts looking into the matter. Laurel Hill may be all of nineteen, but she’s still rather innocent and vulnerable. That doesn’t stop her being very helpful as Queen investigations, and she certainly sees herself as his assistant.
Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee gets an unexpected sidekick in The Ghostway. In that novel, he’s looking into the death of Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who’s come to live on the Reservation. At the same time, he is assigned to find Margaret Billy Sosi, a sixteen-year-old Navajo girl who has gone missing from the school she attends. Chee traces the girl back to Los Angeles, where she’s clearly following a lead on the Gorman case. It turns out that Gorman was a distant relative of Margaret’s, and that she got a postcard from her grandfather about him. Chee finds Margaret; and, although they don’t officially work together (in fact, he is very worried for her safety), she does help a lot in solving the case. She even saves Chee’s life at one point.
The protagonist and sleuth in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Memphis Barbecue Series is Lulu Taylor. She’s the owner of Aunt Pat’s, a well-respected Memphis restaurant. Lulu’s nine-year-old granddaughter Ella Beth is a budding detective, and actually keeps a detective notebook in which she writes down things she sees and describes people she encounters. And in Finger Lickin’ Dead, it’s Ella Beth who discovers the body of bitterly-hated restaurant critic Adam Cawthorn. On the one hand, she’s not Lulu’s ‘official’ sidekick. But she’s got the same curiosity and interest, and Lulu can see her becoming a police officer or PI when she’s grown. That said though, Lulu does feel protective of her, and doesn’t deliberately expose her to danger.
And that’s the thing about young sidekicks in crime fiction. There’s a delicate balance between the very credible desire to protect them and keep them away from murder investigations on the one hand, and their curiosity (and sometimes, helpful assistance) on the other. Which young sidekicks have stayed with you?
Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Now, folks, give yourselves a treat and go visit Clothes in Books. Excellent reviews, and interesting discussion on fictional clothes and popular culture, and what it all says about us, await you.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Guy Clark’s Desperados Waiting For a Train.