Waiting For Life to Start*

restlessAs adults, we learn that life isn’t a series of exciting events all in a row. In fact, a lot of us are sustained by the regular routines of our lives. But very often, young people don’t have that perspective. There’s a sense among some young people of waiting for, well, they’re not entirely sure what. But they know they’re waiting for something to happen. Perhaps you remember that same restlessness from your own past.

That sense of waiting can make a person bored and restless. And when that happens it leaves one open to a lot of things that seem new and different, even exciting, at the time, but can quickly become dangerous. So it’s little wonder that we see that plot point, or that sort of character, in crime fiction.

In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, for instance, we meet Trever Sharp. He’s a bright enough young person, but he’s bored and restless, living in the small Yorkshire town of Eastvale. He doesn’t quite fit in with the other boys at school, and he’s had brushes with the law. Fortunately, he’s been smart enough to steer clear of real trouble. Then he starts spending time with Mick Webster, who is, by nearly anyone’s definition, a juvenile delinquent. Trevor’s father warns him to have nothing to do with Mick, but Trevor is aimless and Mick is interesting and ‘cool.’ DI Alan Banks, who is introduced in this novel, encounters Trevor in the course of investigating a series of break-ins, a peeper who’s making the lives of Eastvale’s women miserable, and a murder. As the novel goes on, we see just how dangerous that restlessness can be.

Pascal Garnier’s How’s the Pain? introduces readers to twenty-one-year-old Bernard Ferrand. He’s aimless, bored, and at loose ends. What’s more, he doesn’t have a particular skill or passion, so there’s nothing, really, that interests him. But he does have a driving license. And that’s just what ageing contract killer Simon Marechall needs. He’s nearly at the end of his career, and wants to do one more job before he leaves it. The idea is that Ferrand will drive him to the French coast, where Marechall will take care of his last piece of business. Ferrand agrees; after all, what else is there for him to do? But he doesn’t know, at first, what his new boss’ business is. And by the time he finds out, things have already been set in motion. If you’ve read Garnier, you know that this trip is not going to go well…

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant, Jacob Skarre, investigate a strange disappearance. Andreas Winther hasn’t been seen in a few days. His mother Runi gets concerned and visits Sejer. At first, Sejer isn’t sure there’s any cause for worry; there are many reasons why a young man might take off for a few days without telling his mother where he is. But as more time goes by, Sejer begins to get concerned, too, and looks into the matter. He learns that Andreas and his best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe are both rather aimless young men, waiting for something interesting to happen. They do everything together, and it’s very likely that Zipp knows something about what happened to his friend. Sejer becomes even more convinced that Zipp knows more than he’s saying when he interviews him. But Zipp refuses to help. It takes all of Sejer’s skill to find out what, exactly, happened to Andreas and why. And the novel shows what can happen when people have a sense of waiting for something to start their lives.

We see that same sense of waiting and restlessness in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s In the Bleak Midwinter. That novel begins when a newborn is found at St. Alban’s (Episcopal) Church in the small town of Miller’s Kill, New York. Not long afterwards, the baby’s biological mother, Katie McWhorter, is found dead in the nearby river. Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne investigates the murder. Meanwhile, Clare Fergusson, who serves as St. Alban’s priest (and, who, incidentally, found the infant), works with Van Alstyne, as she feels a personal sense of responsibility to the people involved. As they look into the case, they interview Katie’s friends and her boyfriend, Ethan Stoner. We learn that many of these young people drink, take drugs, etc. in part because there’s not much for them in Miller’s Kill. They’re restless and bored, and there aren’t many jobs available. That sense of waiting for something isn’t the reason Katie is killed. But it is a part of these young people’s lives.

In Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, high school cheerleaders Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy are in their last year. They’re in charge of the school, as the saying goes, and waiting for their lives to start. Then, a new cheerleading coach, Collette French, is hired. From the beginning, the cheerleading squad is drawn to her, and she makes of the group a sort of special club. Addy, like the others, is a part of that club. But Beth is on the outside looking in, as the saying goes. Everything changes when there’s a suicide (or, perhaps, it wasn’t a suicide). And as the characters deal with what’s happened, we see where feeling a little aimless and restless can eventually lead.

We see that in Emma Cline’s The Girls, too. It’s 1969, and fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd is waiting for something – anything – to happen in her world. She’s bored and aimless, and not sure what comes next. Then, she meets a group of girls in a park and feels drawn to them, especially to a young woman named Suzanne. That’s how she gets involved with a charismatic man named Russell, who seems to have these young women under his spell. Before she knows it, Evie is drawn into this world, and towards some very dark and dangerous places. And it all starts because she’s restless and waiting for whatever comes next.

That’s not unusual for young people (and sometimes people who aren’t so young!). Restlessness does happen, and it can add a layer of tension and character development to a crime novel.


In Memoriam


This post is dedicated to the memory of Charmian Carr, who brought that feeling to life in Robert Wise’s film version of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s The Sound of Music.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodger’s and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Sixteen Going on Seventeen (Reprise).


Filed under Emma Cline, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Karin Fossum, Megan Abbott, Pascal Garnier, Peter Robinson

39 responses to “Waiting For Life to Start*

  1. I was fond of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew; they were anxious for life to start, so they took action when no one else seemed to be ready to solve the crimes. Yeah, I’m so old that I remember those youthful sleuths when they were new on the scene. Note that almost all sleuths, even the very young, are often (wishful thinking) mirrors for the targeted readers in the genre.

    • That’s an interesting point, Tim. And Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys have represented that waiting-for-life-to-start mentality for a lot of young people. And I’d bet they’ve been responsible for hooking a lot of young readers on crime fiction.

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  3. tracybham

    A very interesting post, Margot. I remember that feeling but it never led to any problems. I think kids grow up too fast today. I really want to get to Megan Abbott’s books.

    • I think you have a well-taken point about many of today’s young people, Tracy. They’re expected to grow up very fast in some ways. And as to Megan Abbott’s work? I highly recommend it. She writes excellent novels. Thanks for the kind words.

  4. Ha! As I was reading I was thinking of both Dare Me and The Girls – great minds! 😉 There’s a similar idea in Zoran Drvenkar’s You – a group of teenage girls aged 16 or so, who drift into a dangerous situation because they’re kinda experimenting with different things and don’t really think through the possible consequences.

  5. Col

    A few mentioned are sitting on the pile – Robinson and Garnier, plus I ought to try something from Megan Abbott!

  6. A.M. Pietroschek

    So the wise woman of the crime fiction tribe hits the mark again. Your choice of words, and of titles, seem to telltale about the roles of mother and grandmother plus the energetic eagerness of the younger teenagers.

    Needless to say I run out of proper words again, as the idea of visiting ‘Iceland’ in real life has been planted into my mind by a workmate. Once more: A pleasure to read your blog, Margot.

  7. Very interesting post, Margot. Although I now have to go and buy Megan Abbott’s “Dare Me” because of your fine description. 🙂

  8. I always have to go to my Goodreads account and see what books I’ve read when I read your posts Margot. For some reason everything just slips straight out of my mind. Probably because you are so sure of your crime fiction it puts me on uneven footing and I can’t remember what I’ve read! But, Alex Gallo in Mary Kubica’s most recent novel, Don’t You Cry is a small town boy with no real life of his own because he’s too busy looking after a drunk father at home so when an attractive elusive girl walks into the diner where he works, well, he can’t help but be dragged into whatever it is she’s brought with her…

    • That’s such a great example of what I had in mind with this post, Rebecca. Thank you. I admit I’ve not yet read that one, but I keep hearing good things about it. That feeling of being stuck in a rut, waiting for something new to come along, can really make a person vulnerable in that way.

  9. Another great group of books I need to add to my ever-growing TBR list.

  10. Margot, it’s interesting that so many remember the seven von Trapp children only as children, like you never expected them to grow into adults. A few years ago, I watched the seven “children” interviewed on television, in the presence of Julie Andrews, I think. They were all in their 40s through 60s. It was a fascinating show. In that respect “The Sound of Music” always seemed like a fairy tale to me. This was a fitting tribute to the memory of Charmian Carr.

  11. I have been debating reading THE GIRLS. But don’t know if I have it in me to experience Charles Manson once again. Reminds me of HOLY HELL, a documentary I watched recently. I could not see what it was that made its leader charismatic enough for the followers to hold onto him for 20 years. They sacrificed their lives to a completely bogus figure.

    • That in itself is really unsettling, isn’t it, Patti? I admit I’ve not seen the documentary. But the whole notion of being drawn in by a figure like that is really frightening, I think. At any rate, if you do read The Girls, I hope you’ll be glad you did.

  12. This post reminds me of Kate Scarpetta’s niece, who always seems to be getting in trouble over something, and probably due to boredom.

    • I think boredom – or at least a lack of purpose – can be a very dangerous thing in that way, Sue. It certainly gets people drawn into things best left alone.

  13. Keishon

    Terrific post!
    As I was reading your examples, I was thinking about Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source about a young man whose sister runs away to the California coast and disappears and he goes looking for her and runs into a lot of restless and aimless teens especially runaways looking for who knows what in life. Excellent novel and very moody and atmospheric.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Keishon. And thanks for the suggestion of Tapping the Source, too. That’s a new one for me, but it sounds really interesting. It’s also a perfect fit for what I had in mind with this post – thanks.

  14. kathy d

    Geez, I can’t imagine reading The Girls and being dragged back into thinking about the gruesome, horrific Manson story. I just don’t get it that young women could be convinced to cross the line of basic human morality.
    I’m another reader who loved Nancy Drew. Would visit a friend at age 12, and if she wasn’t home, I’d sit in her room and read her Nancy Drew books.
    But about boredom? Why can’t young people just read when they’re bored? It’s an excellent way to fill up time and it’s a great distraction, even from hassles of life.
    It would certainly be a good thing if youth can be convinced to read, or even be active in social and political issues — in a productive way, and trying to help attain positive results. Like working for environmental and social justice, women’s rights, etc.
    And it also provides young people with friends who are also healthy thinking individuals.
    I”m a child of the 1960s, so civil rights, being against war were my passions, along with reading, chocolate and conversing with friends.
    I don’t know where young people go off the rails. Is it lack of parental guidance? Or friends’ influence? Or just overall social and economic problems?

    • I was one of those “patriotic fools” who was raised to believe what our leaders told us. I graduated from high school at seventeen but had to wait several months to join the Marine Corps because my parents refused to sign the age waiver for me. Several months later I was a combat Marine stationed in Vietnam whose duty was to seek out and kill the enemy of our great nation. This was our duty while those back home protested the war we were laying our lives on the line to protect their right to express their feelings about the political situation.
      Several months later I wound up in the hospital for the better part of a year due to being wounded three times during the same day during a fierce battle with NVA forces. I’ve lived with the physical wounds and mental wounds ever since.
      It’s an easy thing to “protest” for or against a cause from the safety and security of your home, where you are free to go about your everyday business when your “social duty” is finished. It’s another thing to live with the consequences of serving your nation’s calling in time of need, however misguided that may have been to a teenager at the time. Let’s not judge a book by its cover, to borrow a tired phrase.

      • Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Michael, and your story. They remind us that the Vietnam War was complex and wrenching. And years, even decades later, the war and people’s experiences in it have had lasting effects.

    • That’s a good question, Kathy. I think the answer is different for every young person. But there is research that supports your point about active involvement in life as a way to help young people find some purpose. Whether it’s art, music, community activism, or something else, there are lots of positive ways for young people to add some purpose to their lives.

  15. I have varied reaction to Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine books, but I think she is very very good on teenage girls (particularly) waiting to get on with their lives and getting a bit grumpy along the way. Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter is one example, and her novella Heartstones another.

  16. kathy d

    Regarding the situation of veterans, a friend of mine is a wounded Vietnam veteran who has shrapnel in his legs, uses long crutches and has PTSD. He says no one understands the whole story except other veterans. He is very anti-war, and his slogan, which I support is, “Support the veterans, not the war!”
    He asks that people help to improve services for veterans with mental and physical health care, housing and jobs. That’s how we can help while not supporting wars. The rates of homelessness and unemployment among veterans is high, and even worse — the suicide rate is soaring. They need help.
    There must be mysteries that deal with the plight of veterans.

    • There are certainly mysteries, Kathy, that feature veterans, and address some of the challenges they face. And you make a strong point that there are plenty of ways in which we can, and should, support veterans.

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