A big part of a healthy childhood is play. In fact, plenty of well-respected scholars agree that play is an important way for children to prepare for later life. Whether it’s hide-and-seek or fantasy play (e.g. ‘You be the dragon and I’ll try to keep you away from the castle.’) or something else, children need that opportunity to let their imaginations rule.
We see that innocence and imagination in plenty of crime fiction, and that makes sense. Many fictional characters are, or have, children, and it’s realistic that they would show that side of childhood. For the author, including that aspect of childhood offers some interesting possibilities for plot lines, character development, atmosphere, and even comic relief.
In Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman, for instance, Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is sent to the small town of Merino to investigate the death of itinerant stockman George Kendall. To find out as much as possible, he goes undercover as a stockman himself, even arranging (with the help of Sergeant Marshall of the local police) to have himself locked up for ten days for vagrancy. During his ‘sentence,’ he meets the sergeant’s eight-year-old daughter, Florence, who usually goes by the name of Rose Marie. She brings him afternoon tea, very much playing the adult hostess, and they form a bond. That bond becomes a part of the story. One of the interesting moments in their first conversation happens when Florence decides that the jail cell door will have to be opened if they’re to have tea. She makes Bony,
‘Cross your fingers properly, and promise out loud [that he won’t try to escape]. Hold them up so’s I can see.’
It’s a very believable portrayal of a child who lives partly in the real world and partly in a world where crossed fingers and ‘out loud’ promises are as much as contracts. You’re absolutely right, fans of The Bushman Who Came Back.
In Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, we meet ten-year-old Geraldine Brown. She’s recovering from a broken leg, so she spends plenty of time sitting, looking out of her window. Special agent Colin Lamb meets her while he’s looking into the murder of an unknown man who was killed just across the street from Geraldine’s window. When he sees her looking out, he knows that she might have seen something, so he goes up to her flat and talks to her. In a way, she’s got her own fantasy world. Here’s what she says when Lamb asks her about the people who live across the street:
‘Of course, I don’t know their real names, so I have to give them names of my own…There’s the Marchioness of Carrabas down there…That one with all the untidy trees. You know, like Puss in Boots…’
On the other hand, she is a keen observer, and her comments turn out to be very helpful.
Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost introduces readers to ten-year-old Kate Meaney. More than anything else, Kate wants to be a detective. She’s even started her own agency, Falcon Investigations. Her partner is a stuffed animal, Mickey the Monkey, who travels everywhere with her. When the Green Oaks Shopping Center opens not far from her home, Kate believes that it will be a very good place to look for suspicious activity. So, she spends a lot of time there, and it’s interesting to see how her world is partly the reality of her life in the Midlands, and partly the fantasy world of her detective agency. Her grandmother, Ivy, thinks it would be better for Kate to go away to school, and get ready for the ‘real world.’ So, she arranges for the girl to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate goes, but doesn’t return. Despite a massive search, no trace of her is found. Twenty years later, a Green Oaks Shopping Center security guard named Kurt notices something unusual in the surveillance footage he sees. There are several somewhat blurred images of a young girl carrying a backpack with a stuffed monkey sticking out of it. One night, he meets Lisa Palmer, assistant manager of the mall’s music store. It turns out that she knew Kate. The two form an awkward sort of friendship, and each in a different way, they go back to the past as we learn what really happened to Kate.
In Aditya Sudarshan’s A Nice Quiet Holiday, Judge Harish Shinde and his law clerk, Anant, travel from Delhi to Bhairavgarh, in the Indian state of Rajasthan, for a two-week holiday. They’ll be staying with Shikhar Pant, an old friend of Shinde’s. There are other houseguests, too, including Dr. Davendra Nath and his daughter Mallika and sons Ashwin and Nikhil. Also visiting is Pant’s cousin Kailish, a well-known writer. One afternoon, Kailish is found stabbed in his cousin’s library. The police are called in, and Inspector Patel begins the investigation. There are several possible suspects, too. As Patel, the judge, and Anant work through the clues, we see how different the house and the events are for Ashwin and Nikhil. They’re just children, so as soon as they arrive, they want to explore. Their opinion of the house has more to do with its suitability for hide-and-seek than anything else, and they’re more enthusiastic about playing cricket than about catching up on the gossip with the other guests. Their perspectives form an interesting counterpoint to the adult concerns in the story.
And then there’s Harry Honeychurch, whom we first meet in Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall. Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford has decided to give up her life as a television presenter, and go into the antiques business with her mother, Iris. She’s tired of the stress of being ‘under the microscope,’ and is looking forward to some privacy. Everything changes when her mother telephones her with startling news. She’s taken the old carriage house on the property of Honeychurch Hall, Little Dipperton, Devon. Kat’s shocked at this change of plans, and goes to Little Dipperton right away. There, she finds that her mother’s broken a hand in a car accident, so she decides to stay and help out until her mother can manage on her own. While she’s there, Kat meets the members of the Honeychurch family, including young Harry. In fact, one night, his parents ask her to look after him while they go out, and she reluctantly agrees. Harry lives in a fantasy world at least part of the time. He’s obsessed with WWI hero James ‘Biggles’ Bigglesworth, and imagines himself as Biggles quite often. He’d far rather live out his hero’s adventures than study, and it’s interesting to see how his childlike view of the world contrasts with those of the adults in his life. That comes to the fore in the next novel in the series, Deadly Desires at Honeychurch Hall.
But that’s what a healthy childhood often is: a perspective that’s quite different to that of adults. There’s a blend of fantasy and reality as children sort their worlds out, and play is often the way they do that. So, perhaps that Superman cape or imaginary horse isn’t such a bad idea…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leonard Lipton and Peter Yarrow’s Puff, the Magic Dragon. I had the privilege of seeing them live once, and they did this song. As they did, we all sang along, of course. At the very end, they asked us to change the last verse from the past tense (…lived by the sea….) to the present tense. They wanted us to remember that Puff the Magic Dragon never really goes away…