How well do you really know your children? Loving and caring parents want to believe that they know their children very well, and perhaps they do. But how well can you truly know anyone, even someone you love? We all have private thoughts, and most of us have our own personal secrets. So, in real life, it’s not surprising that we might not know everything about our children. And sometimes, the things we don’t know can be quite unsettling.
In crime fiction, that fact can add a great deal to a novel. It can add tension to a plot as parents discover things about their children, and as children keep their secrets. It can also add a layer of character development and interest. And in whodunits, the secrets children keep can add to the list of suspects or ‘red herrings.’
In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, for instance, we are introduced to Captain Kenneth Marshall. He’s come for a holiday to the Jolly Roger, on Leathercombe Bay. With him is his wife, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall, and his sixteen-year-old daughter, Linda. One day, Arlena is strangled, and her body found not far from the hotel. Hercule Poirot is also staying at the Jolly Roger, and he works with the local police to find out who the killer is. As Poirot gets to know the other hotel guests, he learns things about Linda – things her father didn’t know. For instance, Linda hadn’t adjusted well at all to her stepmother, and felt very awkward around her. Her dislike of the victim makes her a possible suspect, even though her father really didn’t know that she was unhappy.
In Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar, PI Lew Archer gets a very challenging case. Dr. Sponti, head of Laguna Perdida School, has hired Archer to find one of his pupils, Tom Hillman, who’s gone missing. Tom’s parents are wealthy and well-connected, so Sponti wants Archer to solve this case as quickly and as quietly as possible. Archer is in Sponti’s office, discussing the matter with him, when Tom’s father, Ralph, bursts in. It seems that Tom’s been abducted, and his captors are demanding ransom money. Archer returns with Ralph to the Hillman home to see what he can do. Soon enough, he comes to believe that all is not as it seems on the surface. For one thing, the Hillmans are surprisingly reticent about Tom, and about the reason for which he’s at Laguna Perdida. There are also hints that Tom might not have been kidnapped at all, but left of his own accord. If so, then there could very likely be things about Tom that his parents don’t know. Certainly there are things they’re not telling Archer. Those secrets turn out to be crucial to what’s happened to Tom.
In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. She’s one of the most academically promising students at her secondary school, and her teacher, Ilse Klein, has high hopes for her. Then, Serena begins skipping school. And when she is there, she shows little interest in her lessons or in participating in class. Ilse begins to be concerned for the girl, and speaks to the school’s counseling team. A visit to Serena’s home does little good, as her mother isn’t much interested in the girl. And it’s soon clear that she doesn’t know much about her daughter’s life. Then, Serena disappears. Ilse soon finds that she is more drawn into Serena’s situation than she had imagined she would be.
Wendy James’ The Lost Girls deals with the 1978 death of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. At the time, she was spending the summer with her aunt and uncle, Barbara and Doug Griffin and their two children, Mick and Jane. There wasn’t much to do, so Angela spent a lot of time with Mick and his friends, playing pinball at a local drugstore. Then one day, she went missing. She was later found dead, with a scarf tied around her head. At first, the police concentrated on Angela’s family and Mick’s friends. But there was never any clear evidence against any of them. Then, a few months later, another girl was found dead, also with a scarf around her neck. The police began considering the possibility of a serial killer (the press dubbed the murderer the Sydney Strangler), but the murderer was never caught. Now, years later, journalist Erin Fury wants to do a documentary on families who’ve lost someone to murder. She wants to interview the Griffin family, and gets reluctant permission. As she talks to the various people involved, we learn that there were sides to Angela that her parents didn’t know. And those things played their role in her death. James’ new novel, The Golden Child, also has as one of its themes the things that parents don’t know (or perhaps, don’t accept) about their children. I confess I’ve not read this one yet, but I am eagerly looking forward to reading it when it becomes available where I live.
And then there’s Theresa Schwegel’s The Good Boy. Featured in this novel is the Murphy family. Pete Murphy is a Chicago police officer with the K-9 team (his furry partner is Butch). He loves his wife, Sarah, but they’ve had some hard times lately. He also loves his teenage daughter, McKenna, and eleven-year-old son, Joel. But McKenna has started living her own life, a lot of which she keeps secret. Joel, too, has made his own life. When Joel learns that McKenna is planning to go to a party at the home of Zack Fowler, he gets concerned. He already has good reason to hate and fear Zack, and he is convinced McKenna’s going to get into trouble. So, he takes Butch and goes to the Fowler house to try to help her. It all backfires badly when there’s a shooting. Joel and Butch go on the run, and now Pete has two big problems. For one thing, he’s involved in another investigation. For another, he’s got to find his missing son, and protect his daughter from the consequences of being at a house where there was a shooting. As Pete and Sarah try to find their son and help their daughter, they learn things about their children that neither one knew.
And that’s probably true of a lot of parents. We may know our children very well, and they may never get into trouble at all. But there are always pieces of them that they keep to themselves. We shouldn’t be surprised; we do the same.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Xavier Rudd’s Secrets.