And Always You’ll See That You Reflect on Me*

You know the feeling, I’ll bet. A child misbehaves in public, and one of your first thoughts might be, ‘What is that mother/father thinking?’ Or, you cringe when your child’s teacher asks to speak to you, and brings up something that may be going on at school. In many societies, what children do is often seen as a reflection on their parents. When children are ‘well-behaved,’ get high grades, and so on, the parents must be doing something right. When they aren’t, or don’t, that’s largely seen as ‘the parents’ fault.’

We all know, of course, that it’s not as simple as that. Children have their own identities, priorities, and thoughts. And their dreams may very well be different to their parents’. That’s not to mention that even loving, involved parents don’t always know everything their children do. In society’s eyes, that doesn’t always matter, though, and it’s interesting to see how this plays out in crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, for instance, we are introduced to the Tucker family. They’re a working-class family that stays out of trouble. And the parents are happy that their older children are settled and have ‘respectable’ lives of their own. Then, tragedy strikes. Fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker is murdered during a fête at Nasse House, the property of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. Detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is at the event, since she designed one of the activities. She asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he agrees. He works with Inspector Bland to find out who would want to kill Marlene. Poirot interviews her parents, and gets very little help from them. They saw their daughter as ‘a good girl,’ if not exactly brilliant. And that respectability is important to them. But, as Poirot learns from Marlene’s younger sister Marylin,

‘‘Mum don’t know everything.’’

And he learns that Marlene had a habit of finding out people’s secrets – something her parents would not have approved of her doing. And that put her squarely in the sights of a killer.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist and (now retired) academician. She is also a mother. And, as is the case with most parents, she wants the very best for her children. She doesn’t expect them to be exactly like her, but they do, in their way, reflect on her. So, when her oldest child, Mieka, decides to withdraw from university and open her own business, it’s hard for Joanne to accept. Part of it is that Mieka’s choice is a very risky one. But part of it is that children’s choices are seen as reflecting on their parents. In the end, entrepreneurship turns out to be right for Mieka, and Joanne is justly proud of her daughter’s success. But it’s not always easy to accept that Mieka will go her own way.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit introduces us to Mason Hunt, commonwealth prosecutor for Patrick County, Virginia. He is also the widowed father of fifteen-year-old Grace. The main plot of the novel has to do with a long-ago murder committed by Mason’s brother, Gates. At the time of the murder, Mason helped his brother cover it up out of a sense of loyalty. But that comes back to haunt him later. In the meantime, Grace has problems of her own. She becomes pregnant, and it’s very clear that the father will not be a part of the baby’s life. That’s not at all what Mason had envisioned for his daughter, and in the small town where they live, he has reason to believe Grace’s choices may reflect on him. But, he loves his daughter, and he knows that she has never needed him more than she needs him now. So, he stands by her, and when the baby is born, helps to take care of the child.

Herman Koch’s The Dinner has as its context a full-course dinner at one of Amsterdam’s most exclusive restaurants – the kind where you have to call months in advance to even have a hope of getting a reservation. The two couples at this particular dinner are Paul and Claire Lohman, and Paul’s older brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette. As the dinner moves on through the courses, we learn that this isn’t an ordinary dinner where brothers and their wives get together to catch up. Little by little, we learn that Paul and Claire’s son, Michel, and Serge and Babette’s son, Rick, are responsible for a terrible crime. The police are looking into the case, and before they get too far, the two couples have to decide what to do. No matter what happens, what the boys did reflects badly on their parents. And both sets of parents are particularly interested in preserving their veneer of respectability. That’s an important thread woven through the story.

We see this issue from the other side, as it were, in Natsuo Kirino’s Real Life. This novel’s focus is four Tokyo teenagers: Toshiko Yamanaka, Kazuko Terauchi, Kiyomi ‘Yuzan’ Kaibara, and Kirari Higashiyama. One day, the mother of the family who lives next door to Toshiko is murdered. And, as it turns out, her son, Ryo, is suspected of the crime. He acts quite guilty, too, stealing Toshiko’s bicycle and telephone and going on the run. Toshiko and her friends each come into contact with Ryo, and each has a different reaction. But they all decide not to inform the police or their parents about what they know. As the events of the next few days play out, things start to spin out of control for everyone, and it all leads to tragedy. Throughout the novel, we see how clearly these young people understand that they are seen as reflecting on their parents. That sense of responsibility is an important part of the way they think.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. The story features families who send their children to Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. Three families in particular are the focus of the novel; all of them have at least one child in Kindergarten. When one child is accused of bullying another, the parents begin to divide into two ‘camps.’ That resentment is enough of a problem, but there are other resentments, too. Everything boils over one night at a fundraiser, and it ends up in a tragedy. In this story, we see how important it is to some of these families that their children be perceived as ‘good,’ as ‘bright,’ as ‘well-behaved.’ In a small community like this one, the way children behave really is seen as, at least in part, a reflection on their parents.

And that’s the thing about parents and children. We know intellectually that children are not the same as parents, and that the children of excellent parents can still make serious mistakes. But that’s not always how it plays out…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Matthias Meissner, Thomas Schwarz-Janen, Frank Peterson and Andrea Silveira’s The Second Element


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Herman Koch, Liane Moriarty, Martin Clark, Natsuo Kirino

26 responses to “And Always You’ll See That You Reflect on Me*

  1. Fascinating piece Margot and I fully understand this. My mother would have walked on hot coals, endured all manner of private torture rather than expose anything which did not (does not) conform to her idea of respectability for her children. Image is all, perception is everything. Therefore one has been brought up to be a lady and behave oneself – one cannot have the neighbours and villagers see anything other than exceptional and exemplary behaviour from her off-spring LOL. It’s a strain I can tell you. Thanks for reminding me to conduct myself correctly at all times. The Mater is watching.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Jane. And you’re by no means the only one whose mother (or father, or both) is concerned about ‘what everyone will think.’ I think that, even in today’s world, plenty of people know all too well that what people think of them comes in part from what people think of their children. So, they do whatever they think it takes to ensure that everyone will see them as ‘good parents who are raising/have raised good children.’

  2. The Dinner is one book that resonated with me, as much as I despised the parent’s attitude I couldn’t help thinking how easy it is for your child to do something atrocious and wonder how I’d react. As you say we feel judged by our children’s behaviour and it starts at the competitive school gates (as in Big Little Lies)

    • It really does, Cleo. And I think you’re absolutely right that parents do feel judged based on how their children act. It’s hard not to, if you think about it. As you say, it’s easy to despise the parents’ attitudes that we see in The Dinner. But it’s uncomfortably close to reality to think about how concerned we get about our children’s reputations and how that reflects on us as parents.

  3. Some great examples there – The Dinner in particular is chilling about the lengths parents go to to protect their reputations, though in that case I reckon blaming the parents is justified!

    • I think so, too, FictionFan! It is a really potent case of parents doing whatever it takes to make sure they are seen ‘properly.’ I think what makes one so uneasy about it, is that they are nearly ruthless about it, if I can put it that way. That, I think, gives the book part of its power.

  4. Col

    I still haven’t read The Dinner – reminder to self, pull my finger out!

  5. Margot: I thought of Flavia de Luce in Alan Bradley’s series. She is quite comfortable, at 11, keeping secrets from her father. Her antics are not criminal but are far from “respectable” for a young girl from a “good” family in the 1950’s. I find her endearing.

    • I do, too, Bill. And I’m glad you thought of her. She’s an interesting mix of precocity and ‘normal’ childhood. And you’re right about her father. I doubt he’d find some of what she does ‘respectable.’

  6. And then there is “The Golden Child” Wendy James- you must read this one Margot.

  7. This is a rich source of tension in crime fiction: parents willing to alibi their children, parents helping their children get away with crime, all for the sake of keeping up appearances. Or because they simply cannot believe that their flesh and blood could do something evil. One slightly different example which comes to mind is ‘For the Sake of Elena’ by Elizabeth George. Elena is deaf, so although she is a student and an adult, she is over-protected by her parents, perhaps even idealised or infantilised to a certain extent, and this makes them blind to her real nature, her relationships and the potential danger she might be in.

    • You know, you’re right, Marina Sofia. There are a lot of ways in which that belief about children reflecting on their parents plays out in crime fiction. And there really is a sense of it in real life, so it’s authentic, too. Thanks for mentioning For the Sake of Elena. I agree with you that her parents aren’t really aware (or, choose not to be aware) of what their daughter is like. And, so often, a person’s real nature has a lot to do with why that person might be a victim.

  8. Margot, some great examples here and more books to add to my TBR list.

  9. Oh the age old nature and nurture argument. We can only set them on the path we think is the right one, it’s up to them to follow it. Found the wee one gorging herself on chocolate in the kitchen after I told her no snacks as she wouldn’t eat lunch! I guess that reflects on my love of chocolate lol.
    Loved Dead Man’s Folly and it was great to go to Greenway last year and see where the TV version was filmed. Some great examples here Margot, thank you.

    • Greenway is one of the UK’s real treasures, D.S.! I’m so glad you were able to go there. I know I had a wonderful time when I went. And Dead Man’s Folly is a terrific read. You can really see how Christie was influenced by the house and grounds, too. I feel that way about Five Little Pigs, too.

      And as to children and their parents? I couldn’t agree more. As parents, we try to help our children and guide them. But they’re ultimately the ones who have to make the choices and live with them. It’s hard to accept that at times. Especially when one of them gets into the chocolate without even sharing! 😉 – Anyone who says parenting is easy has never tried it, in my opinion.

  10. There’s a marvellous book by Paula Daly – it’s called Trophy Child, which gives you a clue. The mother in it is a real Tiger Mother, and when her precious child goes missing there is all hell to pay. It is a very twisty plot, and a very entertaining book.

    • I keep hearing such great things about that one, Moira! In fact, when I was preparing this post, I had it in the back of my mind, but I haven’t read it yet, so I didn’t include it. I’m really, really glad you added it in, as it’s a perfect example.

  11. kathy d

    Full disclosure: My father kept stashes of chocolate, cashew nuts and licorice. I, of course, found them. Later, I found out so did my sibling.
    So, clearly his parenting and habits were inherited by me, maybe genetically! So, he’s to blame when I run out late at night on my
    chocolate run.
    Seriously, though, sometimes young people can do awful things in spite of good parenting in life and in crime function.
    I think of Defending Jacob, written from the father’s point of view, and it deals with terrible crimes by a son despite excellent parenting.
    And then there is the influence of “friends,” which can outdo any parental influences. I think of Cath Staincliffe’s fine book, “Split Second.” It tells of terrible behavior by young people, but a heroic act by one young man.
    And then there ‘s the book about the young girls attracted to a Charles Manson type despite their family influences.

    • I’m so glad, Kathy, that you brought up Defending Jacob and Emma Cline’s The Girls. Both show that, as you say, the children of loving and caring parents can still do terrible things. And even when they don’t do terrible things, they still may do things that their parents would be embarrassed that they did. Parents cannot always control what their children do. Including finding the supply of chocolates, cashews, and licorice… 😉

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