You Were Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die*

As this is posted, it would have been James Dean’s 88th birthday. We’ll never know what he would have been like as a mature actor, because he died so young (he was only 24). For many people, it’s an especially sad loss when someone that young dies.

That’s true in crime fiction just as it is in real life. There’s something especially poignant about the loss of a young person, and there are many, many examples in the genre. Space only permits me to mention a few; I know you’ll think of more than I could.

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, ten people receive an invitation to spend time on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For various reasons, each accepts the invitation and travels to the island. One of the guests is a young man named Anthony Marston. He’s young, full of life, and a bit reckless, although not really malicious. He and the rest of the guests arrive on the island, and settle in, despite the fact that their host has not yet made an appearance. After dinner that evening, everyone is shocked when each person, including Marston, is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. Shortly after that accusation, Marston suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, there’s another death. Soon it’s clear that someone has lured these people to the island to kill them. Now, the survivors will have to find out who the killer is if they’re to stay alive.

Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black is the first of her novels to feature Shetland Islands police detective Jimmy Perez. In it, the body of seventeen-year-old Catherine Ross is discovered not far from the home of Magnus Tait. The victim had visited Tait not long before her death, and he’s already got a reputation for being a misfit. There’s even talk that he was involved in another death years earlier. So, Tait is the most likely suspect. Jimmy Perez is assigned to the case and begins the investigation. He learns that Catherine had recently moved to Shetland from England, so, in a way, she wasn’t ‘one of us.’ What’s more, she was somewhat of a non-conformist, who had alienated more than one person. She wasn’t what people call ‘wild,’ but she was a free thinker. All of this means that Tait isn’t the only one who had a motive for murder.

Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage introduces readers to Vincent Naylor, who’s recently been released from prison. He has no desire to go back, either, and his long history of brushes with the law has taught him to avoid taking risks unless the payoff is especially valuable. In one plot thread, he connects with his girlfriend, Michelle, his brother, Noel, and some friends, and together, they plot a lucrative heist. The target will be Protectica, a security company that transports cash among Dublin’s banks. The Naylor brothers and their friends put together a plan that’s as risk-free as possible, and the heist is duly carried off. Then, everything goes wrong, and it all ends tragically. Now, Vincent decides he’ll exact revenge…

In Too Late to Die, Bill Crider introduces his sleuth, Blacklin Country, Texas Sheriff Dan Rhodes. In the novel, he’s alerted when the body of Jeanne Clinton is discovered in her home. Rhodes’ first thought is that her husband, Elmer, might be guilty. But he says that he was at work at the time of the murder, and he can prove it. And Rhodes is certain that Elmer Clinton loved his wife very much. For those reasons, and to be fair to Clinton, Rhodes looks into other possibilities, and it’s not long before he finds them. Jeanne had been ‘a bit wild’ as a teenager but had seemed to settle in the last few years. Still, people were in the habit of stopping by to visit her. It’s possible that some of those visits might have been more than just friendly chats. If that’s the case, more than one person might have had a motive for murder. As the story goes on, we learn about the victim. She wasn’t, as the saying goes, wild any more. Still, she wasn’t the shy, retiring type, either. Her extroversion, especially given how beautiful she was, and especially when it came to being friendly to men, was a problem for some people. And she wasn’t one to be overly concerned about what people thought of her.

And then there’s Alison Gordon’s The Dead Pull Hitter, the first in her Kate Henry series. Henry is a sportswriter for the Toronto Planet. Her special interest is baseball, so she covers all of the American League Toronto Titans’ games, including their ‘away’ games. After one such trip, the Titans return, and then host the Boston Red Sox for a series of games. The Titans win and clinch the AL Eastern Division Championship. During the celebration, word comes that one of the players, Pedro Jorge ‘Sultan’ Sanchez has been killed in his home. At first it looks like a burglary gone bad, and that’s how RCMP Staff Sergeant Lloyd ‘Andy’ Munro investigates it. But then, another player, Steve Thorson, is murdered at the team’s clubhouse. Now, it looks as though someone might be targeting the Titans, and Munro works to find out who that someone might be. Henry has an ‘in’ with the players, so Munro wants her help. He’s got an ‘in’ on the investigation, so Henry wants the exclusive story. With that agreed, the two begin to exchange information. There are several possibilities in this case, not least of which is that most of the Titans don’t exactly lead ‘choirboy’ lives. In the end, Munro and Henry find that the deaths have to do with secrets that someone has been keeping.

It’s almost always a shock when someone dies. That’s even more the case when the person who dies was young, vibrant, and very much, well, alive. That was the case with James Dean, and it’s the case with some fictional characters, too. These are just a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Eagles’ James Dean.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alison Gordon, Ann Cleeves, Bill Crider, Gene Kerrigan

9 responses to “You Were Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die*

  1. Marina Sofia

    I was just mentioning James Dean to my son today, without even realising it was his birthday. Let me see if I can add to your examples… I believe both of Colin Dexter’s first two Morse novels feature disappearing or dead young women, who seem to have been cut down in full vitality. And I remember very clearly Elizabeth George’s book For the Sake of Elena, where a talented, vivacious deaf student gets murdered.

    • What timing, Marina Sofia. Thanks very much for mentioning Dexter’s work. You’re absolutely right, too. I think Dexter had a focus on that them, for at least a bit. Last Bus to Woodstock, The Way Through the Woods, and Last Seen Wearing, all feature that sort of victim. And you’ve reminded me that I have never put an Elizabeth George novel in the Spotlight. Hmm…..I ought to do that.

  2. Col

    Just reading Alan Parks latest – February’s Son and we open with the death of a young Celtic professional footballer, cut down before he even reached his prime.

  3. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog on those that die too young in crime fiction.

  4. My second novel in my detective series opens with the murder of a young girl that is the victim of a family feud and the book centers on the investigation of her murder. It’s compelling to investigate any murder, but when someone is taken too soon and is a victim of things beyond their control, it makes for a good story.

  5. The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman by Mindy Mejia – a recommendation from our much-missed Bernadette. It is a marvellous book, a very involving and touching story of a young woman in a small community, with very real characters, and a very real sadness over the death at its heart: a young woman with everything to live for. Bernadette certainly knew how to pick them.

    • Ah, she did, Moira. I really do miss her very much, so I’m glad you mentioned her. And that’s one of her recommendations that I’ve not (yet) read. It’s an excellent example of what I had in mind with this post, though, so thanks for adding it in.

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