As 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.
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).