When children are in the classroom, they’re supposed to behave themselves, and many do. What’s more, classroom activities are usually structured and choreographed by the teacher. So, they’re not always realistic, natural looks at what children are like.
But you can learn a lot about children and their families by watching them in the schoolyard or on the playground. Whether it’s before school, after school, or at recess/lunch/break, children tend to be more unguarded there. And, even when their parents or caregivers know that other people may see them, they’re sometimes unguarded, too. That can lead to all sorts of interactions.
Those can be the basis for interesting, and even suspenseful, plot points in crime fiction. There are a number of examples of these sorts of scenes. Here are just a few.
In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, Eva Wirenström-Berg discovers that her husband, Henrik, has been unfaithful. She’d had the illusion that she, Henrik, and their six-year-old son, Axel, had the perfect suburban life, so the news of Henrik’s affair is devastating. When Eva learns who Henrik’s mistress is, she decides to plot her own revenge. Her plan spins out of control, though, and leads to tragedy. In one plot thread of the story, she has a different sort of worry. One day, she’s driving Axel home from school when she notices he has a new toy. Then, he tells her about the man who gave it to him:
‘‘…he was standing outside the fence by the woods and then he called me while I was on the swing and said he was going to give me something nice.’’
Naturally, Eva’s frightened at the thought of what could have happened. Axel, as it turns out, is unhurt. But the man does figure into the plot, and the playground scene could frighten any parent.
Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red concerns the murders of Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. The only survivor that day was their daughter, Katy, who wasn’t home at the time of the killings. For years, Angela’s brother, Connor Bligh, has been in prison for the murders. But now, there are little hints that he might not be guilty. And if he is innocent, Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne thinks she’s found the story to guarantee her place at the top of the list of New Zealand journalists. She starts asking questions, and takes the opportunity to meet several people, some of whom are convinced Bligh is guilty, and others who aren’t so sure. She also meets with Bligh himself, and persuades him to tell her his story. He takes her at her word, and sends her a long letter, telling her about his life. It’s not been a very happy one, either. He’s unusually intelligent, and never really fit in at school, because he was so far ahead of the other children intellectually. The letter tells of brutal play yard bullying, among other things. But then, Thorne learns that his story is different to the stories that his former schoolmates tell. The playground incidents aren’t the reason for the murders. And they don’t really get Thorne any closer to the truth about those killings. But they certainly shed light on what playground activities can be like when the adults aren’t around.
Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder tells the story of Malin Andersson, her husband, Henrik Kjellander, and their two children, Ellen and Axel. When they return to their home on the island of Fårö after two months away, they’re dismayed to see terrible messes everywhere. At first, it looks like a case of horrible tenants. But some of the family photographs have been damaged in a very deliberate way that looks much more personal. Gotland police detectives Fredrik Broman and Sara Oskarsson begin to look into the case, and see two possibilities. One is that one of the tenants had a personal grudge against the family. The other is that someone who knows the family found a way to get inside the house. The police aren’t sure what sort of case this is until the day that seven-year-old Ellen disappears from school. According to her friend, Matilda, Ellen was lured into a white car that stopped by the playground at the school she attends. That’s enough for the police to set a major search in motion, and certainly convinces them that this family is being targeted. Now they have to discover who’s behind everything, and what the motive is.
Some of the key action in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies takes place on the playground of Piriwee Public School, on the Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The story’s focus is three families who send their children to Kindergarten at the school. One of those children is accused of bullying by the mother of another child, and before long, this causes a major conflict. Many parents take the side of the accusing parent, because she’s one of the school’s leaders. Others, though, are not so quick to accuse, and take the side of the boy who’s been accused of bullying. The truth is, it was a playground incident, so no adult actually saw what happened. So, it’s hard to know who did what. There are other conflicts among some of the families, too, and other dynamics going on. It all simmers until Trivia Night, which is supposed to be a fundraiser for the school. The food doesn’t arrive on time, so everyone has too much to drink and not enough food to absorb the alcohol. Tempers flare and the end result is tragedy. The police investigate, and we slowly learn what really happened on the playground, and what really happened on Trivia Night.
And then there’s Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, a retired academic and political scientist. In Kaleidoscope, her adult daughter, Mieka, opens a combination playground/meeting place she calls UpSlideDown in Regina’s struggling North Central district. Young parents in that area do not always have the support they need to help their children. So, Mieka has designed UpSlideDOown as a place where parents can meet, let their children play, get parenting advice, and find support. It’s so successful that Mieka opens UpSlideDown2. Admittedly, neither place is the scene of a murder, or an investigation. But both places play roles in the stories. And they’re both examples of the ways in which a playground can be a very positive place.
Playgrounds and schoolyards are where the action often is when it comes to young people’s interactions. And it’s where you sometimes see their parents in very unguarded moments, too. That’s part of what can make them so effective in crime novels.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.